We spoke to High School History Teacher and the Founder of LGBTQ+ History Month, Rodney Wilson, about his personal journey and the importance of continuing to recgonise and celebrate queer history...
How did you build yourself up to that moment where you first came out to your students?
It was a slow buildup. I really didn't start coming out until 1989, when I was 24 years old, so I was a little delayed in the coming out process. I knew that I was gay since I was 8 years old, so I always knew, I always had.
I was growing up in rural Missouri, a little town of 2,500 people, conservative and religious and in the 1970s, you know homosexuality was something you did not discuss so I kept it all in.
But once I did start coming out I quickly came out to all of my friends, and then I started coming out to my family. I told my mother in 1991 when I was 26. So the only group to which I was still carrying secrets, were my colleagues and students, and that's because you still did not have openly LGBTQ+ teachers in Missouri.
I believe that it is essential that the teacher, as the authority figure in the classroom is not forced into a position of weakness. If an LGBTQ+ teacher comes to be known as an LGBTQ+ teacher by students, through rumour, innuendo or gossip, but they've never revealed it themselves, that strips them of their agency and repositions the power dynamic in the classroom. All of that was going running through my head during that very long process that brought me to that day in class in March 1994.
How did you cope with all of the media attention and backlash you received?
I think in one sense I was able to deal with it because I really believed that my position was the right one. It wasn't yet the majority position in 1994, certainly not in my environment. But I knew it would be the position of the future. I knew I was on the right side of this question.
I also had confidence that I'm largely, I hope, a person of integrity and honesty, and if I'm going to be honest, if I'm going, to have integrity, I have to speak my truth. Truth is always good and helpful, and I felt that I was doing something that would better my community, my school district and my students, and that's what we're supposed to do as teachers. We're supposed to help our students be better. Better readers, better writers, better thinkers, better mathematicians, better human beings, better citizens and better friends.
Much of the backlash you received was due to irrational fears that LGBTQ+ teachers like you pose a threat to children, something we are now seeing with the modern discourse on gender. Why do you think this problem persists?
I think in part it's evolutionary that we fear the other. It's not good. It's not moral. It's not wise. But it is somewhat natural, and of course, evolution is about transcending the natural. If we're going to see progress, we have to outgrow these fears. We all have an obligation to overcome irrational anxiety and phobia.
If we're going to be upstanding human beings and good people who create what Martin Luther King called the beloved community in which there's a seat at the table for every individual then we have to transcend that initial feeling of apprehension.
Right now, the war in the United States is largely against non-binary and transgender people. They are being exploited by right-wing politicians to conjure up fear and anxiety so that they get more votes. The right-wing still is uncomfortable with the L, the G and the B but they know that largely culture has now evolved and moved beyond them.
So they moved over now to transgender and non-binary people. That's their boogie man, so to speak, and it's devastating. It's devastating, not just for non-binary transgender individuals but everyone else too because if there's anything we’ve learned, it’s that we need to be one community. A united front in the sense that we all stand outside the norm in regard to sexual orientation, gender expression, and gender identity. So it's really important that all of us in our community, and as many allies as possible can stand up for everybody.
If education is the key, then why are many still hesitant to adapt the curriculum?
I think the hesitancy comes from the potential for backlash. So instead of taking on one more potential responsibility or dealing with one more unhappy administrator or an unhappy parent, sometimes in life you just say I'm just not going to go there now, and I think that's particularly true right now in the United States.
The ‘Don't say Gay’, Bill has had an enormous chilling effect in Florida, and in the rest of the country other state legislatures also have passed these kinds of bills so I think right now people are sort of on edge. There's anxiety about what is allowed, and what is not allowed, and when you have that anxiety, you're likely to opt for just not pushing the bus. So I think that's part of the reason.
Another reason is in the United States at least textbook companies must sell books, and they cater for larger States, including particularly Texas. If a publisher cannot get an American history book sold in Texas they're going to be in trouble so they censor things that might be uncomfortable for Texans, Conservative Texans. But that affects all of us. When I was teaching in 1994, my American history textbook had 800 pages. It did not have one single reference, not one, to any identified LGBTQ+ person or event.
That was one of the reasons I opted to create a history month in order to take the light on that aspect of history that had been neglected. And we made great progress, I think since 1994, but we've had a tremendous backlash, and we've taken steps backwards now since the election of 2016, particularly because that election sort of liberated those who are publicising their phobias. Now we need to try to figure out how to move forward again.
