Why Teaching LGBT History in Public Schools Combats Gender-Based Harassment for Young Women

Most women who end up engaged in activism to combat gender-based harassment were initially propelled towards the work based on personal experience. An author, longtime activist, and my good friend Mandy Van Deven is one such person. For more than a decade, she’s worked as a tireless organizer to encourage public discussion about gendered violence and youth empowerment. Earlier this year, she wrote this account of her first experience of feeling intimidated in public:

I was 12 years old when the threat of sexual violence became a concrete reality in my preadolescent life. As I was walking home from school one day in Athens, GA, a well dressed, middle aged, white man walked alongside me for several blocks attempting to lure me into his car with promises to drive me where I was going because "a little girl so beautiful should never walk alone." It was only when the man leaned close to my face and stuck his tongue into my ear--a disappointing penetration substitute, no doubt--that I finally found the courage to run. I never told anyone what had happened, but the way this incident changed me was fundamental: I no longer had the luxury of feeling like I was safe when an unknown man waylaid me on the street.

After moving to New York City as an adult, Van Deven began working at Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), a Brooklyn-based non-profit that empowers teen women of color through after school programs and workshops about how young people can navigate issues of gender, race, and class in school, at home, and in public. Last year, along with Meghan Huppuch and Joanne Smith, Van Deven co-authored GGE’s first book, Hey, Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets. A handbook full of teen girls’ first-person experiences, as well as thoughtful advice and solutions, the book is a culmination of years of work by powerful young women and the GGE mentors who stand behind their efforts to live in a safer, more just world.

Van Deven has been on a nationwide book tour the past few months to promote Hey, Shorty!, and her recent campaign has coincided with several other major developments in the world of public space, women’s safety, and gender-based violence. In addition the SlutWalk movement sweeping the globe, last month, California passed a law making it mandatory for the state’s public schools to teach LGBTQ history. Because gender- and sexuality-based harassment are so similar, and because of GGE’s work with the New York public school system, I knew my friend would be psyched to talk about the connections between California’s policy change and the usefulness of teaching anti-harassment tactics in schools.

“Including LGBT history in the school curriculum is not only simply being honest about the array of people who positively impacted American society but also creating an educational climate where all people are seen as equal,” Van Deven explained. “The conversations students had when I taught gender respect workshops in elementary and middle school classrooms were incredible. The teachers would tell me about the ways the students reminded each other of things they'd learned when they saw some injustice afterward. [Teaching LGBTQ history and also teaching tactics to combat harassment] gives young people the language with which to speak about discrimination and also a bit of courage to stand up for themselves and others because they know they're not isolated in their opinions anymore.”

In the same way that Hey, Shorty! provides a road map for educators and young people seeking to combat harassment, pushing forward the issue of LGBT history opens space for dialogue about how oppression is a complicated, diverse, often overlapping phenomenon. Van Deven is hopeful that even after GGE’s book tour ends, teachers will pick up GGE’s handbook as they consider ways to help empower their students against all different sorts of harassment and discrimination.

“In addition to providing several tips for teachers to use when addressing gender-based violence in schools, the book arms them with information that they can use to advocate on behalf of their students to school administrators, school boards, or a state’s department of education,” she explained. “Many teachers feel unsupported by their superiors and are unsure of their rights and responsibilities to intervene. Hey, Shorty! lets them know that there is a legal obligation for institutions to have policies that protect them and their students, and it gives instructions them on how to go about finding them and putting them into practice.”

For more info on the Hey, Shorty! On the Road tour, check out the blog to see if someone from GGE is coming to a city near you.

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