Seminar in the City Spring 2012: Queering the Curriculum

Just last summer, California legislators passed SB48, a bill that requires California’s
State Board of Education to adopt textbooks and curricular materials
that explore the historical contributions of LGBTQ people. This ambitious law
not only ensures that California’s public schools teach queer history, but also
influence and shape the curriculum in many other states across the country.
The potential effects of an LGBTQ component in history and social studies curricula
seem boundless, from empowering educators to introduce students to
the contributions of historical actors as diverse as Djuna Barnes, Bayard Rustin,
Pauline Park, or California’s own Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, to addressing
the widespread and tragic consequences of transphobic and homophobic
bullying in the classroom.
While the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies applauds the California bill and
similar efforts in New York State, an inestimable number of educators have
already taken the courageous risks and proactive steps to introduce queer
history into their own classrooms. Last summer, as legislators in California
worked overtime to ensure the passage of SB48, SUNY–New Paltz Professor
Rachel Mattson conducted a seminar with local educators entitled “Queering
the Curriculum.” As part of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History’s SoHo
Exhibit at the Leslie/Lohman Gallery (now The Leslie + Lohman Museum of
Gay and Lesbian Art)—a pioneering public history exhibit to which CLAGS was
privileged to contribute—“Queering the Curriculum” brought together educators
and community organizers in order to share best practices and tackle
curricular topics from classroom transphobia and homophobia to the ways we
interpret and think about gender and sexuality in the past and the present.
CLAGS’ staff and board members were therefore understandably thrilled when
Mattson and Pop-Up Museum founder and director Hugh Ryan approached development
director Lauren Gutterman with a proposal for the spring Seminar
in the City: an expanded series of workshops based on the “Queering the Curriculum”
seminar. In the early fall, Rachel, Hugh, and CLAGS’ board members
Daniel Hurewitz and Chris Mitchell worked to build a coalition of educators and
administrators who could facilitate workshops for teachers and community
educators in New York City. We were soon joined by New York City Department
of Education teachers Jesse Chanin and Kevin Connell, the Hetrick–Martin
Institute’s Education Initiatives Director Darnell Moore and Assistant Director
of After-School Services Sam Stiegler, the Dia Art Foundation’s Christine Hou,
as well as New York University Professor Robbie Cohen, who helped provide
additional funding and co-sponsorship through NYU’s Steinhardt School of
From the outset, the planning committee wanted to challenge the tokenism
that too often infects so-called “minority” histories—what the astute (not
to mention witty!) Ryan referred to as the “add-a-gay and stir” approach.
Mattson challenged planners not to just think about teaching about queers
in history, but to challenge teachers and students to ask questions about how
normative power has worked historically, and how change has happened. A
long-time community educator and activist, Moore suggested the group divide
their sessions into “buckets” in order to diversify the curricular vision
and maximize the strengths and fluencies of the group’s individual members.
Planners also worked hard to think about “queering” the curriculum in a
multi-dimensional way to avoid paving over the diversity and differences of
race, class, and gender in the same way that conventional “straight” histories
erase sexual diversity. Unlike typical Seminars in the City—which are generally
more open to the public and concentrated in consecutive weeknights over
a month—the facilitators decided to to expand each of these thematic buckets
over four Saturday sessions spread throughout the spring semester in order to
accommodate educators’ schedules.
As New York City literature and science teachers, respectively, Jesse Chanin
and Kevin Connell seemed the most obvious candidates to inaugurate the first
Seminar in the City, an introductory workshop exploring their own best practices
in “queering” the curriculum in their own classrooms. Historians and
teachers Hugh Ryan and Chris Mitchell tackled the general lack of information
about queer history by exploring the intersections of the Homophile and Gay
Liberation Movements with broader notions of civil rights in U.S. history, especially
the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Christine Hou and Rachel
Mattson created a session to think differently gender and sexuality both in
the curriculum, through an examination of art and poetry, as well as ways to
confront norms around gender and sexuality in the classroom interactions of
students, educators, and other staff. Darnell Moore and Sam Stiegler brought
their expertise from the Hetrick-Martin Institute in order to lead a workshop on
classroom and school culture and the day-to-day interactions between queer
students and their teachers, families, and administrators. They also introduced
our Seminar to co-facilitators from Hetrick–Martin Lillian Rivera, Director of Advocacy and Capacity Building; Cindy Molina, G.E.D. Coordinator; and
Mara Hughes, a Ph.D. candidate in Rutgers University’s Graduate School of
Education, who led a discussion about the ways in which racism, issues of
class and poverty, and gender compact homophobia and transphobia in the
The response to Seminar in the City: Queering the Curriculum was truly
overwhelming. Over fifty teachers, community educators, and activists from
public schools, independent schools, colleges and universities, museums,
and even community gardens responded to the initial announcement. Educators
in attendance worked with age groups from very early childhood into
adult education, covering a wide range of subjects and interests. Educators
also used the sessions to share their own best practices with one another,
to brainstorm about future lesson planning, and to think about moving forward
with administrators, staff, and students’ families in their own schools.
Just as importantly, teachers forged connections among themselves in a
network that continues to have a life of its own beyond the Seminar in the
City. Perhaps this network will even be part of an effort to persuade New
York State’s legislature to follow California’s tack in refusing the distortions
and absences that characterize too many social studies and history curricula.
As Professor Cohen lately reminded the planners, “It seems to me
that if California can mandate a whole curriculum, New York can at least
be pressured to take some steps to end its disconnect from this LGBTQ
Thanks first and foremost to the dedicated educators who gave up their
Saturdays to collaborate in these Seminars. Special thanks to the incredibly
talented group of educators who brought this project to CLAGS’ attention
and to the planners who worked tirelessly to facilitate the Seminars in
the City. CLAGS also wishes to thank the Hetrick–Martin Institute, Lillian
Rivera, Cindy Molina, Mara Hughes, the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History,
Professor Robbie Cohen and the Steinhardt School of Education for cosponsorship
and co-funding, and Hugh Ryan and the Urban Justice Center,
which provided time and physical accommodation for the Seminars.