How should historians discuss LGBT+ history in textbooks?

Adrienne Tyrey's picture

Book Channel readers may be interested in an ethical and methodological question posed by Theresa Harrington for The Atlantic"Should history textbooks 'out' LGBT figures?"

Harrington cites a new California law to adopt K-12 history textbooks that highlight the contributions of LGBT people. The conundrum, of course, is how to discuss the identities of people who would not have referred to themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, etc. during their own lifetimes.

For instance, several textbooks seemed to stumble over how best to discuss Charley Parkhurst, a stagecoach driver during the California Gold Rush. Harrington quotes a review by the Instructional Quality Commission, which found that "Parkhurst may have been a transgender man, a woman who dresses as a man to participate with social benefits, or any number of identities. Because of this, discussion of Parkhurst should not be located in a section about women.” 

Other questions include how to indicate when historians speculate about historical actors' sexual orientation, such as President James Buchanan, or how to discuss more contemporary figures like astronaut Sally Ride, who died in 2012 without ever publicly coming out.

A goal of the new California law is to help LGBT+ students see people like themselves in history. What is the ethical duty of historians to these students, and what is their ethical duty to the historical actors they describe?

You can read the full article here.