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By Trevor Boffone
The University of Houston (UH) has seen an uptick in interest in its Introduction to LGBT Studies program in recent years. What began as a one-section course taught by Dr. Guillermo de los Reyes in 2010 has become a four-section offering that now attracts a mix of LGBTQ students and allies. This spring semester, 120 students enrolled in four sections taught by Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda and myself. UH offers one of the only LGBT-studies minors in the country, and has been recognized as a leading trans-friendly campus. I reflect here on my experiences teaching Introduction to LGBT Studies during last year’s fall semester.
I was surprised to learn how little my students knew of the history, politics, and culture of the LGBT community. At the beginning of the semester, even queer students couldn’t identify who Harvey Milk was, what Stonewall was, or what Houston’s HERO battle was about. Even the AIDS epidemic is a largely forgotten topic. That these foundational moments and figures in LGBT history were foreign to my students was an eye-opener. For my “free write” assignment during the first week, students explained their current knowledge of the LGBT community and their reasons for taking the class. Many who identified as queer wrote that they were taking the course to finally learn about their community.
One student wrote, “I’ve been more or less ignorant to current events in the LGBT community.” Another wrote, “As a gay man, I would like to learn more about the history of the LGBT community, certain important figures in the LGBT community, and how to help keep myself safe—whether it’s sexually, physically, or mentally—in today’s society.”
Straight allies in the class wrote that they were interested in learning how to become better allies. One ally wrote, “I believe that LGBT rights shouldn’t even be an issue today. But it is for many, and I honestly find that horrifying.”
While some of their initial comments were shocking, knowing this about my students helped me tailor the course as I introduced students to an overview of LGBT studies. I decided to make the course more local by spending time teaching my students about the Paul Broussard murder in Montrose, for example. In addition to basic course content, I frequently reflected with my colleagues and students about the reasons why LGBT millennials had such gaping holes in their knowledge of queer history. Students often noted how these narratives are excluded from public education in Texas, both at the secondary and university levels. Many remarked how my course was the first course they took that talked about queer people of color beyond a superficial level. Nearly every week, I witnessed students becoming empowered by learning about their community and finding their voices as the next generation in the fight for equality.
Whereas learning about LGBTQ studies enabled queer students to better understand their struggles and see themselves represented in ways not typically seen in a college classroom, the course was also an important space for allies to gain a voice and learn how to best use their skill sets to advocate for the LGBTQ community. One ally noted, “I feel that as an advocate, I am now able to inform and educate individuals who are uneducated [about phrases] that LGBTQ individuals might feel are offensive, like I was [previously].”
Yet the personal growth among my queer students was the most apparent. While many were shy and closeted at the beginning of the semester, week by week they came out of their shells and became more outspoken about their identities and experiences. Nearly every week, another student who identified as an ally during the first week came out as queer in class. Creating a safe and inclusive classroom space was my main objective, so it was gratifying to see students feeling comfortable about being out in class for the first time. For many, this LGBT-studies course was the only space on campus where they lived their identity to the fullest.
“Before this class, just the thought of questioning my identity and thinking about who I was made me want to black out; it was an uncomfortable subject for me. Actually, I never realized just how uncomfortable I was about it until this class,” said one student. “I feel like the topics we discussed in class, the material we looked at, and hearing other people’s stories forced me to take a good look at myself and reevaluate my position and my own role in the world in relationship to others. I learned a lot more about my community, since I believe that our history and our experiences are what bind us together.”
It is not shocking that comprehensive LGBTQ-inclusive education has the potential to change the way queer people experience this world. My students, both queer and straight, revealed how their entire understanding of the LGBTQ community can radically change in just one semester.
While not every student will take an LGBTQ studies course (for a variety of reasons), traditional university courses should become inclusive enough to teach the basics of LGBT history. Let’s stop relegating queer history to specialized programs aimed only at queer students.
Trevor Boffone is a Houston-based scholar, educator, writer, and the founder of the 50 Playwrights Project. He is a lecturer of LGBT studies in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality program at the University of Houston.