Silence on Gays and Lesbians in Social Studies Curriculum. (Research into Practice)

By Thornton, Stephen J. | Social Education, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Silence on Gays and Lesbians in Social Studies Curriculum. (Research into Practice)


Thornton, Stephen J., Social Education


Imagine, as was once the case, that today's social studies curriculum measured all else against a standard of being male, Protestant, and Anglo-Saxon. (1) Women, African Americans, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims, not to mention other religious, ethnic, and racial groups, would react with righteous outrage. With justification, we can claim that today's social studies curriculum has become more inclusive of a range of groups and perspectives within and beyond the United States.

Although still imperfect, the contemporary K-12 social studies curriculum has moved away from the tacit equating of "American" with, for example, Protestant, or Christian for that matter. At least one major exception to this legitimation of diversity persists: it is still tacitly assumed that everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise. Despite striking growth in social, political, legal, and media presence of gays in American life, especially in the past decade, (2) few social studies materials appear to have substantive treatment of gay history and issues. Indeed, many of these materials fail to even mention such words as homosexual, straight, or gray. It is as if the millions of gay inhabitants of the United States, past and present, did not exist. Although scholarship studied in colleges is now sometimes rich with gay material, Americans who do not attend college--and the least educated are precisely those who are most inclined to be prejudiced against gay people (3)--are unlikely to hear of such scholarship.

The belief that the archetypal human is straight is called heteronormativity. It belies an inclusive curriculum. Moreover, it encourages stereotypes. As James Banks has warned, using a "mainstream" benchmark against which group differences are measured promotes "a kind of 'we-they' attitude among mainstream students and teachers." (4) Banks's observation about multi-ethnic education seems equally applicable to the study of homosexuals: "Ethnic content should be used to help students learn that all human beings have common needs and characteristics, although the ways in which these traits are manifested frequently differ cross-culturally." (5)

Heteronormativity goes basically unchallenged in teaching materials for K-12 social studies. Unless children are raised in a limited number of locales or have teachers who go beyond what the textbook provides, they may graduate from high school being none the wiser that heteronormativity paints an inaccurate picture of social life and perpetuates intolerance, sometimes with tangibly destructive consequences such as harassment and physical violence. (6)

Curricular Limitations of Current Inclusion

The social studies curriculum, because it must make some attempt at describing the world as it is, has always dealt with "difference." The debate, as Margaret Smith Crocco shows, has centered on what the differences are and how they have been dealt with. (7) The common failure even to mention the existence of lesbians and gay men (let alone bisexual and transgender persons) clearly clashes with gay matters today being a visible part of the public landscape in most of America. Thus, a first step that social studies educators need to take is frank acknowledgment that differences in sexual orientation (and other taboo subjects such as religion) exist in America. (8) To put it another way, educators must answer the question, Does everybody count as human? (9)

One current and widely used U.S. history high school textbook is illustrative of the current failures. In its treatment of post-war African American novelists, James Baldwin is described as writing about "patterns of discrimination" directed toward blacks. This point is placed as a precursor to the struggle against racial injustice in the civil rights era.

The text is silent, however, about Baldwin's being both African American and homosexual. He wrote eloquently of "patterns of discrimination" directed toward gay men. …

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