LGBTQ Lit: Two decades ago, an ARHS teacher pioneered a life-changing class. Today, it’s as relevant as ever

  • Sara Barber-Just teaching the LGBTQ Literature class at Amherst Regional High School on Jan. 9. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Becoming Nicole” is one of the books read in the LGBTQ Literature class at Amherst Regional High School taught by Sara Barber-Just. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Zeke Ash responds to a discussion question in the LGBTQ literature class at Amherst Regional High School. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sara Barber-Just teaching the LGBTQ Literature class at Amherst Regional High school on Jan. 9. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Students watch a video on the history of the transgender movement in the LGBTQ literature class at Amherst Regional High School taught by Sara Barber-Just. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Students watch a video on the history of the transgender movement in the LGBTQ Literature class at Amherst Regional High School taught by Sara Barber-Just. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sara Barber-Just teaching the LGBTQ Literature class at Amherst Regional High School on Jan. 9 talks with student Olivia Rudd. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Becoming Nicole” is one of the books read in the LGBTQ literature class at Amherst Regional High School taught by Sara Barber-Just. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sara Barber-Just teaching the LGBTQ Literature class at Amherst Regional High School on Jan. 9 talks with student Olivia Rudd. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hazel Wildman-Lyon responds to a discussion question in the LGBTQ Literature class taught by Sara Barber-Just at Amherst Regional High School. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/17/2019 11:14:09 PM

AMHERST — In the early 2000s as a student at Amherst Regional High School, Rachel Lesser knew some gay students there, but not many.

“It was very few and far between. It was not something that was very open,” she said.

Lesser had recently come out as a lesbian and was looking for community, but it was hard to find.

“There weren’t a lot of other physical spaces for gay youth — even in Amherst, or Northampton, which is a gay-friendly, lesbian-friendly place,” she said, adding that there wasn’t a lot online then, either.

Now an assistant professor of classics at Gettysburg College, Lesser said that gay identities were still “pretty subcultural” in 2002.

“They weren’t as mainstream as they are now,” she said.

But she found out about a literature course, then titled “Gay and Lesbian Literature” with Amherst Regional High School teacher Sara Barber-Just, and she jumped at the opportunity to take it. There she found the kind of space she was searching for in a class that continues to enlighten students today.

Now named LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning) Literature, the class is an elective English course created by Barber-Just in 2000.

Core texts include “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin, “Rubyfruit Jungle” by Rita Mae Brown and “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham. Also on the syllabus are documentaries such as National Geographic’s “Gender Revolution” and the short story collection “A Letter to Harvey Milk” by Lesléa Newman. Most recently, the course has added a new text, “Becoming Nicole,” a nonfiction work by journalist Amy Ellis Nutt about a transgender girl and her family’s journey during her transformation.

The course is intentionally split into five major sections ranging from the early 1900s to today, looking at time periods with legal oppression of gay rights, and times of social activism.

Lesser recalled taking the class during a first-period class — normally a time of day when she wasn’t thrilled to be in school. But for her, the class became a “real live oasis,” she wrote several years ago in a reflection on the course for a book written by Bard College professor Michael Sadowski, “Safe Is Not Enough: Better Schools for LGBTQ Students,” which featured Barber-Just’s class in a chapter.

Lesser loved learning about the lesbian experience coded into Willa Cather’s “A Lost Lady.” And Barber-Just, who Lesser said was one of the few openly out teachers at the time, became a role model and mentor for her. “I identified with her a lot,” Lesser recalled.

It was a place where she could talk about LGBTQ topics, but not have the focus be on personal experience.

“I think that having a class where you are studying texts is a really great way of exploring a subject that feels a little bit taboo or personal or scary,” she said. “It kind of takes the burden away from it being something personal about you and centers the discussion on other people and other kinds of texts.”

Lesser was a part of one of the early iterations of the course, and today, Barber-Just and Kristen Iverson, an English teacher who frequently teaches the course, say it is a popular class. But two decades ago, when Barber-Just proposed it, she was not sure it would ever come to fruition.

Back in the late ‘90s, Barber-Just was studying for her master’s degree in social-justice education at Goddard College in Vermont, while working at Amherst Regional High School. As part of her studies, she designed a curriculum for a class she then called “Gay and Lesbian Literature.”

