Home Career The Colorado LGBTQ Project is helping K-12 teachers bring history home

The Colorado LGBTQ Project is helping K-12 teachers bring history home


There are many notable figures and moments in the struggle for LGBTQ rights.

For example: New York’s Stonewall riots, which started the gay rights movement. The activism of Harvey Milk of San Francisco, who was California’s first openly gay man elected to public office. The 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage.

But there are also examples close to Colorado students, like the lesbian ranchers who were among the state’s first homemakers, or the students at Colorado State University who in 1974 chose a homecoming man over a homecoming queen.

Colorado State University professor Thomas Dunn worked to find and preserve these stories as part of the program Northern Colorado Queer Memory Project. This summer, he held the project’s first workshop for K-12 teachers who want to incorporate these stories into history and civics lessons.

The workshop was prompted in part by a 2019 state law that provided a a more inclusive approach to teaching Colorado history. The state board of education is still debating proposed updates to the social studies standards mandated by law. Faced with a backlash from conservatives, the committee removed many references to LGBTQ history and social contributions from draft standards. The final standards are planned to be adopted in November.

Across the country, resistance to LGBTQ rights and the teaching of LGBTQ history is growing. In June a A law has gone into effect in Florida that limits LGBTQ issues and identities from class discussion. Several states have recently sued the The Biden administration for its anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBTQ students and workers. I conservative parent groups have run campaigns across the country to remove books from schools and libraries with LGBTQ characters or references.

Earlier this year, Dunn presented his case for teaching LGBTQ history to the Colorado State Editorial Board. He said there are many ways to introduce students to important historical figures at an early age without tackling difficult topics better suited for older students.

Dunn shared some of these examples in a recent interview. And he emphasized that there are ways to make the teaching of LGBTQ history relevant and relevant to the communities students come from.

Helping students feel included

Dunn said he wants to make it clear that LGBTQ history doesn’t have to involve difficult conversations about sex and sexuality. Although he has no training as a K-12 teacher, he said he knows that educators across the state have the tools to approach difficult subjects in a gentle way.

The emphasis should be on the contributions of people and their differences, Dunn said, noting that teachers can nominate teachers from Colorado whose notions of gender and dress looked different from the norm and prominent business people who have influenced their communities. Including all people and their differences will give students a better understanding of the world, he said.

“It’s the people in our communities and that’s what we can focus on,” he said.

Many of the students he works with do not learn about LGBTQ history until they enter college. Stories that reflect the larger community make all students feel part of the system, he said.

“It’s important to be able to tell these stories in an age-appropriate way and also to give some representation to the growing number of LGBTQ youth,” he said. “And I’m also a father — I have an adopted daughter — and that’s what worries me in that sense.”

LGBTQ history is not just about big events

Stonewall. Harvey Milk. Debate on same-sex marriage rights.

Dunn agrees that such topics can be difficult to teach students at an early age or include national references that may not seem relevant to students’ lives.

That’s why he wants teachers to think about how to focus on their own community. For example, Dunn pointed to Hattie McDaniel.

The actress, who also attended Denver High School, lived in Fort Collins and is one of the most famous names in the city’s history. She was the first black person to win an Academy Award when she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. Dunn said evidence points to her being bisexual as well.

Teachers across the state can easily find a teachable moment to reference race, gender and sexual identity by focusing on McDaniel’s accomplishments, he said.

“It won’t require significant wholesale change,” Dunn said. “It just calls for a richer telling of that story. It can be a really good starting point for a wider conversation.”

Resources are available for teachers

Teachers are not alone, Dunn said.

He knows that while teachers can rely on their training in how to teach their students age-appropriate topics, sometimes finding materials for lessons can be difficult.

In June, Dunn attempted to host a workshop to help teachers across the state better understand Colorado’s LGBTQ history and find opportunities to teach community input. 15 teachers were selected, but only one came on the first day. While interest in the topic has been high, it has waned as conservative backlash against the state’s proposed standards has grown, he said.

“We’ve committed to doing this a few times,” he said, “but this is a great example of how the tone set at the top can shape what an individual teacher feels is, or is not, allowed to do.”

Many teachers across the state are taking the lead in developing lessons in their districts, he said. He wants educators to know they have support.

Teachers can refer to online archives of The Queer Memory Project. The project mainly focuses on the history of Northern Colorado. Dunn said the project can also connect teachers with a larger community of educators who want to learn how to better teach the LGBTQ community.

And he hopes districts and educators continue to talk about how to better teach students.

“I trust our teachers to tell these stories,” he said. “And I hope we support them and give them a place and encouragement to learn.”

Jason Gonzalez is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado Legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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