The Fight for Civil and Gay Rights

Here is a lesson plan about the similarities between the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s and the Civil Rights Movement (if I may borrow the term) of the contemporary LGBTQQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex) community. The lesson (from Teaching Tolerance) is for grades 9-12 but it can probably be adapted for middle school. See this blog post for resources about teaching about the n-word.
Even if the teacher doesn’t want to devote so much time to this lesson or subject, this lesson is at least full of ideas about possible discussions and activities for relating the Civil Rights Movement to contemporary struggles.
Objectives:

Students will:

  • Learn how Bayard Rustin was an instrumental figure in the modern civil rights movement.
  • Develop an awareness of how individuals have the ability to simultaneously advocate for multiple causes, even if they conflict or overlap.
  • Analyze the connection between civil rights and gay rights.
  • Understand the similarities and differences between racism and heterosexism.
  • Explore how individuals, their beliefs and actions evolve over time.

Essential Questions:

  • Who was Bayard Rustin and why is he one of the twentieth century’s most important political organizers?
  • What challenges did Bayard Rustin confront as a gay man involved in the civil rights movement?
  • What are the similarities and differences between the civil rights and gay rights movements?
  • In what ways has our society changed for the better for LGBT people, and what improvements remain to be made?

Materials Needed:

Central Text

In this lesson, students will study the similarities between the modern civil rights movement and the current gay rights movement, through the words of Bayard Rustin. Earlier in his life, Rustin was open with his sexuality in private circles, but remained publicly silent about his homosexuality. Later in life, Rustin was more vocal, and became a vociferous advocate for gay rights in ways that had eluded him in his earlier years. In this lesson, students will discuss the similarities and differences between the civil rights and gay rights movements, as well as the dilemma black LGBT people often find themselves in while involved with social and political movements.

(Note: The recommended central text for this lesson uses the n-word. For information on the n-word, review Teaching Tolerance article “Straight Talk About the N-Word” and the accompanying toolkit.)

Word Work

In this task, you will read parts of the “Gays are the New Niggers” (see handout).

(Note: The recommended central text for this lesson uses the n-word. For information on the n-word, review Teaching Tolerance article “Straight Talk About the N-Word” and the accompanying toolkit.)

  1. Read the first seven paragraphs. While reading underline these words: heterosexist, appropriating, pacifism, Gandhian and villainized.
  2. After you have finished reading, discuss how each vocabulary word is used as an entire class or with a partner.
  3. Following the class discussion, independently define each term using your own words, and explain how it applies to Bayard Rustin’s life and activism. Remember to use complete sentences.

Close and Critical Reading

Read and Response

(Note: Number the paragraphs from 1-31 for the reading “Gays are the New Niggers.” Treat indented quotes like they are paragraphs. Suggested divisions: Excerpt 1: Paragraphs 8-11; Excerpt 2: Paragraphs 14-16; Excerpt 3: Paragraphs 25-28; Excerpt 4: Paragraphs 29-31.)

  1. In groups, analyze the excerpts and react to them. (Note: Consider doing this task as a jigsaw.) What is the statement being made? What reasoning is used to make the statement? Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  2. When reading, it’s important to analyze or deconstruct the text. Consider some of these suggested questions from the Center for Media Literacy: Who created this message? How might different people understand this message differently from me? Whose point of view is presented? What reasons might an individual have for being interested in this message? (Note: For more information on media literacy, visit the Center for Media Literacy.)
  3. Read “Gays are the New Niggers” again and complete the graphic organizer about the life of Bayard Rustin. In what organizations was Rustin active? When was he involved with these organizations? What cause or movement did the organization support? What role did Rustin play with the group? What leaders and activists did he meet due to the diversity of his political activism?

Community Inquiry

Discuss Rustin’s accomplishments and their significance. Is it possible to talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership in the civil rights movement without also discussing Bayard Rustin? How did Rustin directly influence Dr. King’s leadership philosophy? How did Dr. King feel about Rustin’s homosexuality? Did Rustin’s sexuality impact the ways in which he was able to contribute to the civil rights movement? What does Rustin’s relationship with Dr. King reveal about the connection between gay rights and civil rights? Are gay rights separate from civil rights? Do you think that gay rights and civil rights should be studied separately, or should they be taught together? 

Write to the Source

Using the completed Graphic Organizer as your resource, reflect on what you learned about Bayard Rustin and how your understanding of him evolved throughout the activity. How did Rustin contribute to the civil rights movement despite the challenges he faced as a gay man?  What does Rustin’s life and activism represent about him as an individual, as well as how ideas, perceptions and people evolve over time? What accounts for the changes in Rustin’s willingness to openly advocate for gay rights in his later years? Did Rustin change? Did society change? Support your answer using examples from the text. Your answer must include examples that demonstrate how Rustin changed or did not change.

Do Something

Create a Bayard Rustin Award at your school. Each year, recognize a diverse group of students who embody the qualities that made Bayard Rustin such an important activist. With the help of a faculty mentor develop a list of personal qualities and other criteria that will be used to select recipients. Bayard Rustin’s birthday is March 17th. Honor Rustin’s legacy by announcing the group of students chosen by their peers to receive the award on that day. Give each student a certificate for the award.

Common Core State Standards (English Language Arts Standards)

Reading

1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.

4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

10. Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Writing

1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Speaking and Listening

1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

3. Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Language

1. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

2. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

5. Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

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