As we reach the height of back-to-school season, consider this fact: While most schools teach roughly the same basic content for most subjects -- math classes teach about geometry; chemistry classes include the periodic table -- what schools teach for sex education is, frankly, all over the place. While the abstinence only vs. comprehensive sex education debate is an example of one divide, the gulf is just as wide when it comes to LGBTQ topics in sex education. Currently, nine states require that sex-ed be LGB-inclusive (though follow-through can be an issue), while three states require that schools teach that homosexuality is illegal, immoral, or a health hazard. In many states and school districts, though, LGBTQ sexualities are simply overlooked; likewise, LGBTQ-inclusive sex education is often overlooked in national discussions about LGBTQ rights. That's unfortunate, though; below are five key reasons that LGBTQ-inclusive sex education is important for queer students and their broader communities.
1) It's relevant to LGBTQ youth
Sex education ought to be accessible to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Unfortunately, most sex education programs were created with only heterosexual youth in mind. Such programs generally only use heterosexual couples in relationship scenarios and may not talk about the importance of condom use for preventing HIV (a relevant point for people of all sexual orientations, but an especially important point for gay and bisexual men). In 19 states, schools that provide sex education are required to teach that it is important for sexual activity to be between a married couple. That kind of curriculum can be isolating for LGBTQ youth, especially in places where there are few local LGBTQ role models and where marriage equality still feels like it's a long ways away. Curricula that define sexual orientation and gender identity, provide inclusive relationship and STD-prevention examples, and recognize that there are appropriate contexts for sexual activity besides a heterosexual marriage are more likely to resonate with LGBTQ youth.
2) It promotes positive outcomes for LGBTQ youth
Large percentages of LGBTQ teenagers experience depression, anxiety, and guilt or shame that stem from how family, friends, and societal institutions treat their sexual orientation or gender identity. Schools cannot control the messages LGBTQ youth receive from their parents, friends, or house of worship, but they can control the school environment and curriculum. Imagine if every LGBTQ teen learned about the fact that there are a range of sexual orientations and gender identities, that no sexual orientation or gender identity is better or worse than others, and that whatever sexual orientation and gender identity they have is normal and fine. Such an affirming message can help LGBTQ youth develop positive attitudes about themselves and may prevent or address the internal tension many such youth experience. In some cases, an LGBTQ-affirming message in the classroom may even save lives.
3) It fosters a more accepting school environment
LGBTQ youth aren't the only ones in sex ed! When heterosexual and cisgender youth learn about gender and sexual diversity, they are more likely to accept or embrace LGBTQ people. More acceptance and less bullying, besides being good in their own right, also mean that LGBTQ youth may feel safer coming to school and may experience better academic outcomes. In contrast, when teachers and other adults do not talk about sexual orientation and gender identity, it contributes to a taboo about these topics and more easily allows anti-gay bullying and homophobic slurs to exist in school hallways unchecked.
4) It can demystify the questioning process
Some people know that they're not straight from the time that they are a few years old; for others, sexual orientation and gender identity isn't so obvious -- at least for some period of time. Consider a teen who is mostly attracted to people of the opposite sex but sometimes likes people of the same sex and wonders if he should identify as straight or bi. Or consider a person who doesn't feel like ze is a girl or guy. Learning that sexual orientation is more than a straight-bi-gay trinary and that there are non-binary gender identities such as genderqueer can be helpful to youth as they discover and learn about their identities. Sometimes, just having a term that aligns with a person's experiences and knowing that other people experience their sexual orientation or gender in the same way can make a world of difference.
5) It teaches about sexual orientation and gender identity as they actually exist
Regardless of a person's moral views, it is a fact that humans have a diverse array of sexual orientations and gender identities. To only teach about one sexual orientation, to ignore gender minorities, and to suggest that a heterosexual marriage is the only acceptable relationship for sexual activity makes invisible the experiences of LGBTQ people and presents an inaccurate view of human sexuality. If we are to prepare youth of all sexual orientations and gender identities to feel good about their sexuality, make safe and responsible choices involving relationships and sexual activity, and appreciate -- or at least tolerate -- the gender and sexual diversity of their peers and community members, incorporating LGBTQ topics and perspectives into the curriculum is essential. Hopefully, more youth will get that kind of inclusive education this coming year.