LGBT history? Thoughts

California governor signs bill requiring schools to teach gay history – CNN

I was rather taken aback by finding out about this. Not because I resent LGBT history, not because I think that “no factual materials would be allowed to be presented” (Rev. Louis Sheldon), or because it would be by nature discriminatory – something that it definitely has potential to be.

Bill Clinton created a campaign that resonates very strongly with my pragmatist-but-idealist-when-things-are-going-well stance – “It’s the economy, stupid.” And stupid indeed is what we can call politicians who focus their energies on the subject matter of THAT^ article rather than that of THIS one. “It’s the economy, stupid” is something I wish could be repeated more often nowadays, but I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it right now.

For I am no lawmaker. My center-left position may have eroded completely under destructive partisanship, with one third of the country swinging far right, another third going far left, leaving us with an uncertain center which can just look to both ends and wonder what the hell is going on.

However, that is not to say that I would be unsympathetic to this cause. In fact, despite it being the wrong thing at the wrong time, I’ll support it.

And although I am no educator either, there are three easy mistakes that I see teachers or textbook writers making, so I share them here:

1) Don’t make sexual orientation an issue when it is not one – if it is an integration of LGBT contributions to history, then we have to remember to ask ourselves…when is it actually necessarily to point out someone as a homosexual?

It is rumored that Baron von Steuben, a Prussian drill sergeant who introduced the often important notion of “discipline” into the US Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and served as George Washington’s chief of staff was homosexual (I say rumored because I do not wish to fall victim to error #2, coming up soon). So how does this sound:

“George Washington was the somewhat inept but highly charismatic and inspiring leader of the US forces during the American Revolution. He was, by practically all accounts, a heterosexual. Baron von Steuben was an imported German drill sergeant who developed discipline and order in a highly chaotic army during the winter spent at Valley Forge, creating a coalesced and powerful army that was far more successful afterwards. He is believed, though not without dispute, to have been homosexual.”

By making any mention of LGBT where it is nonessential ultimately distracts from the history at hand. I do not believe that any mention of von Steuben’s sexuality, regardless of his services to the United States, will enhance the students’ understanding of US history nor their respect for LGBT rights. That is because sexuality and von Steuben’s military brilliance probably had little to do with each other.

Now some might follow this line of argument to conclude that any mention of homosexuality in history is extraneous. But that’s not true either. Many of the greatest artists, innovators, and thinkers of human history attained their status precisely because of their reactions to the unique way they perceived themselves and others. Think of Petr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (whose sexuality is definitely not in dispute)…was his internal struggle for acceptance not somehow reflected in his work? How about Michelangelo (not sure, but possible) and his exploration of the human form? And Alan Turing, whose eccentricity and homosexuality led him to think differently and conceive of artificial intelligence, thinking beings which would not judge him for what he was?

2) Don’t call a historical figure LGBT unless you’re pretty damn sure of it – I searched “famous homosexuals” in Google and came up with this list. Now, I can’t be sure, but I would probably dispute that Eleanor Roosevelt was LGBT. I did some research and saw that she had had some sort of semi-sexual relationship with a woman once. But does that mean she or her work were somehow defined by this? I doubt it. In addition, although closeted homosexuality was obviously almost the only existing form up until the last 50 years, one has to be careful about it, especially as being gay is not a black-or-white trait – there are many “intermediate” phenotypes, if you will. And one list I saw mentioned Abraham Lincoln. Hmm….

3) Don’t do affirmative action on LGBT history – This is the most important point that I’d like to make.

The truth is, history has not been kind to the LGBT community. Alan Turing will remembered  as part of a handful of the most important scientists in the history of man. He established a theoretical basis for the computer and is considered the father of the fields of computer science and artificial intelligence. He decrypted German codes in WWII, bringing the war to an end much faster than without him. When word of his homosexuality got out, he was removed of his security clearance and chemically castrated via estrogen treatments. He committed suicide in 1951. And homosexuality was a crime in Great Britain until 1967.

And that’s just one example – what about Harvey Milk and Matthew Shepard? And even today, a serious US presidential candidate’s husband runs a “pray the gay away” clinic on the side. There’s still a lot of work to do.

But with that said, I boldly make the claim that one would be hard-pressed to find someone with a computer science or mathematics degree who was anti-gay rights, thanks to Turing. Ultimately, LGBT rights will move forward with the tireless efforts and vital contributions of individuals who have not only had their work, for which they were wholly responsible, ignored, but were persecuted for their sexuality, an aspect for which they were, on the other hand, in no way responsible. It will move forward with role models like him.

The worst thing that could happen if the real movers of this earth had the legacy of their causes undermined by those undeserving of the praise bestowed upon them. So we may remind art students of Michelangelo, music students of Tchaikovsky, philosophers, mathematicians, and computer scientists of Turing, individuals who have rightfully earned their place in history. So let us give unto them and the rest of the LGBT community no more, but of course no less, than the credit they deserve.


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