Editors' Note: Guest blogger Jonathan Lykes is a spoken word artist, 19 year old University of Chicago student, and blogger for the Black Youth Project. He is a recipient of the ACLU Activist of the Year Award for his work with the Ohio state-wide activist group Youth Voices for Justice.
Why was I told so many lies in my grade school history classes? It recently occurred to me that a lot of the history that I was taught was not only wrong, but the truth was skewed for very specific purposes.
I can remember learning about the Black Panthers in elementary school and how I was given a negative and demonizing view of Fred Hampton, or how I was made to think the Civil War was a black and white issue about abolishing slavery. I realized that these lies changed my outlook on important figures in history and seemed to always paint America as the hero/peace maker, when many times the leaders of this country were the main perpetrators and oppressors.
Is a half-truth a whole lie?
When looking back over my 6 years elementary school, 3 years of middle school, and 4 years of high school, I realized that not once did my classes teach me about any gay or lesbian figure in history. As a matter of a fact, if it is public education's job to teach about the realities of the world, they definitely failed on letting me know that there were gay people who existed in history that did great things.
I'm not sure if I can call this homophobia, a better defining term for it is homo-non-existence. You can't be afraid of something that doesn't exist. This is what I am labeling the great injustice of my childhood. This non-existence of gay people in my history books [while growing up] is another reason to why I was so insecure about my sexuality in middle school and much of high school. I remember being in 8th grade and thinking "what was wrong with me" or that I was the only gay person alive. I thought I was going to hell for the desires that I kept concealed in the innermost crevices of my mind.
I know it is not random taxpayers' job to make me secure in my sexuality, but I don't believe it to be a coincidence that there was not one single individual in all of my history classes that let me know gay people could achieve just as much as straight people. In the thousands of pages in my "less-than-elite" grade school curriculum why would there not be one single instance that let me know gay people existed and lived productive lives?
The first time in my life that I can remember recognizing that another gay person existed was when I was in the 6th grade. I was sitting on my living room floor of our 3-bedroom apartment and my step-mom was flipping through the television stations. She stopped at one station to see a clip of Elton John singing "It's me that you need"--don't ask me why I remember the name of the song. She quickly yelled "queer!" at the TV, and continued turning the stations. I turned to look at her for an explanation; she leaned in and sternly told me, "We don't watch queers in this house." At 12 years old I didn't even know the definition of queer, but somehow I understood that she meant Elton John was gay.
Looking back at my childhood--and now attending a liberal university as an out gay black man--I now realize it is unfortunate for any young person to grow up in a less than tolerant household and society. To this day it's hard for me to understand why oppressed groups look for others to oppress. But this experience of homophobia was not simply limited to my home life.
I remember going to school and "gay" being used as a synonym for any negative actions that existed. If someone was "un-cool" they were "gay." If something looked ugly, it was "gay." If a situation in our very important elementary minded lives didn't go as planned, somehow we were intelligent enough to associate that disappointment with the word "gay." I don't know where or by who this trend was started, but I do know that it only added to the detrimental mindset I had began to have of myself and it made it that much harder to overcome the "secret" that was dooming me to hell.
I am fortunate. I am fortunate that I found a solid group of friends that I eventually could come out to and be accepted by. I am fortunate that even in the mist of homophobia I learned to accept who I was. I am fortunate that I was able to read and study history for myself and find that there are numerous amounts of out and proud LGBT people in history who deserve to be taught about in schools. James Baldwin, Leonardo Da Vinci, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, William Shakespeare, Eleanor Roosevelt and many others. I heard all of these names in school but was never told the whole truth about their lives.
I know in my heart, that many are not as fortunate as I was. I know that there are still confused students in red states roaming the halls of our public schools hoping for someone to tell them that "it's ok, the thoughts you have don't make you any less of a person." The gay rights movement has come along way in the past decade, and I know it will continue to push on--I'll be on the front lines--but I also realize that we have a long way to go. We still live in a hetero-normative society where being gay in many communities is not normal. Maybe if people would tell the whole truth in our history classes and paint a picture of reality, it will be that much easier for the next generation of LGBT's to accept who they are.
For more from Jonathan go to www.blackyouthproject.com