The Trump administration's efforts to reshape sex education in the U.S. continued last week with the introduction of an updated funding guidance for Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs (TPPP). The new guidelines require grantees to focus on "sexual risk avoidance" and "sexual risk reduction" programs — advocacy code for abstinence-only education.
Health advocates worry that the new guidance emphasizing abstinence-only programs could have harmful repercussions for all students, but specifically one community: LGBTQ+ teens. In previous administrations, the funding guidelines for government-sponsored TPPPs required that grantees had programs "inclusive of LGBTQ youth." That language was completely scrapped in the Trump administration's new guidance.
The lack of comprehensive sex education for LGBTQ+ teens can have a long-lasting impact on them, Taissa Morimoto, policy counsel at the National LGBTQ Task Force, told Refinery29. Studies have found that LGBTQ+ teens are more likely to start having sex at an earlier age, more likely to experience sexual violence, less likely to use contraception, and more likely to contract HIV or other STIs.
Morimoto said that LGBTQ+ teens may not feel comfortable talking about specific issues if they don't see their teachers addressing their experiences in school, leading them to rely on information from their peers or the internet — which may not be accurate. "So, they might already be having negative sexual experiences because they're relying on faulty data," she said.
Morimoto added that not learning this information in school can even cause problems in their adult lives.
"Going to doctors as an adult I have a lot of issues because they're constantly erasing my identity, constantly asking questions that are intrusive and not relevant, or they can't understand certain aspects of my identity," she said. "It's a lifelong sexual health issue that LGBTQ people have to face and it really starts as a young person in school."
Only 12% of millennials were taught about same-sex relationships in their sex education classes, according to a 2015 study by the Public Religion Research Institute. And those who do learn something about same-sex relationships, might receive messages that stigmatize LGBTQ+ people. As of now, seven states have what advocates call "no promo homo laws," legislation that bars teachers from offering representing same-sex relationships in a positive light or forces them to omit information that would benefit LGBTQ+ students. In Alabama, for example, educators are required by law to emphasize that "homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public."
The data shows the impact these laws and similar heteronormative sex education has on teenagers: A 2015 National School Climate Survey by GLSEN, a national education organization focusing on creating safe and inclusive schools, found that only 5.7% of students say they had health classes teaching positive representations of LGBTQ+ topics.
"Fear-mongering, abstinence-only education programs will be devastating for young people, especially for LGBTQ people and teens of color."
Taissa Morimoto, policy counsel at the National LGBTQ Task Force
If one adds abstinence-only-until marriage programs (AOUMs) to this mix — which teaches young people that the only correct and moral path is to have sex within the confines of marriage — the lack of information is bound to get even worse for LGBTQ+ teens. AOUMs fail to teach students about topics such as contraception, safe sex, and healthy relationships. When it concerns LGBTQ+ youth, it also means they don't discuss crucial things, such as sexual orientation, gender identity, and engaging in safe sexual practices with a same-sex partner.
Those who advocate for abstinence-only educations argue that comprehensive sex ed can lead to "promiscuity," while AOUMs programs are engineered to curb that. But most research consistently shows that teaching students only about abstinence doesn't stop them from having sex. If anything, teens — regardless of their sexual orientation — just end up engaging in unsafe, unhealthy practices.
Morimoto said that a shift away from what we know as comprehensive sex education would directly impact marginalized communities. "Fear-mongering, abstinence-only education programs will be devastating for young people," she said, "especially for LGBTQ people and teens of color."
Even though research has found that AOUMs are largely ineffective, that hasn't stopped the Trump administration from pushing for this type of sex ed. President Trump appointed longtime abstinence-only advocate Valerie Huber to the Health and Human Services Department, last summer the administration cut the funding for TPPPs, and his 2018 budget proposal called for a a $277 million investment to extend abstinence-only education programs between 2018 and 2024.
At the federal level, there's no guidance indicating how sex education in the U.S should look like. But by prioritizing abstinence-only programs in their new funding guidelines, the Trump administration is effectively trying to reshape sex ed in the country.
"Where the federal government directs funding has a huge ripple effect on the policies that happen at the state, local, school district, and individual schools levels," Jesseca Boyer, senior policy manager at the Guttmacher Institute, told Refinery29 earlier this year.
Ellen Kahn, director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Children, Youth and Families Program, told Refinery29 that an emphasis on abstinence-only education or sex ed that excludes LGBTQ+ topics can often signal that the student body and the school administration is less supportive of these teens, which puts them in danger.
"The risks include higher risks of depression and anxiety, that really comes from fear and the experience of being physically or verbally harassed. Or in the case of trans and non-binary kids, not having access to the restrooms or locker rooms corresponding to their gender identity or maybe being misgendered," she said. "All of this is tied to the impact of discrimination and bias."
Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the Trump administration's effort is just the latest move impacting LGBTQ+ people in the country.
“The Trump-Pence administration’s move to erase LGBTQ youth from the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program is part of a long string of attacks on LGBTQ people’s health and rights. Every young person – regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity – has the right to the information and skills they need to protect their health and plan their futures," she said in a statement provided to Refinery29. "Sex education that ignores the experiences and needs of LGBTQ youth deprives them of the resources they need to make their own informed decisions about their bodies, prevent unintended pregnancies, and keep themselves safe and healthy. The bottom line is that LGBTQ young people, like all young people, should get age-appropriate, medically accurate information and answers to their questions about sex and relationships, without being shamed or judged."
Kahn agreed: "There's no explicit effort in this current administration to addressing the needs of LGBTQ folks at all," she said. "It's a complete contrast from where we were before."
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