Barber-Just did not have a class like LGBTQ Literature growing up. “I had absolutely no role models (showing) that you can be married to a person of the same gender, that you can raise children together, than you can live openly,” she said.

While studying at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, she was exposed to LGBTQ literature and was excited to see aspects of her identity reflected in the readings, an experience she hopes her class can provide students today.

“That’s the greatest power of literature: It’s to awaken something inside of you or speak to you personally or change the way you think about the world,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of that experience, I wanted my students to have it, and I wanted them to be able to empathize also if it’s not their experience.”

For two years, she piloted the class with students in the high school’s gender and sexuality alliance. Then she submitted the course to the school committee for approval, and was shocked when she quickly got the OK.

“I really wanted it to happen, but I knew that it was controversial,” she said. “Gay marriage was still not legal in any state in the country. It was a different time, 17 years ago.”

Barber-Just says she thinks it’s one of the earliest classes of its kind in an American public high school. “I think it was the first,” she said. “Everywhere that I’ve read, it was the first gay and lesbian literature class in a public high school in the United States.”

Early on, Iverson said she would go to conferences, and when she mentioned the class to other educators, many were shocked. Iverson recalled people asking, “How can you teach a whole course on that?” Other teachers would say, “We’re so closeted where we are.”

Now the course has been around for nearly two decades. Still, issues with homophobia persist. “If anyone would tell you there’s not homophobia in this high school, they would be lying,” Iverson said, adding that students at ARHS self-report that homophobia still happens in the school.

In Massachusetts, 72 percent of LGBTQ students said they heard homophobic remarks in school, and 64 percent said they heard negative remarks about transgender people, according to a 2017 National School Climate survey from GLSEN, an LGBTQ education organization with chapters across the country.

Such issues are part of the reason why the state is developing LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum materials that will be available for teachers to use, though they are not mandatory, said Corey Prachniak-Rincón, director of the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth.

These lessons, which Prachniak-Rincón said are expected to be publicly available later this school year, include the incorporation of LGBTQ activist Sylvia Rivera into history classes and talking about the experience of LGBTQ people when studying the Holocaust.

“This is a way of making sure LGBTQ students are include in the classroom ... it’s also a way to educate other students around their LGBTQ peers — kind of helping normalize that,” Prachniak-Rincón said.

Student voices

Iverson said many students have shared reflections, saying that the class is the first in which they are able to be their authentic selves, while others say it is the first time they had to face their own issues of homophobia or transphobia.

Maddie Whitlock, a current junior in the course, said reading James Baldwin’s 1956 book “Giovanni’s Room” helped her better understand what it was like to be gay in a different time period, while the National Geographic documentary “Gender Revolution” exposed her to the mental and physical challenges transgender people face.

As an LGBTQ ally, the course has made her more able to support her LGTBQ friends, she said.

“I’m more educated on gender and sexuality in general,” Karta Khalsa, a current junior in the class, said, adding that she learned the difference between sex and gender in the course. Now, she recommends the class to everyone.

In Daniel Lee’s junior year, back in 2008, he took the class by accident — he had wanted to sign up for African-American Literature but somehow ended up in LGBTQ Literature instead. In retrospect, he said he is happy he took the class.

“I think it’s incredibly important to be forced to confront these kinds of issues, especially when I knew few openly gay kids growing up — especially within Korean culture,” Lee said. “Many Koreans pretend it doesn’t exist at all.”

For example, reading and analyzing “The Picture of Dorian Gray” made him think differently, he said: “I had never bothered to think about the different ways that LGBT people see themselves. I think the very concept of self-image is different when you feel like you have to hide who you are.”

He remembers a fight he had with his high school friend who casually used homophobic language. “That’s a fight I wouldn’t have had with him had it not been for that class,” he said.

Lee is now at New York University Law School with hopes of going into public interest law. And previously, he worked at Human Rights Watch, where he did work such as co-authoring a report on discrimination against LGBT students in the Philippines.

“I doubt I’d be in the human rights field in general if had not been for that class and Sara,” he said. “It fundamentally changed my worldview on how I see discrimination.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




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