Late last school year a group of students on our campus asked if we history professors could find ways to incorporate LGBTQ history into our courses. The request made a lot of sense and yet I was initially at a loss about how to respond: see, I am the only full-time Americanist on my campus and I have no academic training in LGBTQ history. I could recall having read only one book in graduate school that even remotely related to the topic (for the curious: the book was George Chauncey’s Gay New York).
Short term I decided the best way to begin addressing the students’ concerns would be to bring in some experts so I consulted the Membership Directory for my professional organization, the Organization of American Historians. In a matter of minutes I had a short list of credentialed historians teaching and researching in the field. After narrowing the list down to those within driving distance of my college (funding is, of course, limited), I started writing emails to introduce myself as a fellow historian in search of speakers to help my students better understand a field in which I personally have no training.
Working with the college’s Gender Equity Center, in September we hosted Dr. Jen Manion of Amherst College. Jen is not only a brilliant historian but hands down the most genuinely approachable guest speaker to ever visit our campus. After spending time with faculty, staff and students discussing her work at an informal lunch-time gathering, Jen delivered a public lecture attended by more than one-hundred members of our college community. Jen’s talk focused on research related to a work-in-progress titled Born in the Wrong Time: Transgender Archives & the History of Possibility, 1770-1870.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. Some of the student attendees were members of LGBTQ organizations on campus but many more were students brought to the talk by their English, history, and sociology professors, as well as many who felt personally compelled to attend the lecture out of curiosity for the subject matter. While many of our students asked intelligent questions what was more informative to me through this experience were the conversations I had with students in my classes in the days that followed Jen’s presentation.
I discovered, for example, that many of my students were genuinely surprised to learn that there are academics studying LGBTQ history. One student quite innocently commented that he assumed that being gay or lesbian had “only just developed” in the twentieth century. When pressed he said he did not have any specific reason for this perspective, only the observation that he had never been asked to think about LGBTQ issues as “history.” When I think about the implications of Jen’s presentation for this student’s worldview it is staggering to imagine how much his perspective might be changed. In the simplest terms, this student is now able to contradict anyone who callously claims that being gay is “a choice” with his knowledge that gay, lesbian and transgender people have been around as long as humans have walked the earth. The potential for empathy and understanding grow exponentially with his recognition.
Second, I was forced to reflect on how insulated and isolated we become at our home institutions. I have been a member of the OAH for more than twenty years and this experience was the first time I had ever used the organization to bring fresh ideas into my classroom in human form. While I have shared articles and essays from OAH publications, I had never thought to supplement my limited knowledge with that of the amazing scholars who work in fields outside of my own. Having an expert introduce appropriate language and complex ideas to my students, I believe, was far more meaningful than would have been their experience had I fumbled through material with which I’m completely unfamiliar.
And finally, I was (again) reminded of how much work we historians need to do. Those of us who teach the survey to first and second year college students, especially, must work to make our narrative as inclusive as possible. It dawned on me during Jen’s talk, for example, that there were students in that room who had never been able to connect themselves or their personal stories to any lesson taught in their history classes. This realization is particularly troubling as it is those personal connections to our past that often excite students and engage them to want to learn more. We historians must do a better job of enlarging the framework of the survey to be more inclusive so that all of our students can see themselves as part of a truly American history.