Sex education in American public schools is routinely criticized by health experts as lacking in comprehensive information, using stigmatizing language, and increasing risks to students through abstinence-based programs. But for LGBTQ students, the stigma and risks associated with public school sex ed is even greater, because most schools simply ignore the topic of gender identity and LGBTQ sex ed in the curriculum, leaving many students physically and emotionally vulnerable.
Heidi Beedle, an 11th grade English teacher in Colorado Springs, Colorado sees the exclusion of LGBTQ sex ed as a contributing factor to her LGBTQ students’ daily experiences of discomfort. “Broadly speaking, the LGBTQ students in my school generally just feel unheard, unacknowledged, and in many cases unwelcome,” she said.
In fact, Beedle said that trans students in her school often seek her out to ask questions about things like hormones or transitioning or even just how to know if they are trans. They feel comfortable approaching her with these topics not just because she is the Gay Straight Trans Alliance sponsor, but also because Beedle is transgender, herself.
Being approached by students about LGBTQ topics can be tricky for a teacher. “I always try to answer as honestly as possible, but I am very worried about the perception that I am “pushing an ideology” or something,” she said. Beyond that, it can be challenging to be totally authentic when her existence as a trans person is considered by the general population to be “controversial.”
“It affects what I tell students about myself,” said Beedle. She’s conscious of what kinds of personal photos she displays and even what kinds of things she discusses in class. “I get very nervous every time I try to discuss any kind of feminist literary criticism or any discussion of gender roles in texts because I don’t want to be seen as the ‘activist teacher,’” said Beedle. If more work were done in school discussing trans issues, Beedle believes she wouldn’t have to do so much explaining about gender identity with cis people.
Only 4 percent of students were taught positive information about LGBTQ people in their health classes.
Some schools do try to get it right. For example, Seattle Public Schools rolled out supplementary classroom materials for kindergarten through fifth grade that, according to their website, “focus on age-appropriate concepts of gender and gender identity.” The goal of their gender book kit is to reflect student’s lived experiences, build empathy, and decrease bullying. Done at younger ages, concepts about gender identity can be easier to accept and understand than if those ideas are first introduced when a child reaches middle or high school. By then, most students already have very ingrained thoughts about gender and sexuality, which can be difficult to reconstruct.
According to GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network), a national education organization that works to ensure safe and affirming schools for LGBTQ students, “A truly LGBT-inclusive approach includes and infuses LGBT people and issues throughout the sex education curriculum. It does not assume heterosexuality in its definitions of sexual activities or discussions of romantic relationships. It challenges the gender binary (i.e., that there are only two genders, male and female, and that are mutually exclusive) and pays more than token attention to transgender people and concerns. It avoids relegating LGBT issues to ‘special topics’ and instead includes discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity throughout the curriculum.” Unfortunately, their website says, this is the least common type of sex education provided in schools today.
In May of this year, Fremont Unified School District in California completely eliminated their sex education for 4th-6th grade because of “controversial content,” which included lessons about LGBTQ and gender. The district has since voted to re-introduce sex ed under a new curriculum. A school district in Allendale, Michigan also pulled their section on gender identity this past spring because that section had been added without approval from sex education advisory board. Allendale Public Schools outsources their sexual education through an organization called, Willing to Wait, an abstinence-based curriculum that is run by a crisis pregnancy center. Both the gender identity section and outsourced teaching are planned to be reviewed by the board when the board re-convenes in the fall.
Most public school sex education involves demonizing, stigmatizing, or excluding LGBTQ students. In fact, according to a GLSEN National School Climate Survey, only 4 percent of students were taught positive information about LGBTQ people in their health classes. On the extreme end are states that have laws, known as “no-promo homo laws,” which, simply put, prohibit the “promotion” of homosexuality in sex education classes. Those states include Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas.
