CSU professor helps Colorado teachers find LGBTQ history close to home

A shadowed teacher stands at the back of the class in front of students.
Colorado law calls for more inclusive history lessons, but the State Board of Education is still debating proposed updates to social studies standards. (AAron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post)

The notable figures and moments in the fight for LGBTQ rights are numerous. 

For example: The New York Stonewall riots that launched the gay rights movement. The activism of San Francisco’s Harvey Milk, who was California’s first openly gay man to be elected to public office. The 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage.

But there are also examples closer to home for Colorado students, such as the lesbian ranchers who were some of the state’s early homesteaders or the Colorado State University students who elected a Homecoming Person rather than a Homecoming Queen back in 1974.

Colorado State University professor Thomas Dunn has been working to find and preserve these stories as part of the Queer Memory Project of Northern Colorado. This summer, he had hoped to hold the project’s first workshop for K-12 teachers who want to incorporate these stories into history and civics lessons.

The workshop was prompted in part by a 2019 state law that called for a more inclusive approach to teaching Colorado history. The State Board of Education is still debating the proposed updates to social studies standards envisioned by the law. Facing conservative backlash, a committee removed many refences to LGBTQ history and social contributions from the draft standards. Final standards are set to be adopted in November.  

There is growing opposition across the country to LGBTQ rights and the teaching of LGBTQ history. In June, a Florida law went into effect that will limit LGBTQ issues and identities from being discussed in the classroom. Multiple states recently sued the Biden Administration over its anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBTQ students and workers. And conservative parent groups have mounted campaigns across the nation to remove books in schools and libraries with LGBTQ characters or references.

Earlier this year, Dunn made his case for the value of teaching LGBTQ history to the Colorado State Board of Ed. There are plenty of ways to introduce important historical figures to students at an early age, he said, without broaching the heavy topics that might be better suited for older students. 

Dunn shared some of those examples in a recent interview. And he stressed there are ways to make teaching LGBTQ history relevant and appropriate based on the communities that students come from.

Helping students feel included

Dunn said he wants to be clear that LGBTQ history doesn’t need to include complex conversations about sex and sexuality. While he doesn’t have training as a K-12 teacher, he said he knows educators across the state have the tools to approach tough subjects in delicate ways.

The focus should be on the contributions of people and their differences, Dunn said, noting that teachers can highlight the Colorado educators whose notion of gender and dress looked different than the norms and the prominent business people who influenced their communities. Including all people and their differences will give students a better understanding of the world, he said.

“These are people within our communities, and we can focus on that,” he said. 

Many students he works with hadn’t learned about LGBTQ history until they got to college. Stories that reflect the greater community makes all students feel part of a system, he said.

“Being able to tell those stories both in a way that is age appropriate as well as giving an increasingly surging LGBTQ youth population some representation is important,” he said. “And I’m also a father — I have an adopted daughter — and so this is something I care about in that way.”

LGBTQ history isn’t just big events

Stonewall. Harvey Milk. The debate behind gay marriage rights. 

Dunn agrees such topics can be difficult to teach students at an early age or involve national references that may not feel relevant to students’ lives. 

That’s why he wants teachers to think about how to focus on their own community. For instance, Dunn pointed to Hattie McDaniel. 

The actress, who also attended Denver’s East High School, lived in Fort Collins and is one of the more prominent names in the city’s history. She was the first Black person to win an Academy Award, when she was honored as Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1939 movie “Gone With the Wind.” Dunn said evidence points to her also being bisexual.

Teachers across the state can easily find a teachable moment to reference race, gender, and sexual identity by focusing on McDaniel’s accomplishments, he said.

“That wouldn’t require a significant wholesale change,” Dunn said. “It would just require a richer telling of that story. That could be a really good jumping-off point to have a broader conversation.”

Resources are available to teachers

Teachers aren’t alone, Dunn said.

He knows that while teachers can lean on their training about how to teach their own students age-appropriate topics, sometimes finding material for lessons can be difficult. 

In June, Dunn tried to host a seminar to help teachers across the state better understand Colorado’s LGBTQ history and find avenues to teach about the contributions of the community. Fifteen educators were selected but only one showed up on the first day. While interest in the topic was very high, that tapered off as conservative backlash toward the state’s proposed standards mounted, he said.

“We’ve committed to doing these a number of different times,” he said, “but it’s a great example of how the tone set at the top can shape what an individual teacher feels like they can or don’t have permission to do.”

Many teachers across the state are leading the way in developing lessons in their own districts, he said. He wants educators to know they have support.

Teachers can turn to the online archives of the The Queer Memory Project. The project focuses mostly on Northern Colorado history. Dunn said the project can also connect teachers to the greater community of educators wanting to explore how to better teach about the LGBTQ community.

And he hopes districts and educators continue to have the conversation about the best path forward to teach students. 

“I trust our teachers to tell these stories,” he said. “And I hope we support them and give them the space and encouragement to teach.”

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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