Sex Education should be for everyone.
Most people have — if not exactly fond memories of sex ed — then at least enduring ones. In most schools, it goes something like this: a few frazzled teachers divide the girls and boys, herd them into separate rooms and give an awkward, cursory overview of the birds and the bees — complete with a doctor’s office anatomy chart and condom-on-the-banana demonstration.
It’s enough to make you squirm uncomfortably in your seat, even years after you’ve passed through puberty’s turgid, often embarrassing gates.
Now imagine that sex ed class from the perspective of a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender teen — or maybe you were that gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender teen, or unsure how you identified sexually. Did your sex ed class offer explanations, advice and support for you? If you attended school in one of the eight states with so-called “No Promo Homo” laws, it most certainly did not.
At ASTROGLIDE, we’ve had the opportunity to attend the National SexEd Conference for the past several years, where we’ve met numerous educators who are passionate about helping people learn about their sexual health from adolescence through all stages of adulthood. One thing we’ve heard them say repeatedly is that sex-positive sexual education for LGBTQ+ young people is one of the most critical issues facing teachers, schools and society today.
There are various ways to describe the gay community, and it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of which letters represent what. According to gender equity experts, LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (or questioning).
However, this acronym is constantly evolving and doesn’t describe every identity, such as intersex, polysexual or asexual. The Gender Equity Resource Center at the University of Wisconsin explains that the + symbol is “an umbrella term/symbol used in order to be all-inclusive of anyone who desires to identify with this community.”
A look at sex education programs among the 50 states reveals that many are woefully inadequate, regardless of a student’s sexual orientation.
And for gay and lesbian teens? In some states, these students receive either no instruction at all, or a state-approved lecture condemning “homosexual conduct” as a “criminal offense under the laws of the state.” (Yes, that’s real. See Alabama State Code § 16-40A-2(c)(8).)
Whether you believe that sex education is a fundamental right or simply a good idea, the numbers don’t lie: gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth are shockingly underserved when it comes to getting access to important — and sometimes life-saving — information about their sexual and reproductive health.
Estimates vary, but population surveys indicate that roughly 3.5 percent of the overall American population is gay. This means that about 9 million people in the U.S. — the equivalent of the population of New Jersey — identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
However, it’s tough to pin down exactly how many Americans identify as queer, according to Dr. Gary J. Gates, the research director of The Charles R. Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the UCLA School of Law.
He explains that getting an accurate idea of the number of LGBTQ+ Americans is difficult because population surveys typically don’t include questions about sexual orientation.
Dr. Gates told NPR, “We just don’t ask these [questions] on the major federal surveys that are used typically to count Americas or to kind of gauge the health and well-being of Americans.”
When asked why surveys tend to skip these questions, Dr. Gates said that survey administrators fear that the questions are too private, or that respondents might quit the survey if asked about sexual preferences. He added, “I think for a long time there was a great fear of confidentiality in making their LGBT status known on federal surveys.”
You can’t do much online these days without reading something about millennials. The much-maligned generation regularly makes headlines for doing a variety of things, from disrupting the workforce to changing the way wine is sold.
However, the members of the Oregon Trail generation are not just flexible employees or powerful consumers — statistically, they are more accepting of diversity, more likely to support gay rights and more open to change compared to previous generations.
They are also more likely than their parents or grandparents to identify as gay. A report released by the Public Religion Research Institute reveals that seven percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 say they are openly gay — for those keeping score at home, that’s double the number in the overall population.
If more Americans are identifying as gay, it’s clear that public sex education needs to include information and resources for queer teens. Unfortunately, many state sex ed classes fall short for heterosexual and homosexual kids alike.
A snapshot of sex ed programs across the country doesn’t show a pretty picture. Sexual education policies are largely shaped at the state level, which means that a student in one state may receive sexual education that is vastly different from the sex ed offered to a student in another state — assuming the student receives it at all.
Furthermore, certain federal dollars are specifically earmarked for “abstinence-only” sexual education, and states that accept these funds are required by federal law to incorporate “abstinence-only-until marriage” policies into their sex ed programs — and no matter how much you love Beyoncé, “put a ring on it” has been repeatedly disproven as an effective way to reduce teen pregnancy. On the contrary, the U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any industrialized nation in the world — so we’re winning, but in the worst way possible.
Despite widespread evidence that abstinence-only sexual education doesn’t work to reduce the number of sexual partners among teens or lower the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, Congress increased funding for these programs in 2015 to the tune of $25 million annually.
If you’ve ever heard the expression “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink,” you have a pretty good understanding of the state of sex education in America. To put it another way, lawmakers are throwing a lot of money at the problem, with very little to show for it.
According to a 2015 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just half of high schools and a mere fifth of middle schools in the U.S. cover all 16 federally recommended points for sex education.
The CDC report also reveals that only 24 percent of schools offer sex education to lesbian, gay or bisexual students.
The National Conference of State Legislatures breaks down school sex ed programs even further, explaining:
With a list like that, it’s no wonder so many young people — and even adults — still have questions about sex education.
And if you’re an adolescent living in one of the eight states that actively discourage teens from learning about homosexuality, your chances of receiving useful, accurate information about your sexual health drop to zero.
In short, it’s not an overstatement to say that state sex education programs are breathtakingly inadequate, whether you’re a girl who likes girls, or who likes boys to be girls or any of the other confusing but awesome lyrics in that Blur song.
Sadly, the cringeworthy moniker isn’t the worst thing about the group of states with laws that forbid schools from teaching kids about queer sexuality. A hard look at these “No Promo Homo” statutes shows that young people in these states are often exposed to negative discussions of their sexuality, as well as deliberately deprived of resources to help them deal with bullying and harassment.
