As a history teacher, I have read and taught about every figure in our textbooks and curriculum. Some are more than deserving of their recognition and immortalization in school texts nationwide, while others just happen to be very lucky that they were chosen for one reason or another. Now, as a historian, I have found that, sadly, there are far more figures throughout history whose acts, though not mentioned in books, have changed the world and lives for the better. There are so many who, though they will not be featured in history textbooks or have monuments built in their names, are as deserving as those who do. Of course, it is impossible to give credit to all those who have contributed to the betterment of mankind, but it is our job as historians and educators to ensure that these individuals and their contributions are not forgotten or lost among those we choose to make sure are remembered.
Now, I am not going to be able to mention every single figure whose acts of courage and activism have progressed society and changed lives; that would be impossible. However, I am going to select a few who have not only helped the lives of so many gay people who have yet to be born but helped improve the lives of those, both young and old, who are in the midst of the gay rights movement, including the fight for marriage equality. As a historian and straight educator who sees the struggles of his gay students on a daily basis, I know that there are individuals who performed acts that may not seem historic or monumental but have indirectly improved the lives of so many. While interacting with and mentoring our youth on a daily basis, I have found that, like all teachers, I am in an incredible position to not only teach a subject but progress humanity by helping build intelligent, understanding and compassionate beings.
In 1990 Kevin Jennings, knowing too well how tough it is to be a gay youth, especially in school, founded one of the most important organizations in the fight to end discrimination in schools: the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). This organization now benefits students nationwide and offers various academic programs to help provide safe environments for all students, especially gay youth. Kevin Jennings continues to rid the world of discrimination as the executive director of the Arcus Foundation. Kevin Jennings will probably not be in history books, but it doesn’t change the fact that what he has done has changed the lives of so many and will ensure that future gay youth will not have to dread going to school or hide their sexuality from their classmates for fear of being bullied.
As a person who grew up playing sports, I know firsthand how homophobic nearly all locker rooms can be. I have to be honest: I made my share of homophobic remarks, comments and puns while playing or just hanging out with teammates. They were never malicious, nor was I intending to hurt anyone, but, looking back, I wish I’d been as compassionate and understanding as I am now. Either way, it is not a shock that the athletic world, on all levels, has been slower to catch up with movements toward gay equality, and it is even less shocking that gay professional athletes have done everything they can to conceal their sexuality, especially during their playing days. Even in recent years there have been very few professional athletes who have had the courage to come out, even after they retired. This is why when Esera Tuaolo, a former NFL defensive lineman, and Billy Bean, a former MLB outfielder, revealed, after they each retired, that they are gay, it received a lot of attention. But, more importantly, it exposed the true homophobia of male professional sports. The fact that both Tuaolo and Bean, two elite athletes who were good enough to have long careers in their respective sports, had to conceal and deceive their friends and teammates because they felt that they wouldn’t have been as understanding as they would have liked, reveals a lot about how far the sports world needs to go.
Last year it was NBA player Jason Collins who became the first openly gay active athlete in one of the three major American sports leagues. Collins’ coming out forced America and professional sports to take a long look at itself and its unspoken views toward the prospect of openly gay athletes and their place in sports. Jason Collins unintentionally became a hero and a gay spokesperson overnight. Like many people, I was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming support that he received from his teammates and other fellow athletes across the sports world. Now only time will tell if the support that he received was truly genuine or if they were just empty words that were said because they seemed like the right things to say.
Homophobia will not be wiped away from professional sports overnight, but what Esera Tuaolo, Billy Bean and Jason Collins have done will surely force a discussion of this topic, which will ensure that we are one step closer to complete acceptance. Each year, I teach about how heroic Jackie Robinson, Joe Lewis, Jesse Owens and Jack Johnson were, but these incredibly courageous athletes of today, who are as deserving as those I just mentioned, will probably never make it into our history textbooks or curriculum.
On a similar note, like most teenage boys who grew up in the 1990s, I publicly stated how much I hated ‘N Sync and their music and ridiculed how “gay” they were, but privately I wished I could be in the group for just one day and listened to their music religiously. There is not a ’90s child in America who didn’t get a little excited when ‘N Sync recently reunited onstage at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. Looking back as a historian and long-secret ‘N Sync fan, it’s tough not to recognize the significance of Lance Bass coming out publicly as a gay man. To most it may not have seemed like a big deal, but to the gay and lesbian community, especially gay youth, it was historic.
As a teacher, I know all too well how difficult it is to be a teenager these days. I witness my students as they struggle daily, as I did, trying to find an identity and, at the same time, desperately trying to hide who they really are for fear that they won’t be accepted. It is tough for any teenager, but for gay youth the struggle is far greater. For this reason alone I go above and beyond to make sure that all my students, especially my gay students, know that they are not broken, sick or different. This is why Lance Bass’ coming out to the world, though it will not be mentioned in school books, helped thousands of students embrace and accept who they are and taught them not to resist or conceal their true selves.
