It's no secret that the state of sex education in America can be dire — so much so that when Refinery29 polled more than 500 of our staffers and readers about their sex ed, we found that nearly a third described their respective experiences as "terrible."
But if sex ed already fails to be comprehensive in general, often neglecting subjects like consent and pleasure, imagine how unhelpful it can be for students who identify as LGBTQ.
In fact, according to a 2016 report from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), LGBTQ students are even less likely than their peers to find sex ed useful. In a survey of 1,367 students, almost half (46.5%) of LGBTQ students who received sex ed said they didn't find it useful, while less than a third (29.9%) of their non-LGBTQ peers reported the same.
These results aren't exactly surprising. For starters, a 2015 study from the Public Religion Research Institute found that a mere 12% of millennials reported that their sex education classes even discussed same-sex relationships in the first place. And, sadly, most of the dialogue around LGBTQ sex ed is about how terrible it can be. A cursory Google search for "LGBTQ sex ed" will bring up front-page results like "The Quest For Inclusive Sex Ed" and "LGBTQ Youth Need Inclusive Sex Education." Not to mention, what we learn about virginity and safer sex often neglects to cover what those topics might entail for people who aren't heterosexual. In fact, sex ed can fail to acknowledge that even what's considered sex in the first place can differ depending on the person.
Sexual health education is crucial, not only to students' current well-being, but also the rest of their lives.
Noreen Giga, senior research associate for GLSEN
Discussing sexual orientation and LGBTQ issues in a positive way, however, is crucial to inclusive and useful sex ed that sets up students for safer, consensual sex lives (which is a pretty bare minimum goal). Noreen Giga, senior research associate for GLSEN, tells Refinery29 that even when LGBTQ issues are included in sex ed or other health discussions, they can be covered in a stigmatizing way, like "only talking about the LGBTQ community when talking about harmful behaviors" — for example, only discussing HIV/AIDS when it comes to transgender people and gay men.
"That’s just talking about the community in a negative way and not providing any positive information or representation around LGBTQ youth, especially when it pertains to healthy sexual behavior," Giga says. "HIV can be an issue in the LGBTQ community, but that doesn’t mean that’s what health education should focus on — it needs to focus on preparing young people to engage in safer sex practices."
It's no wonder, then, that GLSEN's 2015 National School Climate Survey found that less than 6% of LGBTQ middle and high school students in the U.S. learned about LGBTQ issues in a positive way during health classes. So where does that leave the remaining 94% of LGBTQ students? In an educational environment that either covers these issues in a negative way or completely ignores them. And that's unacceptable.
"There are so many barriers when it comes to sex education overall that when you move down the line to thinking about comprehensiveness and inclusivity, it’s a huge challenge," Giga says.
While it's clear that educators have to make sure that sex education really prepares everyone — not just straight people — the rest of society needs to do our part and examine our own biases to help make that possible. Positive, comprehensive LGBTQ sex ed isn't a straightforward issue that can be solved with any one solution. But in a world where parents can be outraged over children learning about different sexualities in school, and health teachers can be suspended for teaching students about gender identity, perhaps we can start by helping people better understand orientations and identities that are different from their own.
We may have a ways to go before sex education really addresses the issues it needs to in order to help us all lead healthier, more enjoyable lives, but we do have to start somewhere — even if that means having conversations that make us uncomfortable. (Need help? Our Gender Nation glossary is a great place to start.)
"We need to let go of this fear that you need to know all these answers [about sexual education], or this idea that young people need to feel shame when asking these questions [about sexual health]," Giga says. "Sexual health education is crucial, not only to students' current well-being, but also the rest of their lives. It plays a part in having healthy relationships, learning to negotiate better health care, communicating with doctors, and even in how we think about gender roles."
Bottom line: Everyone deserves education that helps them make healthy choices about their bodies and their relationships, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity happens to be.
Gender and sexual orientation are both highly personal and constantly evolving. So, in honor of Transgender Awareness Week, we're talking about the importance of language and raising the voices of the LGBTQIA community. Welcome to Gender Nation, where gender is defined by the people who live it. Want to learn more? Check out our Gender Nation glossary.
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