Gay and Lesbian Literature at ARHS by Zoe Langsdale

It’s not at many public high schools that you can say that you’re taking a Gay and Lesbian Literature class. In fact, until last year, the only public high school you could say that about was my high school; Amherst Regional High School. ARHS offered the only Gay and Lesbian Literature class in a public high school in the nation until this year, when a section of the class was offered at the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School.

The course was started by Sara Barber-Just, one of the English teachers at ARHS, who, in 2000, was taking her Masters in Social Justice at Goddard College: ‘I studied LGBT climate issues for a year, read LGBT texts for 6 months, and then developed the curriculum’.  Barber-Just states that the English department was instantly in support of the idea, but the class was offered as an ALP (or an Alternative Learning Program, where students can propose an independent study), in 2002 and 2003, to 10 students per year, to test the program. In 2004, the school committee approved the course for all students and since then, it has remained one of the most popular courses in the school with enrollment jumping from 10 students per year to 150 within 2 years.

‘I never had any complaints. But it was clear early on that the material would/could be life-changing and it grew rapidly’, says Barber-Just. ‘LGBT sexuality is almost never covered in high school. Everything related to it—suppression, shame, radical rebellion, social integration, and joy/celebration/acceptance’. The course is only taught by two teachers in the English department; both of whom are Lesbians. The other teacher, Kristen Iverson was part of the staff when Barber-Just created the course, and has been teaching the class since its launch. ‘ARHS is hugely influenced by this course and the students who graduate after taking it tend to go off into the college world and do some level of social justice work so perhaps there is a positive influence in the general population’, says Iverson.

Since it is a class that talks about relationships and sex, there are often entertaining stories told and conversations held: ‘honest discussion about sexuality always creates the opportunity for funny moments. How can it not?!’ says Iverson. While in the class, it is obvious how much the teachers truly care about what they are teaching: ‘It’s amazing to teach a one-of-a-kind course and to have such positive student feedback. It has changed the culture at our school, opened people’s minds about sexuality, and made my job completely worthwhile. It is the best/most rewarding part of my job, especially in that it provides support/pride for burgeoning LGBT youth’, says Barber-Just.

I am taking this class right now and can honestly say that it is one of the best classes I’ve taken in my time at the high school. I am extremely proud of my school and its wonderful staff for giving students the opportunity to learn about LGBT issues that they might not learn of otherwise. The excitement and passion with which the teachers teach the course is admirable, engaging and simply wonderful.



Zoe is a senior in high school at ARHS and will be headed for university in the fall at Smith College. She is terrifyingly intelligent and unnaturally creative, investing her talents in arts like singing, flamenco dancing, and orchestra. And she will no doubt feel horrified when she reads this bio which her big cousin has written for her because SAM IS SO PROUD!!!

Image from essygie‘s Flickr

One comment

  • Georgia
    February 22, 2013 - 17:05 | Permalink

    Ahaha! Love the bio Sam. Really interesting little piece Zoe, well done!

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