The Invisibility of LGBT People in History
This lesson explores the ways in which LGBT people, events and issues have been made invisible in mainstream accounts of history. In the first half of the lesson, students reflect on excerpts from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to explore the impact of invisibility on people and as a jumping off point for researching how different groups have been historically marginalized in society. In the second part of the lesson, students participate in a history matching game and listen to LGBT oral histories that increase their awareness of significant LGBT people and events, and the ways in which these topics have been erased from the historical record.
- Students will analyze literary excerpts and make “text to self” connections.
- Students will research historically marginalized groups in society.
- Students will increase their awareness of the ways in which LGBT people have been made invisible in history.
- Students will learn about historically significant LGBT people, topics and events.
ABOUT THIS LESSON
Time: 2 hours; if time is limited, complete Parts III and IV only (50 mins.)
Grade Level: Grades 8 & Up
Strategies and Skills: analyzing primary documents, cooperative group work, critical thinking, forming opinions, historical understanding, large and small group discussion, listening skills, reading skills, research skills, writing skills
Key Words and Phrases: civil rights, discrimination, disposition, invisibility, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), marginalized, oral history, resentment, stereotype, suffrage
Handouts/Supporting Documents: Download all handouts
- (Optional) Excerpts from Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (one per student)
- Examples of Marginalized Groups in Society (one copy)
- History Match-Up (Biographies) (one per small group)
- History Match-Up (Historical Figures) (one per small group)
- History Match-Up (Answer Key) (one copy)
- Reproduce handouts as directed above.
- Prepare quotes (see steps # 1 and 4).
- Create a set of History Match-Up cards for each small group (see step # 10).
- Prepare to play audio interviews (see step # 15).
NOTE: The lessons in this unit explore lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues in an open and direct way. Given the absence of this topic in the curriculum and the disproportionate rates of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment, it is important to educate students about these issues. When discussing any new or sensitive topic, however, there is the potential for some students to react in stereotypical or disrespectful ways. It is therefore imperative that educators carefully review each lesson, assess students’ maturity and readiness to engage in the lesson prior to implementation, and establish clear parameters with students that will ensure safe and constructive dialogue. See Establishing a Safe Learning Environment and Talking About Diversity with Students for guidelines on building safe forums for discussing sensitive issues.
Exploring the Impact of Invisibility (30 Minutes)
- Post the following quote from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (but do not identify the source). Ask for a volunteer to read it aloud.
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
- Direct students to reflect on the quote and to write a paragraph in response using the following prompts:
- Describe a time when you felt “invisible” – either unseen or unheard by others.
- What caused you to feel invisible
- Were you able to eventually overcome that feeling? If so, how? If not, why?
- How did the experience affect or change you?
- Optional: If time is limited in class, have students complete this writing assignment for homework prior to conducting the lesson.
- Have students share their experiences in pairs or ask for a few volunteers to read their paragraph aloud to the class. As a whole group, discuss the emotional impact of being unnoticed, disregarded or silenced by others.
Part II: Researching Historically Marginalized Groups (30 minutes + time for research)
- Post the following and explain that it is a continuation of the quote discussed earlier. Have a volunteer read it aloud.
“That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality… you’re constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision…you often doubt if you really exist…It’s when you feel like this that, out of resentment, you begin to bump people back… You ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world…”
- Optional: Distribute the handout, Excerpts from Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, so that students can read the broader passage from which the above quotes are taken.
- Discuss some of the following questions in response to the quote:
- What do you think the narrator means by a “disposition of the eyes”? (If students need help, define disposition as a habit, tendency or attitude of mind.)
- What is the narrator’s purpose in setting apart the idea of “inner eyes” from “physical eyes”? What factors shape what our “inner eyes” see?
- What causes “poor vision” – as the narrator sees it – in some people?
- What is the impact when others don’t see you or recognize that you “exist in the world”?
- Ask students if they have any ideas about why the narrator in this story might have felt unseen. Explain that the quote comes from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which explores many of the social issues facing African Americans in the early 20th century. Briefly discuss the reasons why some African-American people might have felt invisible during this era.
- Ask students if they are aware of other groups that may have felt “bumped against by those of poor vision” at different times in our country’s history (or that may feel that way now). List their responses on a sheet of chart paper. Some examples are included as a reference in Examples of Marginalized Groups in Society.
- In class or for homework, have students select one group that has been marginalized or made invisible in some way for further study. Assign them to consult at least two sources to learn more about the selected group, and to write a poem or create a piece of artwork that addresses the following questions:
- How has the group been “bumped against by those of poor vision”?
- How has the group been made to “doubt if they really exist”?
- How has the group “bumped people back” and “convinced themselves that they exist in the real world”?
Make time in class for students to share and discuss their poems and artwork.
Part III: History Match-Up (30 minutes)
- Tell students that you will continue to discuss the theme of invisibility through a matching game that explores how much they know about certain historical figures. Explain that, in small groups, students will try to match cards with the names of people to a master list of corresponding biographies.
- Optional: To add an element of fun, make the matching exercise a contest in which small groups compete to see who can complete the game the fastest and/or make the most matches.
- Divide the class into small groups of four to six students. Provide each group with a copy of the handout, History Match-Up (Biographies), and a set of cards created from History Match-Up (Historical Figures). Provide a signal for groups to begin and allow about 10 minutes for students to complete the exercise.
- When all groups have completed the exercise, review the correct answers using History Match-Up (Answer key).
- Ask students if they were aware as they were working that all of the figures in the exercise have something in common. Challenge students to identify that commonality. If they cannot, reveal that all of the figures were/are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people.
- NOTE: Make sure to explain that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender are modern terms that we use to describe people today and that many of the historical figures included in the exercise would not have used these labels to describe themselves. However, the historical record demonstrates that all of the people in the exercise had same-sex romantic or emotional attractions or relationships, or transgressed societal expectations with regard to gender.
- Conduct a brief discussion using some of the following questions:
- Were you surprised to find that all the figures were/are LGBT? Which ones surprised you the most? Why?
- Which figures had you never heard of? Why do you think you never learned about them before?
- Which figures were you aware of, but never knew they were LGBT? Why do you think you never knew about this aspect of their identity?
- Is it important to know that these figures were/are LGBT? Why or why not? How does this information influence your understanding of history/art/politics or your worldview?
- Why do you think the identities of LGBT people have been erased from history so frequently? What do you think is the impact of this invisibility on society?
Part IV: LGBT Oral Histories (20 minutes minimum; time will vary)
- Tell students that three organizations – Anti-Defamation League, GLSEN and StoryCorps – have teamed up to counter the invisibility of LGBT people in history by recording the oral histories of people who have made or witnessed LGBT history in the recent past. Explain that by bringing these oral histories to students in schools across the country, these organizations hope to reduce anti-LGBT stereotypes, prejudice and harassment; increase awareness and appreciation of the contributions of LGBT people; and fill in some of the gaps in the history that is presented in most school books and curricula.
- Choose one of the interviews to play for students. After students have listened, debrief using some of the discussion questions from the accompanying background materials.
- Either in school or for homework, assign the student reading (found in the background materials) that accompanies the selected interview and have students complete one or more of the suggested activities.
- Optionally, assign students to select one or two additional interviews that are of interest to them. Have them do a written reflection comparing and contrasting the various stories, and exploring some of the common threads that run through them all.
Last month, StoryCorps traveled to the Philadelphia Folklore Project to record the stories of a group of students who were victims of targeted attacks.