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‘Queer America’: SPLC podcast examines history, contributions of LGBTQ community

He spoke nonchalantly, a simple statement to share his true self, one that he had been hiding. “I just want to take a quick moment to say that I’m gay,” said Carl Nassib, a defensive lineman for the Las Vegas Raiders. In turn, Nassib last month became the first openly gay active player in the 101-year history of the National Football League. 

A day later, Washington Spirit soccer player Kumi Yokoyama came out and said they are transgender – an identity not legally recognized in their native Japan.   

In a tweet, President Joe Biden praised the athletes’ courage, adding, “Because of you, countless kids around the world are seeing themselves in a new light today.” 

The revelations caused no shockwaves – as they might have even a decade or two ago. But they reminded Americans that LGBTQ people are simply part of the fabric of our society, contributing in all walks of life even as many have felt the need to conceal their identity.  

That’s one of the messages of Queer America, a podcast released by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice (LFJ) program. The podcast takes listeners on a journey spanning from Harlem to the Frontier West, revealing stories of LGBTQ life that are imperative for students to learn.  

“We know that everyone benefits from a fuller account of history – and history is incomplete without queer history,” said Cory Collins, senior writer for LFJ.  “We hope this podcast provides precedent, affirmation and ancestral roots for LGBTQ listeners. 

“We also hope this helps all listeners better understand that queer figures and movements are interwoven throughout our history, integral to our society and capable of thriving. Queer America is not a separate America or a separate history; it’s core to understanding who we are.” 

A simplified myth

Queer America, which can be used as a resource to help educators integrate LGBTQ history into their curricula, explores the history of sexual identity and gender identity in the United States. 

It is hosted by two historians: Leila Rupp, professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and John D’Emilio, professor emeritus of women’s and gender studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The podcast features 13 episodes. In Episode Two: The Experiences of Trans People, listeners realize that politicians across the country who are targeting transgender youth are ignoring the history of transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming people. 

“The myth that transgender youth are an aberration, or a fad, contributes to discrimination,” Collins said. “This episode offers listeners a lot of great examples of trans and gender nonconforming people throughout U.S. history, including those who have found ways to thrive and live authentically.”

The episode serves as a reminder to counter the message from anti-LGBTQ groups and politicians who suggest that today’s transgender youth don’t know who they are. 

In Episodes 9 and 10, an exploration of 1960s LGBTQ liberation movements provides a history lesson for those who have heard of the Stonewall Riots but don’t know the full story. 

The episodes contextualize what came before the riots and how the LGBTQ liberation movement was always intersectional and informed by the civil rights, labor and anti-war movements. 

“It’s a love letter to LGBTQ people today seeking precedent and ancestors who have not only lived but thrived – a source of pride as old as human history,” Collins said of the podcast. “And it’s a resource to all people who want to better understand the integral role queer people have played across U.S. history and how systems have tried, but failed, to erase us.”

Centering queer voices

Listeners will come away with a better understanding of queer figures thriving and contributing across history. 

“It’s affirming knowledge for people like me who didn’t see themselves in textbooks,” Collins said. “And it’s critical knowledge for people seeking to better understand our shared history and what liberation could look like if each person was celebrated, valued and enfranchised as they are.” 

By centering queer voices and stories in critical issues of today, the SPLC hopes that a small piece of its larger mission to foster more inclusive curricula that affirm LGBTQ students can be fully understood.

“We want listeners to come away with a fuller understanding of how LGBTQ history is fundamental to understanding U.S. history, learning about figures, movements and events that often get erased in schools,” said Jalaya Liles Dunn, director of LFJ. “We also hope educators come away with the knowledge and resolve to not only teach this history, but to advocate for more inclusive policies and disrupt myths used to target and discriminate against LGBTQ students.”

*Queer America is produced in partnership with University of Wisconsin Press, publishers of Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History – the first book designed for high school and university teachers who want to integrate LGBTQ history into their standard curricula.