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Teaching “The Gay Revolution” In The Classroom

Gabrielle Bychowski is an Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University, teaching courses on transgender and intersex history, disability culture, racism, and medieval literature.

When my seminar had the pleasure of hosting Lillian Faderman, she explained that she wrote The Gay Revolution: the Story of the Struggle because no book existed when she was in school that could explain to her the history of LGBTQ+ rights movement.

Although it has been decades since Faderman was a teenager, schools and colleges still do not adequately cover LGBTQ culture and history. My own students report that they did not know that HIV/AIDS had any relationship with the LGBTQ population, they did not know what Stonewall was, and they did not know anything about Harvey Milk, Marsha P. Johnson, or Sylvia Rivera. This drives me to teach courses such as Transgender Literature and Queer Christianity.

Authors like Faderman did the work of writing The Gay Revolution. The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards did the work of lifting up the importance of the book. Now it is on us to read the history and share that history with future generations.

In my seminar on LGBTQ+ history, I start the semester with the opening chapters of The Gay Revolution such as “Chapter 2: America Hunts for Witches” and “Chapter 4: America Protects the Youngsters.” These tells the story of college faculty, students, and staff being removed from campus or even arrested on suspicion that they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. It is important that students realize the privilege of being able to take a class with LGBTQ issues in the title of the course, openly assigned in the syllabus, and discussed among LGBTQ students with a transgender educator.

Reading books like The Gay Revolution still constitutes radical pedagogy on various campuses across the United States. Even in 2020, other colleges would shut down even the hint of instruction on LGBTQ culture, politics, and history. As we learn about the secret homophile societies and the Daughters of Bilitis from the mid-20th century, students research the LGBTQ+ communities in hiding today in places like Wheaton College. This introduces students to the significance and responsibility that comes with being students who can discuss and speak out openly on these issues.

With the power of marches and protests vivid in my students’ imagination, the chapters on the Stonewall Riots, ACT-UP, and Gay Liberation in The Gay Revolution gives language, background, and methodologies to students. Key chapters include “Chapter 11: The Riots,” “Chapter 14: A Parallel Revolution: Lesbian Feminists,” and “Chapter 23: The Plague.” Witnessing how the world is affected by #BlackLivesMatter protests, the Women’s March, and LGBT Pride Parades, students need help understanding the way in which direct action, grabbing the attention of the media, and civil disobedience translates (or not) into institutional or systemic change. It never fails to surprise some students how gay liberation would not have developed into a political force without the lessons and support from concurrent revolutionaries in the Civil Rights movement and the Feminist movement. While marginalized people could be divided by prejudice and politics, the struggle for social justice drew a diverse coalition of people together.

In the fall, my students and I read from the later chapters of The Gay Revolution, such as “Chapter 30: A Forty Year War: The Struggle For Workplace Protection,” to provide historical context for our Trans Day of Remembrance (TDoR) events. The TDoR raises public consciousness of the high mortality rates among the transgender population, especially trans people of color. A recent study reported that 29% of trans women, 41% of non-binary people, and 50% of trans men attempt suicide at some point in their life. Additionally, the average life expectancy of a black trans woman is widely reported as only 35 years. The Gay Revolution helps to contextualize this high rate of violence and mortality among those at the intersections of transphobia, sexism, racism, homophobia, and classism. Using the history as a foundation, students create short videos remembering those trans persons who died in the previous year and highlighting ways that society could make life more livable for the trans population.

One of the greatest gifts of teaching The Gay Revolution is the reminder to myself and my students that we are not alone in our struggles or our aspirations. A favorite assignment is the “LGBTQ+ Saints Project,” wherein students highlight the stories of heroes, leaders and martyrs of the movement. While dominant cultures may cast LGBTQ+ people as sinners or outcasts, students reflect on the power that can come from being “set apart” by society. As a transgender woman and educator, all too aware of my own precarity in the academy and in the world, I appreciate the support that Faderman’s words gives me and I am blessed to share these insights with students who come to my classes hungry for some hope, strength, and wisdom.