Beyond the rainbow: raising awareness and representation

Founder of LGBTQ+ History Month shares its origin story

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provided by Rodney Wilson

October is Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ+) History Month, a month meant to celebrate the history of the LGBTQ+ community and bring awareness to the prejudice many in the community face. It started back in 1994 when a St. Louis high school history teacher, Rodney Wilson (pictured), founded the month.

By Rin Ryu, Liberty High School - TX

Dedicated to celebrating the history of the queer community and their impact on the civil rights movement, October is Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ+) History Month

In addition to celebrating the history of the LGBTQ+ community, the month is intended to raise awareness and combat prejudice against LGBTQ+ people. 

We have to move forward bit by bit, inch by inch until LGBTQ+ history is as common and understood to be as relevant as the history of any other group,”

— LGBTQ+ month founder Rodney Wilson

It started back in 1994 when a St. Louis high school history teacher, Rodney Wilson, founded the month after he noticed the absence of queer history in his textbooks.

“My textbook of 800 pages did not have a single reference to LGBTQ people or any of the events surrounding the LGBTQ movement,” Wilson said. 

Wilson took inspiration from similar movements, specifically from Dr. Carter Woodson, a scholar whose contributions to Black people led to the establishment of Black History Month.

“It seemed to me that we were in the same predicament that Dr. Carter Woodson found Black Americans in the 1920s when he founded, in 1926, Negro History Week, so that was the inspiration,” Wilson said. “LGBTQ+ History Month was modeled on all of these [heritage months], particularly Black History Month.”

Wilson sees a similarity between the obstacles he faced in the 1990s and the barriers seen in the modern day regarding society’s view of LGBTQ people.

“The obstacles to the original history month in 1994 and the obstacles today are similar,” Wilson said. “There are those that don’t want to acknowledge the rightful existence of LGBTQ people in their lives, and they want to deny the rightful existence of LGBT people in the past.”

Despite these obstacles, Wilson believes that perseverance is critical to increasing representation.

“We have to move forward bit by bit, inch by inch until LGBTQ+ history is as common and understood to be as relevant as the history of any other group,” Wilson said.

The creation of this month was also a personal journey for Wilson. As a gay man, Wilson had to overcome internalized homophobia and encourages kids today to do the same.

“It was very hard recognizing that I’m gay, which I recognized at age eight,” Wilson said. “It was difficult growing up in the 1970s and 1980s with that secret. I would say to young people today ‘they are whole as they are, that they need to continue moving forward, step by step, that things do get better, and that the sooner we abandon our own internalized homophobia or biphobia or transphobia, the better off we are.’”

Schools can play a part in this according to Wilson as they sometimes provide moments that guide students to shape their own perspectives on the world through exposure to new ideas, cultures, and people.

“Education is always a good thing, teaching is always helpful, learning about other people is important, [and] learning about one’s own community is liberating and energizing,” Wilson said. “It provides a foundation from which one can build their own life [and] it provides light on a future path that will be good for the individual and for the community. Denying a people their history is denying them their equality and their humanity.”

Sophomore Melissa Whitlock* has sometimes noticed a general negative tone towards the LGBTQ+ community and believes that good representation will help queer kids come to terms with their sexual orientation.

“I can feel that the general consensus about queer people in society as a whole is negative,” she said. “Combined with the negative news coverage of new anti-transgender legislation and lack of representation in entertainment and schools for LGBT people, feeling safe in your own identity can be really hard. I think that with increased knowledge of LGBT history, queer people will be able to feel safer in any environment.”

Compared to the overall negative feeling towards the LGBTQ+ community Whitlock feels, the consensus on campus is much more positive.

“I think the general vibe on campus is a lot better than what I see on the news, but that doesn’t mean I don’t hear negative remarks or stereotypes about gay people,” Whitlock said. “It also helps that I surround myself with an LGBTQ+ friendly group of people.”

However, not all students think like Whitlock.

“I don’t understand the need for queer students to feel represented,” junior Ranton Kodiam* said. “There are many groups without representation, and it’s not necessary for every group to be represented.”

However, Wilson rejects this notion, and claims representation is critical, especially for youth.

“Teaching LGBTQ history can help reduce the fear and anxiety because it opens the mind of the young person to the reality that there are many people like that young person, and [that] they existed in the past, and they accomplished things in the past,” Wilson said. “They had agency, and the young person today, who is LGBTQ, can also have agency, can be empowered, [and] can move forward in the world accomplishing their goals, achieving their capacity.”

Not only do these lessons benefit LGBTQ+ individuals, but Wilson noticed the benefits he saw when he took a Black history and women’s history course in college, despite being a white man. 

I think that with increased knowledge of LGBT history, queer people will be able to feel safer in any environment,”

— sophomore Melissa Whitlock

“All history is relevant to every life,” Wilson said. “I am a white man, but I was rewarded enormously by taking a Black history course and a women’s history course in college. These opened my mind to stories and events and people I knew nothing about. It helped liberate me just as these classes help liberate the people about whom the history is [about]. I think, therefore, it’s vital that LGBTQ+ history be available to the students within that particular community and to the students who are not in that particular community.”

With the rise of anti-LGBTQ+ narratives across the nation, Wilson hopes to reach a consensus that all children should be loved equally.

“To those who push anti-LGBTQ narratives in schools, I would say this, ‘surely we all can agree that we want the best for all children, surely we all can agree that love is always preferable to the alternative,’” Wilson said. “Can’t we, therefore, agree that we love all children equally and we serve all children equally in our school systems without regard to ethnicity or gender or religion or sexual orientation or gender identity or expression? How can we make the mistake when we are exhibiting love in regard for all students?”

*Names have been changed 

This story was originally published on Wingspan on October 31, 2022.