Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, with 21 Activities

Gay & Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights, with 21 Activities

by Jerome Pohlen


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2016 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People List

Lambda Literary Award Finalist

On the Rainbow Book List 

Who transformed George Washington’s demoralized troops at Valley Forge into a fighting force that defeated an empire? Who cracked Germany’s Enigma code and shortened World War II? Who successfully lobbied the US Congress to outlaw child labor? And who organized the 1963 March on Washington? Ls, Gs, Bs, and Ts, that’s who.
Given today’s news, it would be easy to get the impression that the campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality is a recent development, but it is only the final act in a struggle that started more than a century ago. The history is told through personal stories and firsthand accounts of the movement’s key events, like the 1950s “Lavender Scare,” the Stonewall Inn uprising, and the AIDS crisis. Kids will learn about civil rights mavericks, like Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the first gay rights organization; Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who turned the Daughters of Bilitis from a lesbian social club into a powerhouse for LGBT freedom; Christine Jorgensen, the nation’s first famous transgender; and Harvey Milk, the first out candidate to win a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Also chronicled are the historic contributions of famous LGBT individuals, from General von Steuben and Alan Turing to Jane Addams and Bayard Rustin, among others. This up-to-date history includes the landmark Supreme Court decision making marriage equality the law of the land. Twenty-one activities enliven the history and demonstrate the spirited ways the LGBT community has pushed for positive social change.
Kids can: write a free verse poem like Walt Whitman; learn “The Madison” line dance; remember a loved one with a quilt panel; perform a monologue from The Laramie Project; make up a song parody; and much more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613730829
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/01/2015
Series: Chicago Review Press For Kids Series
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 224,603
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.40(d)
Age Range: 9 - 12 Years

About the Author

Jerome Pohlen is a former elementary school science teacher, an engineer, an editor, and the author of Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids, a 2013 VOYA Nonfiction Honor List title.

Read an Excerpt

Gay & Lesbian History for Kids

The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights with 21 Activities

By Jerome Pohlen

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2016 Jerome Pohlen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-085-0


A Brief History

to 1900

"And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!"

— Katharine Lee Bates

July 22, 1893 * The group of professors started in a horse-drawn prairie wagon early in the morning. Halfway to the summit of Pikes Peak the drivers switched to mules, which were better in the thin air. When the wagon reached the top, everyone got out to take in the view. At 14,115 feet above sea level, it seemed as if they could see from one ocean to the other.

Katharine Lee Bates was overcome with emotion. "It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind," she later recalled.

O beautiful for halcyon skies ...

The rest of the words would come later. But before she headed back from the mountaintop, Bates sent a telegram to her mother back home: "Greetings from Pikes Peak, gloriously dizzy. Wish you were here."

Though Bates's mother was not with her that day, Katharine Coman was. The pair had traveled together from back east, invited to be guest lecturers at Colorado College. On the journey west, their train rolled through Kansas on July 4, where they watched wheat fields blowing in the summer breeze. Bates wrote in her diary that she was "A better American for such a Fourth."

The memories of that summer trip with Coman would one day become a poem titled "America." The poem would later be set to music by Samuel Augustus Ward and become the song you know today, "America the Beautiful."

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain.
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.

* * *

How Do We Know?

Nobody has ever proven that Katharine Lee Bates and Katharine Coman were lesbian. "The Professors Katharine," as they were known around Wellesley College, were certainly close. For 25 years they lived together in a "Boston marriage," a popular term used to describe two unmarried women who depended on one another emotionally and behaved much like a married couple.

And they definitely were a couple. The two had met at Wellesley in 1887. Coman taught history and economics; Bates was the head of the English department. Starting in 1894, the women shared a home and never separated until Coman died in 1915. After Coman's death, Bates published a collection of poems for her lost partner titled Yellow Clover, where she called their relationship "one soul together."

The further back in history you look, the more difficult it is to know who was and wasn't lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. The issue wasn't discussed often, and if it was discussed, it was usually in a negative way. (The words homosexual and heterosexual didn't even exist before 1868.) Years ago most personal relationships — marriages, families, friendships — were very different than they are today. Bates and Coman might not have even thought of themselves as lesbian, just different.

Despite this, it doesn't make sense to assume everyone in history was heterosexual until proven otherwise. Most people have dark hair — does that mean you should assume everyone in history has had dark hair unless described as another color? Given what we know of Bates, Coman, and their lives together, doesn't it make more sense to say they probably were lesbian unless proven otherwise?

As you will soon learn, history is filled with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. We know this through rare published histories, personal letters, court transcripts, and other sources. For years, much of this history was hidden, ignored, or erased by those who would rather not discuss it. But it is a fascinating, rich history, and our world would not be the same without the contributions of the LGBT community, invisible or not.

Homosexuality Through the Centuries

For as long as there has been human civilization, LGBT people have played a part — from farmers to poets, generals to foot soldiers, peasants to queens and kings. In some cultures, same-sex couples and transgender persons were accepted as part of everyday life. But in many, they were persecuted.

