An Active Timeline of the LGBTQ Rights Movement in North America

James Miles

James Miles teaches Social Studies, I.B. History, and Social Justice 12 at West Vancouver Secondary School, where he has taught for six years. He recently completed his MA in Social Studies Education at UBC. He is interested in incorporating local history, historical photographs, and other primary sources into his classroom.

Working with chronology in the classroom often brings forth the infamous history timeline, often with disastrous, or at least uninteresting results.  I too am guilty of handing students a list of important events to be sequenced into a less than in-depth exercise in timeline building, but I was resolved to change this. Drawing ideas from The Big Six Historical Thinking Skills (Seixas & Morton, 2013I put together an activity for my Social Justice 12 class on the major developments in LGBTQ history in North America. 

Social Justice 12  (a relatively new elective in BC) focuses on a wide array of social issues and topics, which to my mind need to be addressed through looking at through their development over time, placing events in their historical context. This provided me with a perfect opportunity to utilize the concept of continuity and change.

The Activity 

In order to better understand the history of LGBTQ issues and rights in Canada I had students take part in an active timeline activity. I found two documents online giving key events and developments in LGBTQ history. (One with an American focus and another with a Canadian focus.) I edited these down to events, which I viewed as essential (and also so that there would be only enough for one event per student). I removed the dates and handed each student a small piece of paper that included a description of one development in the LGBTQ rights movement.

To begin class each student had a minute to read their event and consider what time period they thought it might be in, without simply resorting to their smart phone. I encouraged them to at least choose a decade in which the event may have taken place based on their previous knowledge of the subject. The students then had to stand up and carry out discussions with their classmates eventually leading to the creation of a human timeline across the classroom from the oldest event to the most recent.

The students enjoyed moving around, discussing their events, and trying to figure out the correct chronology. After most students were satisfied with the living timeline, I had students read out their development and then I told them the correct dates and order. For the most part they were fairly accurate. For example, students had clearly understood that the legalization of same sex marriage in Canada would have had to come after the decriminalization of homosexuality. 

The extension

After this activity was complete I still felt that the historical thinking aspects of the activity were not fully developed.  I wondered how to help students understand that progress, or change in general, is not a steady or consistent process over time. For this I drew a timeline of the past 200 years across the board with equally spaced intervals.  Students then taped their development on the timeline.

 After all the developments were plotted on the board, it became clear to the students that change often happened in clusters, occurring fast in some places, while slowing to continuity in others.

It was immediately clear that during long periods of time in North America there were no developments in LGBTQ rights, while in certain other eras change appeared to happen quickly. The timeline became a living reflection of how continuity and change works. We ended the activity with a discussion on why these patterns occurred which brought about discussions on related social movements, new governments, and societal attitudes and values changing across time.

This activity still needs tweaking, but it provided a physically active way to get students involved in discussing chronology and thinking about continuity and change.


Seixas, P. & Morton, T. (2013) The Big Six Historical Thinking Skills. Toronto: Nelson Educational, p. 87-94.