We have to convince everyone in our community, that just as gay and lesbian people were excluded, vilified, left out and demonized before, that's what's happening now to other people in our community.
I mean, for example, with the American Civil War you have to tell the full story. You have to discuss those women who disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War. They didn't have words like non-binary and transgender, they didn't have access to medical science and understanding. But it would be naive not to recognise that some of these people were likely transgender and non-binary individuals.
We can't identify with specificity which ones but there are some examples, like Casimir Pulaski who was a Polish immigrant to the United States. Born in Warsaw, he became the father of the American cavalry and it is highly likely that Pulaski was an intersex individual in the American Revolution.
Another is Baron von Steuben, a Prussian, who came over, and George Washington loved him. He whipped the armed forces into shape and was very likely an openly gay man.
When you explore the full picture, including recognising the existence of LGBTQ+ people, that makes it really interesting because then you've gone 3 or 4 layers further into the onion of human history.
But I do understand how some people, especially older people, maybe don't quite understand yet, all the ins and outs of identifying as non-binary or transgender. That’s fine, but then learn, grow, and evolve yourself until you fully figure it out. Have grace and gentleness with everyone, because we're all here for only a very short time, and I think surely we can at least, agree that love and grace, are good things and inclusion is always better than exclusion, and trying to understand is better than remaining in your ignorance.
Well, one person that inspires me is Dr Carter Woodson. He was the first African-American to earn a PhD at Harvard University and the only African American who was the child of two enslaved parents to finish at Harvard University.
He believed the same thing that I believed in 1994. He was believing it, though in 1924, 70 years earlier. There was a large part of history and many stories that had been shunned for so long. He's the father of all history and commemorative months and heritage months.
And as I was writing the proposal in 1994, I had a framed picture of Carter Woodson because he was a direct inspiration. I believe the same thing about the history of LGBTQ+ people that he believed about the African-American community. It usualises, it inspires, it uplifts, it energizes, it provides a way forward. I think also we have a sacred or moral obligation to remember the past, to remember those who came before us.
That's when I really started learning this history, and yes, it made me feel normal. It made me understand that people with similar views to my own and experiences and orientations are part of the narrative, we're not left out.
It reminded me of when I talked about Casimir Pulaski, for example, I always say to my students: You know some people think that this whole concept of transgender just developed 3 months ago, or 3 years ago, but no this stuff goes way back. It's always been there. But we've always had arguments. We've always had nasty political campaigns, I think that's part of the system, unfortunately.
When we're born, we think everything revolves around us. And then, as we begin to grow, we encounter a larger world, and hopefully, we don't get stuck in our own little world, we gain some perspective. But clearly, this didn’t happen with Donald Trump frankly. You know, because he never grew beyond his own little bubble. So history is about being able to, not only grow beyond your bubble but then also extend that into the past. It's all essential for a good education and for a good upbringing, just as a regular human being.
I had a conversation with the Italian team a year ago when they were planning the first history month in Italy in April 2022. Out of that came the idea that we need an international committee because by that point you had history months already all across the world and then here comes this Italian group of activists and academics who want to do the same thing in Italy.
We are a global community. LGBTQ+ people are found in all cultures which actually can give us a very unique role, in the globalization process and in transcending borders.
I've learned a lot. I did not know why Italy picked April. I didn't know until I learned about a protest in San Remo in 1972, it’s the fiftieth anniversary of those protests, the first public LGBTQ+ protest.
I've learned a lot from Sue Saunders. She loves, you know, sharing her story, which is an amazing one, dating back nearly 50 years of activism and co-founding history month UK in 2005. She's amazing. We are learning a lot from each other on this committee. We now have 30 members from about 19 locations around the world and meet quarterly in January, April, July, and October. In that meeting, we share what we're planning for the upcoming history months in our locality, or what just happened in the history month that just passed. We’re also putting together a website that will include a resource page on how to start a history month. So we're there to support, not only existing history months, but we're there to help nurture new ones.
History is incredibly important, and it needs to be preserved, understood and publicized all over the world, and that will help unite our community around the world and empower LGBTQ+ people. I spent 25 years figuring myself out and accepting myself, and I really don't want young people to have to spend 25 years of their lives doing that too. Why should anyone have to spend a quarter of a century just trying to figure themselves out? So yes, I think our International Committee is a really important endeavour.
I think there’s an obligation we have as human beings to try to understand as many other people, their circumstances, and their unique upbringing as possible. When I was in my undergrad studies I took a module called “American History from the Perspective of Black Americans” and I did the same with a women's history course.
