Queering the History Curriculum II

Published on November 16, 2021

Andrea Prajerova

This is the second part of the Queering the History Curriculum blog. Here I elaborate on my personal experiences working in the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity where I coordinated a pan-Canadian Queer History initiative for K-12 students. I argue that intersectional queer feminist pedagogies can be a useful tool in history education to undo the unequal societal relations that characterize the present.

Queer History in the K-12 Classroom

Between April 2018 and March 2020, the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual diversity launched a new program for middle and high school students to commemorate the 50th anniversary of decriminalization of homosexuality in Canada. Both teachers and students expressed a great interest in the programming, which convinced us that there was a dire need for the intervention. The program engaged over 6,000 students in 39 day-long forums hosted in all Canadian provinces and territories. At each forum we invited two keynote speakers from the 2SLGBTQ+ community to share their unique journey with students. The in-person oral history accounts were accompanied by a presentation on the milestones achieved by different community members and groups in the past 50 years, as well as specialized workshops developed by our team. Informed by the Anti-1969 critical initiative, we wanted to avoid a narrative that celebrated the legal change without acknowledging its limitations and the subsequent resistance it created. There was, however, more to consider when developing a program focused on teaching about the history of sexuality.

In the context of the emergent social justice movements such as Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, and the call for justice for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Girls and Women, right from the beginning, the project team, which included white and mostly cis members, faced the questions about who and what do we commemorate, and how? We came up against questions of memory, forgetting, and remembering. How to tell a story that would educate students about the legal changes that signalled a new sexual era in the late 1960s, while also acknowledging non “white” events that preceded and followed after it? Whose voices should be centred to avoid an over-encompassing narrative that positions the history of sexually and gender diverse folks on a human rights scale from repression to liberation that triumphantly ends with the legalization of same-sex marriage? With these interrogative thoughts in mind our team embarked on a learning journey. Using an intersectional methodology, we developed new resources and materials on pre-colonial history of sexuality, lesbian lives, and black trans movements. We also created a space for diverse folks to form coalitions across differences so that students would recognize the diversity of the queer community in Canada. We intentionally increased the number of racialized queer women, trans, and non-binary people as keynote speakers, and made a rule that one of the speakers would be two-spirit or Indigenous queer/LGBTQ+. We also reflected on our own privileges and obligations as queer settlers and guests to these lands and developed land acknowledgments specific to each forum.

To counter the “white” historical archives and records, a methodological practice which de-centres the accomplishments of white gay people, it was important to explain the silences in history and why QTBIPOC [Queer and Trans, Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour] were usually portrayed at the margins of commemorated historical events. We invited K-12 students to think critically about the ways power influences how the past is remembered, who remembers it, and what people and events are recognized as the “first.”[1] In our interpretation of queer history, we attempted to make visible “the logics that reproduce QTBIPOC as randomly interchangeable or entirely forgettable in the first place.”[2] We highlighted how homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia intersect with colonialism and (anti-black) racism to create different realities of human rights for diverse queer folks dependent on the intersections of their identity.

Towards Queer Feminist Pedagogies

This experience taught me something important. The erasure of difference in historical narratives has a clear effect in the K-12 classroom setting. Excluding diverse voices from how history is being told upholds and reproduces the status quo that privileges white western cis-male voices over others while providing justifications for current hierarchies of power. To avoid this, history pedagogy must illuminate and directly challenge the intersectional hierarchies rooted in hundreds of years of colonialism and systematic dehumanization of the other. Intersectionality as a method and practice helps uncover the idea that history does not speak one voice, neither do we. Educational approaches based on queer feminist pedagogies and “radical inclusion”[3] of diverse stories and voices in the history curriculum can lead towards justice. As educators we have a responsibility to create safe spaces where students of diverse genders, sexualities, abilities, ethnicities, and races feel accepted. This is impossible without acknowledging the gaps, meshes, dissonances, and overlaps[4] of different storylines and the presence of numerous historical actors whose actions have framed the current relations among diverse 2SLGBTQ+ groups and individuals. Reconciling these bonds is about more than including a few names and events along with canonic ones. It is about decentering whiteness, refusing the progressive linearity of events, and making new interpretations of what can be considered truth. It is imperative for history educators to pass on different accounts of the past that commemorate diverse voices so that all Canadian youth feel represented in stories that narrate the possibilities of their belonging.

Short bio:

Andrea Prajerova is a queer feminist researcher and educator, currently working in a variety of roles in the non-profit sector to advance the issues of women, youth, and 2SLGBTQI+ people. With a PhD in Feminist and Gender Studies from the University of Ottawa, her research interest is framed at the intersection of interdisciplinary studies including history of gender and sexuality, transnational feminisms and critical queer, race and disability studies.

References:

Academic Women SFU. Radical Inclusion: Equity and Diversity Among Female Faculty at Simon Fraser University. August 2020.

Haritaworn, Jinathana, Ghaida Moussa, and Syrus Marcus Ware. Marvellous Grounds: Queer of Colour Histories of Toronto. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2018.

Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eve. Tendencies. Duke University Press, 1993.

[1] To give one example from many. We brought students’ attention to the fact that actually the first group who protested the limitations of the 1969 reform were women. And as a part of queer history, we shared briefly the history of the Abortion Caravan with youth while explaining that this quite radical response at that time was led by white able-bodied Canadian feminists. On the other hand disabled, black, and Indigenous women had a rather negative experience with the medical system up until then. A parallel, which can be made about the queer movement and its divisions right from the beginning as well.
[2] Marvellous Grounds (2018, p. 6).
[3] I have borrowed this term from a report on equity, diversity, and inclusion published by Academic Women of SFU, an effort led by Dr. El Chenier. This concept of “radical inclusivity” was presented for the first time by Wendy Harbour, a disability scholar, to argue that simple inclusion is not enough. To achieve real equality, we must also work towards changing the structures that produce inequality and exclusion in the first place (Academic Women SFU, p. 8). This approach is deeply relational and rooted in ethics of care as well as politics of solidarity.
[4] Here I am paraphrasing Eve Sedgwick Kosofsky’s thought from Tendencies (1993) where she elaborates on what the term “queer” means. “That’s one of the things that “queer” can refer to: the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically. The experimental linguistic, epistemological, representational, political adventures attaching to the very many of us who may at times be moved to describe ourselves as (among many other possibilities) pushy femmes, radical faeries, fantasists, drags, clones, leatherfolk, ladies in tuxedoes, feminist women or feminist men, masturbators, bulldaggers, divas, Snap! queens, butch bottoms, storytellers, transsexuals, aunties, wannabes, lesbian-identified men or lesbians who sleep with men, or…people able to relish, learn from, or identify with such.” (p.8).

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