October is LGBT history month in some American schools, but certain critics accuse the program of peddling politics and porn rather than history.
LGBT history month, created by Missouri high school teacher Rodney Wilson in 1994, commemorates a notable LGBT person every day in October and provides educators with resources and information on each. Since 2006 the advocacy group Equality Forum has spearheaded the campaign; this year’s icons include astronaut Sally Ride and Apple CEO Tim Cook.
But also included are Touko Laaksonen, the Finnish artist better known as Tom of Finland, noted for his erotic sketches of nude and semi-nude men, and Pat Califia, a transman whose writing includes a significant amount of erotic fiction, drawing ire from some groups. “LGBT history month promotes gay porn to kids,” reads a press release from the Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based legal group.
PJI specializes mostly in first amendment cases pertaining to religious expression, such as defending union members who have religious objections to paying dues, but they’ve also taken stands against same-sex marriage and issues like transgender inclusive bathroom and shower facilities in California schools. “We’re talking about kids here. I don’t think school is the place to be highlighting porn producers. Some may disagree,” PJI’s Matt McReynolds told 429Magazine. “Most Americans aren’t going to afford great historical significance to Tom of Finland.”
While Equality Forum says that none of the teaching materials will include sexually explicit content, McReynolds argues that students interested by the lesson will surely seek out Laaksonen or Califia’s work on their own, and that highlighting them amounts to promoting porn to students. McReynolds also criticized Equality Forum for including figures like Queen Latifah on this year’s list and Lady Gaga in years past, ridiculing the notion that their work amounts to significant cultural contribution and suggesting that the list is padded simply to provide a platform to emphasize people’s sexual orientations instead of their achievements.
“The concept of what constitutes a great figure seems to be changing quite a bit,” McReynolds said. “Maybe 50 years from now some of these people will have achieved real historical significance, but I don’t think history is moving that direction.”
Malcolm Lazin, executive director for LGBT history month, called the porn allegations “a stretch,” arguing that Laaksonen and Califia’s work, though often explicit, has genuine artistic merit. “Tom of Finland is noted for his depiction of the male body. For centuries we’ve had artists who painted the female body nude; are those paintings pornographic? I guess some people might say so, but it depends on your point of view.”
He also noted that the LGBT History Month site itself contains no pornographic work and that the campaign is aimed at everyone, not just schoolchildren of a young age. He recommended that if teachers consider some of the icons inappropriate for the age of their students, they can simply skip over those materials. “That’s a judgment we respect,” Lazin said. “But we’re not going to sanitize history.”
People like Lady Gaga are highlighted, Lazin said, because one of the standards the selection committee uses is significant achievement in the icon’s field, which can include entertainment. “Lady Gaga has achieved great success in her personal endeavors and I don’t think anyone can quarrel with that. Anyway, they’re picking out two or three examples from a field of over two hundred over the years. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water just because you disagree with a few of the choices.”
He joked, “We’re glad we’ve interested [PJI] in LGBT history month enough for them to be offering social critique like this.”
Observation of LGBT history month is up to individual schools, districts and teachers. October 4 commemorates Reinaldo Arenas, a Cuban author and revolutionary soldier later persecuted by the Castro regime for his orientation.