Alabama’s antiquated law says that classes must emphasize that homosexuality is unacceptable and criminal. That particular phrase was challenged earlier this year when a senate committee approved a bill to strike that language. Though it didn’t pass the senate this year, its sponsor, Tom Whatley, says that the committee will reintroduce it next year. Whatley, a Republican, said, “I introduced [the bill] because a constituent of mine asked me to and it was the right thing to do.” Whatley said that the community reaction was mostly positive and there was no organized opposition to the bill that he was aware of.
GLSEN has conducted research on no-promo homo laws. Its report, which pulls from several data sources, including a survey of LGBTQ students, a survey of secondary teachers, and the CDC’s 2014 School Health Policies and Practices Study, concludes that LGBTQ students in states with no-promo homo laws have worse experiences than students in states without such laws. Specifically, [the report found] that students in those states are less likely to find peers that are accepting of LGBTQ people, more likely to hear homophobic remarks, and more likely to face harassment and assault at school.
The GLSEN report points out an important fact, though, “It may be that school administrators are more likely than teachers to reflect and/or uphold the political beliefs of their community, regardless of any specific state laws.” Even in states without such laws, it is often the district that sets the standard and the tone for what they will allow and tolerate in their school’s sex ed curriculum.
Only 13 states require that sex education be medically accurate.
States set certain guidelines for sex education, and so they vary. For example, only 24 states mandate sex education, and only 13 states require that sex education be medically accurate. When sex ed is taught, only 12 states require that sexual orientation be taught. Decisions about sex ed curriculum are mostly made at the school district level with their state’s guidelines in mind.
Because of this polarization, some parents are opting their kids out of their school's sex education classes. Sara Jacobs from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who is the director of an LGBTQ youth homeless organization, called Out Proud Safe, is one such parent. She’s a parent in a two mom household, and decided that she did not want her 14 year old son enrolled in his school’s sex ed classes. “After reading the curriculum we (both he and his mothers) decided not to participate, based on how much it was slated toward abstinence and the exclusion of discussion around varying sexual and gender identities. I actually suggested he might be interested in understanding what the other students at his school were learning about. He did not feel it would be relevant and declined,” said Jacobs.
Alex, a 14 year old gay and transgender student living a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, opted out of his school’s in-class sex ed, too, and instead chose to take it online over the summer. Most states, but not all, allow parents to opt their child out of sex ed entirely, and some, like Alex, take an alternative class from outside sources. Alex said the online class he took was essentially the same as what was taught in school, but there are some other sex-positive sex education programs that can be found through organizations like Planned Parenthood or Our Whole Lives (OWL), a sex ed program offered through the Unitarian Universalist Association.
From a practical standpoint, Alex said he could complete the course in less than half the time if he took it online, freeing him up for other classes during the school year. But, Alex said he also worried about having his gender honored in the classroom since the classes are split by gender. He said that a friend of his, who is transgender and who attends another high school in the district, was not placed in the classroom that matched their gender.
Alex said that excluding LGBTQ sex ed poses not only emotional risks, but physical risks, too. “It could lead to students not thinking that there are risks since nobody covered that, which could lead to worse things,” he said.
“I believe it is in the children’s best interest to teach them what is really happening in our culture. Not to do so increases pregnancy, the spread of STDs, and general ignorance. The idea that sex education should be so heavily slanted toward abstinence is a disservice to everyone,” said Jacobs.
Including LGBTQ sex ed and gender identity in a curriculum has a ripple effect well outside of the boundaries of the sex ed classroom. According to the GLSEN report, not only are LGBTQ students more invested in learning when they see themselves reflected in the curriculum, but teaching about LGBTQ topics can dispel certain myths and stereotypes, which results in a safer and more accepting school.
“Supporting trans students is not a Herculean task,” said Beedle. Considering the stigma perpetuated by sex ed curriculums, teacher’s every day support matters more than ever. Beedle says that things like using a student’s chosen name and pronouns, supporting students in their right to use the bathroom that matches their gender, and being careful not to “out” students can go a long way in demonstrating that teachers are there to keep them safe. “Teachers have an enormous power to affect the culture of their schools,” Beedle said, “but most don’t use it.”