It was a revelation of information for me. I'm neither a woman nor black, but what does that matter when these are vital components of our history that we are otherwise just not learning about? Not studying something because it does not directly relate to us is a flawed logic, especially when it comes to history. I don't live in the eighteenth century, so does that mean we shouldn't study the eighteenth century, just because we don't live there?
Everything in history is essential. Why exclude any perspective or group, or in the case of our conversation, any sexual orientation or gender identity, or expression? It may be evolutionary, that we concentrate on our own little group. First of all our family, and then our larger family, our neighbourhood, our community etc. But then there are the ‘outsiders’, the ones we have no immediate connection to. As a result, it is easy to perceive those ‘outsiders’ as a potential threat, because they're not known or understood. But for me, I don’t want to be guided by fear but by curiosity. All my life I have found the unusual, the most interesting. I've always gravitated to those from a different culture, or who have different perspectives. I was at one point a Conservative Christian, and am now agnostic. Understanding and absorbing information is always good because it helps you come to your own conclusions.
I think it was a bit of both. I knew about Black History Month a few years prior to starting teaching, and then I started to participate in local Black History Month events, and then Women's History ones too. I'd put up a bulletin board in my classroom or I'd put up a display out in the hall, something that the students could interact with and learn from too. I already knew who Dr Woodson was, and it seemed to me that the predicament he found himself in, in the 1920s was the predicament I found myself in in the 1990s so it seemed to be a match and a parallel. So I thought why not just adopt a model that's already known and understood and that already functions?
Queer role models, I think are crucial. I think we spend our early lives looking for those we see ourselves in. We're advised as children to look at the adult figures in our lives to try to model our behaviour. So when we as queer people don’t have enough people they can look up to who are queer too, it means they are not learning about a vital part of their identity.
I remember when Ellen came out in 1996 or 97 and that was such a big event. But then it’s a good thing that we don't have as many big events like that now because the representation of our community is much more common. I was starving for role models and for representation of people like myself in the larger world and I think it's really helpful for young people today. It gives them a faster path toward psychosocial development and understanding their identity. You need representation, especially in schools. Boy, I can't imagine what that would be like to have had a queer teacher. Similarly, when I was going to school I never even had a black teacher, isn't that shocking? Through 12 years of school, my 2 graduate degrees and my 2 masters degrees, and this is still the experience of most white people in the United States.
But then how can we achieve diversity in places like schools? I think we need to continue to advocate for ourselves, we need to continue to be out and proud of ourselves when and where we can. We need to continue to publicise ourselves on Instagram or Twitter, Facebook, or whatever instead of hiding the picture. Familiarity doesn’t just help bring about tolerance but also acceptance.
We just have to keep incrementally, step by step, moving the conversation forward until we come to a point at which all voices and all people are at the table. I think it's still good trying to find a reservoir of hope somewhere because if we just go hopeless and withdraw, then that side which doesn't believe in embracing, all humanity, will win so we have to stay out there and history month is part of that. Once a year in February in the UK and October in the US, or wherever once a year, we intentionally take these individuals and events, and this history, and we put it on the top shelf and we put a little spotlight on it. That’s one of the best ways to tell our story.
I hope more and more in future years, young people like you, and your generation continue to be forward-thinking and take us into a much better place.
Do everything you can to accept who you are, accept who others are, and find people that accept you for who you are: Areas of commonality, of mutual understanding and compatibility.
Make room under the umbrella for everyone who wants to be under that umbrella. Unity brings about strength and in this case, we're talking about striving for unity and purpose, the full and total liberation of all human beings, without regard to sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression and that kind of action requires unity.
To get to a place in societal progression where we can all find ourselves with absolute liberation and the right to live a whole, peaceful, safe and productive life being able to achieve our full potential and wanting that for everyone else. That'd be it!
If education is the key, then why are many still hesitant to adapt the curriculum?
What are some of the inspirations behind your work?
You are part of an organising committee for international history month events. There is surely a lot of value in everyone coming together and sharing your experiences. What are some of the things that you've learned from this kind of collaboration?
Why is it important that even those who are not necessarily part of our community, learn and recognize these events and queer history in general?
You mentioned the influence of Carter Woodson earlier. Did you take inspiration from his work because of the similarities with what you wanted to achieve? Or was it due to the fact that in LGBTQ+ spaces there wasn’t really an abundance of role models to relate to?
As someone who perhaps lacked this from older generations, why is it important that queer people have role models to look up to today?
If you had to give one piece of advice to people that read this, what would it be?
Published Online: 26/02/2023