Let’s celebrate Pride Month by demanding LGBT+ inclusive sex education
“Growing up as a closeted gay boy, a lot of my information came from the internet because I had nobody to turn to for basic information,” says Geovanny Hernandez, a 27-year-old University of Houston student. Hernandez explains that his childhood sex education program never discussed topics important to members of the LGBT+ community. He felt left in the dark.
Here’s the problem: Only 19 percent of US secondary schools provide curricula or supplementary sex education materials that are LGBTQ-inclusive. This leaves many LGBT+ identifying students left to learn from the internet and their peers. However, “much of the sexual health information online is neither age-appropriate nor medically accurate, and peers may be misinformed,” according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Most American schools take the “LGBT+ ignoring” sex education approach. The curriculum focuses primarily on a fear of pregnancy and how to prevent it. But what if sex between partners cannot cause reproduction?
As of 2013, less than 5% of LGBT+ students were taught positive information about LGBT+ people or issues in their health classes, according to the GLSEN National School Climate Survey. Among Millenials surveyed in 2015, only 12 percent said their sex education classes covered same-sex relationships, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
The failure to educate the LGBT+ community can be proven with some frustrating facts. Those LGBT+ identifying are more likely to contract HIV or other STIs. In 2014, gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men accounted for 83% of primary and secondary syphilis cases in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
High risk of STDs isn’t the only problem. Because LGBT+ students don’t see people like themselves in textbooks, educational videos and other sex ed curriculum, they are less likely to absorb basic sex ed lessons. According GLSEN, groups within the LGBT+ youth community are more likely to…
- Begin having sex at any early age and have multiple partners
- Have sex under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- Experience dating violence
- Not use condoms and/or birth control
- Experience teen pregnancy
The lack of LGBT+ acceptance in sex education “sends a dangerous message to LGBTQ students, along with their non-LGBTQ peers, that they are not an equal and valued part of the school community,” according to Dr. Joe Kosciw, GLSEN’s Chief Research and Strategy Officer in the GLSEN piece, “Lack of Comprehensive Sex Education Putting LGBTQ Youth at Risk: National Organizations Issue Call to Action to Improve Programs and Policies.”
Feelings of neglect and inequality in the classroom can hurt mental health. High school students who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are almost five times as likely to attempt suicide compared to their heterosexual peers, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health.
It’s pretty damn clear: not having LGBT+ inclusive sex education fails about 4.5% of the United States’ population. This is unacceptable and morally wrong.
So, how do we fix this? How can we make the US sex education LGBT+ inclusive? Here are a few things that can be added to the curriculum to fill the gaps:
Teaching different sexual orientations
I’ll admit it, at first I had to Google what each letter stood for in the LGBT+ acronym. However, I can probably name every STD and illegal drug, courtesy of my 7th grade health class pop quizzes. I wish I had memorized all different types of sexualities and the beautiful diversity they represent, instead of a list of illegal hallucinogens . You can find a list of what different sexualities mean here.
What it means to be transgender, non-binary or gender-nonconforming
Sex ed should emphasize that sex is different from gender. Sex is the “biological differences between males and females, such as genitalia,” according to Medical News Today. Gender is how one identifies themselves. Students should have roundtable conversations about gender norms and pressures. This opens students up to realizing that gender norms can be an oppressive social construct. Individuals may identify as transgender (a person whose sense of identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex), non-binary (a spectrum of gender idenities that are not exclusively feminine or masculine) or gender-non-conforming (a person who doesn’t conform to prevailing cultural and social expectations about what is appropriate for their gender).
The importance of pronouns
Sex ed classes should explain that pronouns are a way someone portrays their identity. Just like every other identifier, individuals have the right to choose what pronouns they feel identify them the best. Classes can encourage openness in gender pronouns and help students adjust to using gender-neutral ones, like they or ze. A great way to start this conversation would be to have students create name tags with their name AND their pronouns. You can find a list of the different pronouns here.
Other forms of protection, not JUST condoms
Sex education today is so hetereonormative that the primary safe sex protection hammered into students’ minds is condoms. When we think of sex ed, we think of a condom on a banana. Except, condoms are only for penetrative sex and usually assumed to be only penis & vagina penetrative sex.
Sex ed should bring up other forms of protection such as:
- Internal condoms which can be used for vaginal and anal penetration.
- Dental dams which can be used for vaginal and anal oral sex.
- Gloves or finger cots which can be used for vaginal and anal fingering.
Sex ed classes should also express that condoms and dental dams should be used for shared sex toys.
Textbooks and other educational materials that showcase a diverse range of partners
My sex ed textbook had ONE PAGE that quickly noted “oh btw there’s also a thing called being gay.” Sex ed videos and textbooks often show examples of partners. The more diverse range of partners shown (LGBT+, people with disabilities, etc.), the more students who feel acknowledged. My sex education class also showed a diagram of how penis/vagina sexual intercourse looks. Let’s teach students that there are many other ways to receive pleasure (oral sex, anal sex, using sex toys, etc). This makes other forms of sex more normative and therefore, less shamed.
Providing resources for physical and mental health support
Many of those in the LGBT+ community face discrimination and refusal of service when looking for medical care. 6.7 percent of LGBT+ people reported that they avoided doctors’ offices in the past year of fear of discrimination, according to a 2018 Center for American Progress article. It’s important to remind students that they are not alone. Let’s give out handouts with support hotlines and local centers. Let’s tell students where they can go get tested for STI/STDs without fear of being shamed.
Not only is inclusive sex education necessary for the health and support for our students, but it’s wanted by most parents. 78% of parents “supported discussion of sexual orientation as part of sex education in middle school,” according to the Human Rights Campaign. 85% of parents supported that same disucssion in high school sex education.
Pride Month is not only a time to celebrate but also a time to encourage yourself and others to advance change. This Pride Month, I am lobbying for more inclusive sex education. To move along progress, you can donate to Advocates for Youth, GLSEN, the Human Rights Campaign, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. All of these organizations are calling on parents, educators and policy makers to implement LGBT+ inclusive sex education in schools.
Locally in Boston, one influential foundation is Partners in Sex Education. Their curriculum is “designed to involve families in the education of their children, and to support communication and sexuality and relationships at home.” You can check out their resource pages with tips on how to talk about sexuality with young people.
So what are you waiting for? Let’s demand sex education that isn’t just a plain (and lame) condom on a banana.
Hannah Schweitzer is Popularly Positive’s Sex Editor and the host of Boston University’s “Love is on the Air.” She can be pitched using email@example.com.