Ancient Greece was comfortable with homosexuality. The Greek philosopher Socrates (circa 469-399 BC) — who told his pupils "Know thyself" and "The unexamined life is not worth living" — was gay. So was his student Plato (427-347 BC), another great philosopher. The Greek poet and composer Sappho (circa 625-circa 570 BC) wrote about love between women. She set her poems to music played on a type of harp called a lyre. Sappho ran a school for young women on the island of Lesbos. This is where the word lesbian comes from.

The military genius Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), born in the Greek kingdom of Macedon, established an empire that stretched from modern-day India and Afghanistan in the east to Egypt and Greece in the west. He often led his own soldiers into battle, and he never lost in eleven years. He was also bisexual. Hephaestion, the commander of his cavalry, was his partner.

Homosexuality also appears in Greek mythology. The young mortal Ganymede so appealed to Zeus that he took him to live on Mount Olympus, where he became cupbearer to the gods. Hera became jealous, but Zeus still honored Ganymede by placing him in the night sky as the constellation Aquarius.

In ancient China, the last emperor of the Han Dynasty, Ai (27-1 BC), reportedly "did not care for women," even though he was married. He fell in love with Dong Xian, a male politician, and later named him head of the armed forces. Emperor Ai had hoped that Dong Xian would succeed him as the next emperor, but when Ai died unexpectedly, the Grand Empress Dowager Wang seized power.

In Europe and the Middle East, the Roman Empire followed the Greeks, where again, homosexuality was common, and some Roman men married one another. The emperor Hadrian (AD 76-138) was bisexual, and when his partner Antinous drowned in the Nile River, Hadrian built a city, Antinopolis, in his honor. Hadrian was considered one of the five "Good Emperors," fair and thoughtful rulers who were respected by their people. (Other Roman emperors were not so good, and even barbaric.)

Farther east, in India, sacred Hindu texts tell of gods changing their gender, or gods that were both male and female, like Lakshminarayan, and of same-sex divine couples giving birth to children.

Culture Connections

Much of the world's art and literature has been created by LGBT individuals.

You may be familiar with One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, the collection of Arabic and south Asian folktales that includes stories of Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba, and Aladdin's lamp. One of the many contributors to the work, the Persian poet Abu Nuwas (circa 756-814), was most likely gay. Some of the tales include homosexuality, but for many years the gay passages were deliberately rewritten to disguise them.

The Italian genius Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), best known for his fresco of the Last Supper and his painting of the Mona Lisa, was also a brilliant scientist, and he was gay. So was Michelangelo (1475–1564), who painted the ceiling mural of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel and sculpted David and the Pietà, one of the most famous Renaissance depictions of Jesus Christ.

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) may have admitted to being bisexual in Sonnet 144. Most of his sonnets, first printed without his permission in 1609, are dedicated to "Mr. W. H." and addressed from Shakespeare to a man. When the romantic poems were published in 1640, however, many of the male pronouns were changed to female, and remained that way for another 150 years.

There have also been many gay and lesbian kings and queens throughout the centuries — James I (1566-1625) of England, namesake of the King James Bible; Christina of Sweden (1626–1689), who stepped down from the throne rather than be forced to marry; and Frederick the Great (1712-1786) of Prussia. Some of these rulers were honorable; others were downright evil. And a few were eccentric. Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886) was known as "Ludwig the Mad" because he spent more time building elaborate castles than he did ruling. His famous Neuschwanstein Castle became the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.

Two-Spirit People

Native American culture has a long tradition of "two-spirit" people — tribal members who do not fit into standard gender roles, but instead are thought of as having a third or alternative gender. Two-spirit people have existed in more than 130 different native cultures. They were often given unique responsibilities, depending on their tribes' traditions. Some were believed to have special abilities, like predicting the weather, healing, or providing spiritual protection. Others acted as matchmakers, name givers, and marriage counselors.

"Two-spirit" is a general term used to describe people who were as different as the tribes to which they belonged. The Pawnee called two-spirits winkte. Zuni, lhamana. Navajo, na'adlech. Among the Mojave, two-spirits born biologically male were called alyha, while those born female were hwame. Sadly, as with so many aspects of Native American culture, the two-spirit tradition was suppressed by European colonists, Christian missionaries, and the US government, though it did not vanish entirely. Recently, the two-spirit tradition has returned to many tribes.

One of the most famous two-spirit people was a Zuni lhamana named We'wha (pronounced WEE-wah). Born in 1849, We'wha eventually became a leader in the pueblo (village) of Halona:idiwana — "The Anthill at the Middle of the World" — near the present Arizona-New Mexico border. Around age three or four, he began showing traits of a two-spirit, so he was trained in "women's tasks" such as gardening, weaving, and pottery making.

