I Heard He Was Gay

By: Dean Johnson

As an open-minded, free thinking, and rather tolerant educator, I must say that I am more than a little bit concerned about the California Senate Bill 1437, introduced by celebrated lesbian and 60’s television trivia question Senator Sheila Kuehl. If passed by the California state Assembly, the law would require teaching the achievements of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender individuals.

My concern has nothing to do with frank, age-appropriate dialogue in the classroom about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender nature of many historical figures. As a teacher of literature – this is nothing new; we have them all the time.

I am never able to utter the name Walt Whitman without a student shouting out, “I heard he was gay.” And then we talk about the many theories about Whitman’s sexuality, I’ll pull out a few poems that allude to homosexuality and we’ll analyze them, and then delve into the more venerable Whitman: Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d, and, of course, Song of Myself

I once taught an honors Shakespeare elective where we read most of the sonnets as well as much criticism. Again, sexuality came up and we discussed the imagery and ambiguity in the poems – as well as the brilliance of working so successfully in the sonnet form.

There are a slew of others as well: Horatio Alger, James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf and any one of the Greeks. I can’t imagine not talking about the human condition and motivating behaviors that manifests in art.

The problem with legislating the teaching of the contribution of LGBTs is the growing concern that if we are mandated to talk about one side of a person’s sexuality, am I also going to have to talk about an author’s other sexual preferences?

For example, the next time I am teaching The Great Gatsby, will I have to discuss the decline of the American Dream, the over-indulgence of the wealthy, the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s foot fetishist leanings? Oh, and by the way, class, Goethe, Thomas Hardy and Casanova are all said to be raving foot fetishists themselves.

Why should it end there? I mean, this is not deviant behavior we are talking about here. Labeling any behavior as deviant implies an agreed upon norm, right? And whose to say what the norm is? The government? The ACLU? The Gay and Lesbian Task Force? The religious right? My Uncle Joe who after every meal ends up in a recliner with his pants undone?

What if Edgar Allan Poe, besides being a drug addict, was also into ponyplay – where one person plays the role of an equine and another as rider and/or trainer?

What if O. Henry was a voyeur?

What if Emily Bronte was heavily into bondage?

What if the Marquis de Sade was…well you get the idea

Legislating curriculum that is so openly politically biased runs the risk of students completely missing the universality of literature and relegating timeless authors and text to pillow talk.

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