Teaching LGBTQ+ History: How Do We Assign Queerness?

Sarah Grace Goolden

Opinions Editor

Although labels are often seen as restrictive, the past half a century has awarded the LGBTQ+ community with the vocabulary to be proud of oneself. Titles such as gay, lesbian, bi and pansexual and queer have emerged to cover as many bases of sexuality as possible. This is a luxury that many queer folks before never had. However, it brings up another question: Can we assign labels to those who did not have the words to describe themselves at the time?

Education does a great job of straightwashing authors and historical figures. Many of the writers we have learned about have been portrayed as heterosexual despite the glaring evidence that they were not. Some examples are Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Educators often bend backwards to try to twist obviously queer texts. Amazingly, Sappho is often taught without mentioning her obvious allusions to her romantic and sexual attraction to women. 

This is a disservice to both queer authors and queer kids. I would have dug into Shakespeare knowing over a hundred of his sonnets were dedicated to someone of the same sex. Being candid about author sexuality in the classroom can be monumental to the youth LGBTQ+ community. It can be uplifting and empowering, prompting more kids to write freely and not feel ashamed of who they are.

As an educator, I attempt to be as transparent as possible when teaching queer writers. I think it only helps the conversation and allows students to feel seen and validated. However, there is a fly in the rainbow ointment. I often ask myself if it is fair to call people like Oscar Wilde gay when they cannot identify themself?

Wilde is a great example because he was married to a woman but also slept with men. After being convicted of gross indecency for engaging in sexual acts with Lord Alfred Douglas, he was incarcerated and forced to complete hard labor for years which probably contributed to his later health decline. It is fair to say that Wilde was not straight but we have no way of knowing whether or not he was attracted to women, namely his wife. He could have possibly been using her as a means to appear heterosexual in a wildly homophobic world. He also could have been bi or pansexual and felt a genuine connection to Constance Lloyd, with whom he had two children. 

Emily Dickinson follows the same pattern. It’s hard to read “Wild Nights- Wild nights!” and “I Hide Myself Within a Flower” without recognizing its queerness but we do not have the means to ask her exactly how she identifies. 

This, of course, is an issue of semantics and I believe there is a solution. Queer is a magical word because it envelopes every label into a non-straight blanket. Is Emily Dickinson a lesbian? I’m not sure but I know she is queer. Would Shakespeare prefer being called bisexual or pansexual? We’ll never know but we can still recognize that he is queer. Was Wilde solely attracted to men? Who’s to say? All I know is that these writers were not straight. To sweep their sexualities under the rug is a flaw in education that we can ignore no longer. 

Although it is impossible to ask these icons exactly what they would like to be referred to as, it is still possible to celebrate LGBTQ+ artists without that. The FAIR Education Act, signed in 2011, strives to create a more inclusive and accurate portrayal of queer creators.

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