Taking history out of the closet

Teachers' association and DfES offer web materials for gay and lesbian history month. Adi Bloom reports

Teachers have come to the defence of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history month, after tabloid attacks on the government-backed project.

Schools Out, the association for gay and lesbian teachers, is promoting a website aimed at schools which highlights the contribution made to history, literature and art by figures widely considered to have been homosexual or bisexual.

In February, schools will be encouraged to use material that suggests the lives and work of William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci and Florence Nightingale could spark debates on sexuality.

Under the headline "Gay Levels", The People attacked the proposal, saying:

"Pupils will be told how the Bard fancied fellas, and the lady with the lamp secretly carried a torch for the girls."

The Daily Mail said: "Schoolchildren are to be given history lessons about the gay leanings of famous figures."

Stephen Twigg, school standards minister, has encouraged schools to take part in the themed month. And the Department for Education and Skills has provided a small grant to set up a website for teachers. This includes a pack produced by Amnesty International, along with lesson plans for primary and secondary pupils.

Case studies of fictional pupils bullied for being "queer" have been designed to generate classroom discussion. The resource also recommends discussing several of Shakespeare's sonnets, considering whether they are dedicated to a man or a woman.

Nigel Tart, maths teacher and spokesman for Schools Out, said: "If you are lesbian or gay in school, your life is hell. A high percentage of gay and lesbian kids regularly drop out or play truant, because they feel unsafe at school. They are five times more likely to commit suicide than straight teenagers."

He hopes that by highlighting contributions of gay or lesbian people to history, schools will reduce pupils' sense of isolation. "If historical figures are black, it's obvious immediately," he said. "But gay and lesbian identities are often hidden. It's easy to think that nobody before had to deal with being gay.

"The only time pupils hear about homosexuality is when teachers talk about bullying, diseases and dying of Aids. There's nothing positive. We're reclaiming our place in the curriculum."

Tim Collins, Tory education spokesman, said: "It is more valuable to convey the achievements of historical figures than their sexual orientation. Less political correctness in every part of our lives would be most welcome."

But Paulette North, teacher at the City academy, in Bristol, will mark the month with her pupils. "Equal opportunities should underpin the curriculum." she said.

John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers, said:

"This is a way of jolting people into understanding that sexual preferences are subordinate to what people do. We should not assume history is entirely heterosexual."

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