There is no debating that films, especially documentaries, have the power to change popular opinion and expose broadly experienced hardships that previously went unrecognized. Films have the ability to connect with people and allow everyone to understand and experience the feelings and emotions of others, especially those with whom they may have previously found no commonality. Though I teach history, I try hard to help my students become more compassionate, not only toward each other but toward all living creatures on this planet. With marriage equality in the news nightly, it was a documentary about a tragic love story that captured the hearts of both the gay and straight communities. Shane Bitney Crone’s soulmate Tom Bridegroom died in a tragic accident. Because California law did not acknowledge same-sex couples at the time, Shane was not allowed to see the love of his life while he lay dying in a hospital room, and he was banned by Tom’s family from attending the funeral because they didn’t approve of their son being gay. To help himself get through the darkest days of his life, Shane and filmmaker Linda Bloodworth-Thomason made a documentary that tracked his and Tom’s incredible love story from the start to the tragic accident and aftermath. Bridegroom became so much more than a tragic love story. It revealed that, regardless of sexuality, love is love; no one, gay or straight, should be denied the right to be at the side of a loved one. This incredibly emotional film also shares the struggles that Shane and Tom experienced individually while growing up gay in small towns and somewhat homophobic communities. Bridegroom won numerous awards and gained worldwide recognition, but not even an Oscar would be worth more than the impact that this film can have on people’s perceptions and views regarding marriage equality. Though Shane never thought his story would become a cultural symbol, Bridegroom will continue to have an incredible influence on gay youth, in addition to highlighting the continuous struggle for marriage equality and equal rights for same-sex couples.
The first person to accomplish something in any field is truly extraordinary, especially when doing so reveals something that is still not fully accepted in the field in question. This is why when a professional athlete, actively playing or retired, reveals that he or she is gay, it is truly significant on both a social and a historic level. As courageous as Esera Tuaolo, Billy Bean and Jason Collins are, WWE superstar Darren Young truly displayed unparalleled courage when he very nonchalantly revealed to a TMZ reporter that he is gay. With two simple words, “I’m gay,” Darren became the first person ever to come out in what may be the most homophobic sport there is: professional wrestling. If you think football, baseball and basketball fans can be somewhat intolerant, then try attending a WWE (previously known as WWF) wrestling match. Pro wrestling fans are some of the most passionate and emotional fans there are, and when people are emotional, they can often say things that may be hateful or ignorant. With two words Darren Young, like the other athletes I’ve mentioned, forced his sport to discuss a situation that previously was not even thought about.
Every one of us has an emotional attachment to music; it can be therapeutic and uplifting and even trigger nostalgia, and, as a historian, I can say absolutely that music has helped change history. From hymns during the American Revolution to the protest songs of the ’60s and ’70s, music has been used to unite and inspire people. With their award-winning song “Same Love,” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have once again proved that music, though entertaining, has the profound ability to influence public opinion and bring awareness to significant social movements. This song instantly became the anthem for marriage equality, with Macklemore and Lewis, in a simple and beautiful way, highlighting how ignorant it is to view same-sex marriage as different from “traditional” marriage. There have even been a few cases of teachers being disciplined for playing “Same Love” to their students in order to discuss its social message, but this only reinforces why it is so much more than just a song; it’s a rallying cry. I know that teachers during the ’60s and ’70s were also disciplined for (and even forbidden from) playing the protest and anti-war songs of the times because those songs were seen as controversial and against mainstream American society.
Though Macklemore and Ryan Lewis will be immortalized on music charts for their songs, it is not likely that they will find their names in high school history textbooks for providing an anthem for our decade’s most significant civil rights movement. However, just as Woodstock and musicians like John Lennon, James Taylor and Bob Dylan have earned their places in school books, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are as deserving as anyone for their contribution to helping the cause for gay rights and marriage equality.
Now, I have mentioned these incredible individuals in no particular order; each of them has done something that is beyond courageous and brave. True courage is standing for what one believes in, even if that means standing alone. I’m pretty sure that these individuals will never be mentioned in our school textbooks. They will not have statues or monuments built honoring what they have done. There will be no schools named after them. But, as a historian, I can say with certainty that they have all done something remarkable, and that their actions will change history for those in the present and th future. They are all deserving of being mentioned alongside any of the figures that I teach about each year. As a history teacher, I vow to ensure that their legacies live on in my class when we discuss marriage equality and the continuous struggle for civil rights and equality. So to Kevin Jennings, Esera Tuaolo, Billy Bean, Jason Collins, Lance Bass, Shane Bitney Crone, Darren Young, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, thank you for helping my gay students and friends live in a better and more understanding world than was available to previous generations. You are all true trailblazers, and all of you are worthy of monuments in my book.