In the winter of 1885-86, anthropologist Matilda Stevenson brought We'wha to Washington, DC. He soon became the talk of the town, though most Washingtonians believed We'wha to be an Indian princess. A newspaper reported, "Society has had recently a notable addition in the shape of an Indian princess of the Zuni tribe. ... Princess Wawa goes about everywhere at all of the receptions and teas of Washington wearing her native dress. ... The ladies crowded about the Princess Wawa and amused themselves endlessly in attempting to converse with her by signs and broken English."

We'wha helped the Smithsonian Institution better understand Zuni culture, and demonstrated weaving on a loom set up on the National Mall. In May he participated in the society event of the season, the Kirmes, an amateur pageant held at the National Theatre. More than 280 people in traditional costumes paraded around the stage in a "gathering of the nations," and We'wha performed a traditional Zuni dance. (The charity event raised $5,000 for a local hospital.) And on June 23, 1886, We'wha presented a wedding gift to President Grover Cleveland and his new wife in the Green Room of the White House.

We'wha eventually returned to the pueblo, where he died in 1896 at the age of 49. The loss of the Zunis' much-loved leader caused "universal regret and distress."

New Worlds, Old Laws

Sad as it is, another reason historians know that LGBT people have long existed is that laws were written to persecute them. Court records tell of LGBT people who were arrested and punished.

In 1642, two decades after the Plymouth Colony was established in Massachusetts, Edward Michell and Edward Preston were discovered together. They were put on trial and found guilty, and were publically whipped in Plymouth and again at Barnstable. In 1649, Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon were charged with the crime of being lesbians; Plymouth authorities forced Norman to make a public confession. Transgender behavior was also outlawed in the colonies. In 1696, Massachusetts passed a law against cross-dressing.

There were, however, some positive changes in the law. In France, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was approved in 1789, at the start of the French Revolution. It proclaimed the right "to do anything that does not injure others." The declaration led to the repeal in 1791 of laws against same-sex relationships. In 1810 it was incorporated into the Napoleonic Code, which extended the same freedoms to French colonies and territories.

No other colonial empire, nor the newly established United States, did the same.

Changing Minds

The laws in the newly independent United States weren't much friendlier to LGBT people than those of the colonial era. But in the 1800s many of the country's greatest minds were more open and accepting.

Famous freethinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) all wrote about same-sex intimacy. Once, in explaining to poet Louise Chandler Moulton why she never married, Alcott admitted, "I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man." The works of author Herman Melville (1819-1891), including Moby Dick, White-Jacket, and his unfinished short novel Billy Budd, occasionally mentioned, but more often hinted at, gay life among their characters.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who was influenced by the writings of Emerson, wrote passionate poetry that she mostly kept to herself — fewer than a dozen of her poems were published during her lifetime. After she died, however, more than a thousand poems were discovered in her home and were later printed. For years, they were altered — "she" and "her" turned to "he" and "him" in love poems. Dickinson's letters to her close friend Susan Gilbert were also edited by the poet's niece to make them sound less romantic.

Whether any of these men and women were gay, lesbian, or bisexual is still debated. Maybe they were just writing in the flowery, romantic style of the time. Or maybe they were trying to explore topics that weren't openly discussed. We may never know for sure. There is no debate, however, about the great American poet Walt Whitman. He was certainly gay.

Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman printed just 795 copies of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. It was published on July 4, 1855. The book was 95 pages long and contained only twelve poems. And yet, this slim collection would change poetry forever.

Whitman was always scribbling in a notebook, capturing his observations of America in the 1800s. Every few years he released a new, longer version of Leaves of Grass. The third edition came out in 1860 and included what are known as the "Calamus" poems. In them he wrote about men, together, in lifelong supportive friendships, which he called "adhesiveness." It wasn't openly gay, but it was close. For example, in "Live Oak, with Moss" he wrote:

But the two men I saw to-day on the pier, parting the parting of dear friends

The one to remain hung on the other's neck and passionately kissed him — while the one to depart tightly prest the one to remain in his arms.

During the Civil War, Whitman worked as a nurse at Union army hospitals. This led to a job as a clerk in the Department of the Interior after the war. But when the secretary of the interior learned about his Calamus poems, Whitman was fired.

Shortly after he was let go, Whitman met a man named Peter Doyle in Washington, DC. Doyle was a horse-car conductor, and Whitman was a passenger on his route. In 1895, Doyle recalled when they first met: "We were familiar at once — I put my hand on his knee — we understood. ... From that time on we were the biggest sort of friends."


Excerpted from Gay & Lesbian History for Kids by Jerome Pohlen. Copyright © 2016 Jerome Pohlen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Time line,
Introduction: Two Moms,
1. A Brief History to 1900,
2. The Birth of a Movement, 1900-1930s,
3. In the Shadows, 1940s-1950s,
4. Out of the Closets, 1960s,
5. Into the Streets, 1970s,
6. AIDS and a Conservative Backlash, 1980s,
7. Setbacks and Victories, 1990s,
8. Things Get Better, 2000-Present,
Afterword: Everyday Heroes,

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