According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN (pronounced “glisten”), laws in Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah not only fail to offer any kind of sex education to LGBTQ+ students — they expressly forbid gay sex education.
Created by a group of educators in 1990, GLSEN has advocated for health equity and comprehensive gay sex ed in public schools for nearly three decades. In its 2015 National School Climate Survey, GLSEN found that fewer than five percent of LGBTQ+ teens received positive gay-focused sex education in public school.
This means that queer teens are getting little or no instruction about how to prevent sexually transmitted diseases despite higher than average rates of STDs among men who have sex with men (MSM). As the CDC points out, anyone — queer or straight — can get an STD through sexual contact, but MSMs account for more than half of all HIV infections and over 81 percent of new syphilis cases.
In addition to exposing the pitiful lack of sex ed offerings for gay adolescents and teens, GLSEN’s report also highlights why comprehensive LGBTQ+ sex education is critically important.
The following stats paint a stark portrait of the consequences of ignoring and marginalizing queer youth in public schools:
These numbers include children as young as 13, and the survey was conducted in schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
For gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens, the stigma of being other in an environment that supports traditional sexual preferences can have life-and-death consequences. Organizations like The Trevor Project exist because LGBTQ+ young people have suicide attempt rates four times higher than their straight peers.
Sex educators also say that even when school districts incorporate positive discussions about gay and lesbian health into their sex ed curriculum, they tend to leave out entire segments of the LGBTQ+ population.
As sex educator Kim Comatas points out, there is an increasing amount of recognition of LGB issues, but little attention given to the people represented by the last two letters in that acronym: T and Q+.
“So many of my students are completely understanding of LGB and are now looking for inclusion of T&Q+,” she says. “They identify as Queer, Gender Non-conforming or Gender Fluid and seek education online because classroom explanations are not inclusive of all gender identities.”
Comatas says that gays and lesbians are “the most included group” in discussions of queer sex ed — even when discussing discrimination.
She adds that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell not only broke down barriers for gay marriage, it provided validation for gay and lesbian youth by normalizing homosexuality and creating awareness and acceptance of diversity. “Trans, gender fluid and other queer teens are now waiting for the same equal treatment,” she says.
For transgender, gender fluid and gender non-conforming young people, equal treatment is not the norm, whether you’re talking about sex ed or something as basic as personal safety.
2015 was the deadliest year for transgender Americans — until 2016. In 2015, there were more transgender people murdered in the United States than any other year in history. By November the following year, 26 transgender people had been murdered due to their gender identity — easily eclipsing 2015.
According to Comatas, educators have many opportunities to use transgender issues as teachable moments in the classroom, using “bathroom bills” as an example of why it’s important for teachers to cover the full spectrum of LGBTQ+ topics. State legislatures in 19 states considered bathroom bills in 2016, and 10 other states have entertained similar laws in previous years.
Comatas says sexual education programs also need to include discussions of asexuality and pansexuality — two other forms of sexual identity that are often overlooked, even when sex ed classes make an attempt to cover gay sexuality.
Sam Cooke famously sang that change has been “a long time coming.” In the context of sex education — particularly for LGBTQ+ youth — change seems to be locked in a Congressional holding pattern.
Introduced in 2013 and reintroduced in 2015, the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act is currently under consideration in a Congressional subcommittee. If passed, the Act would significantly change the way federal money is used to fund sex education programs. Most notably, the Act would repeal abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and replace them with comprehensive sexual health education programs that “are inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.”
Organizations like History UnErased are also working to promote awareness of LGBTQ+ contributions to society throughout history. Founded by two veteran teachers, History UnErased provides tools, programs and resources for educators and students interested in learning more about the important work done by LGBTQ+ individuals in every era and every field, including science, the military, the arts, healthcare and civil rights.
There might be a dire lack of gay sex education resources in American public schools, but the private — and even religious — sector has taken up some of the slack.
Anyone who has ever assumed that being gay means being strictly secular might be pleasantly surprised to discover that the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC) have partnered to create a robust and well-developed sex education program that is informative and inclusive for all types of sexuality.
The Our Whole Lives program provides sexual education for adults and children from kindergarten through high school, with age-appropriate instruction and resources for youth in elementary, middle and high school.
The program also encourages instructors to “always make space for participants who may be questioning their gender by making no assumptions about the identities of anyone in the group” and to “allow students to self-identify their own gender” when dividing groups for gender-specific discussions.
Although the Our Whole Lives program contains “no explicit religious references,” the UUA/UCC also offers a religious education supplement, Sexuality and Our Faith.
While not specifically targeted toward the LGBTQ+ community, the Juicebox app allows users from all sexual walks of life to ask anonymous questions and get expert answers from the Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists.
Juicebox users can also share relationship and sex stories anonymously on the app’s Spill feature, which is both entertaining and occasionally eyebrow-raising. Stories run the gamut from adventures in gay dating to things you should never ask a transgender person.
Brianna Rader, the app’s founder, says she was inspired to create Juicebox after receiving abstinence-only sex ed at her Tennessee high school. “We’re all about getting rid of shame and stigma,” Rader told the Chicago Tribune.
Based in Washington, D.C., Advocates for Youth focuses exclusively on promoting the reproductive and sexual health rights of all individuals, regardless of sexual orientation, between the ages of 14 and 25. The organization’s Sex Education Resource Center offers lesson plans, videos and tools for educators and sex education advocates. There are also specific resources for parents.
Do you have an inspiring gay sex education advocacy story to share? Or know of an LGBTQ+ sex education resource we missed? Let us know by tweeting us @ASTROGLIDE.
images are for illustrative purposes.