In school, I remember suffering greatly at the whim of my trigonometry teacher. “You’re going to need this one day” was the sad, omnipresent threat he held over my head about trig. My GPA dropped that year. The greater tragedy: I spent literal years dreading the expected moment in my adult life when trigonometry would pop out from behind some tree that was perfectly perpendicular to the ground.
Spoiler alert—the only class material I ever used from high school was the meager amount offered by sex ed. But no one there warned us we were “going to need it one day.” Maybe that’s because the sex education being taught in schools is not reflective of the sexual experiences of roughly one-fifth of the students in attendance.
A Harris Poll survey taken in the U.S. revealed that 20% of individuals ages 18-34 identify as LGBTQ. The data from the survey was also compiled to examine generational trends. These trends demonstrated that populations of newer generations tend to be comprised of increasing percentages of LGBTQ-identified individuals.
As these newer generations enter the education system, they also, thereby, are subject to school-based sex education programs. Therefore, that progressively growing percentage represents a subset of the student populace which deserves an education as much as their non-LGBTQIA+ counterparts. Yet a survey on the experiences of millennials in sex education showed only 12% said the subject of same-sex relationships was covered in their class. In addition, substantial health disparities among sexual minority students suggest this group remains desperately underserved—a problem which could be eased by inclusive sex education.
What Does “LGBTQIA+” Mean?
LGBTQIA+ is an acronym representative of the evolving terminology used to describe gender, orientation, and identity. This acronym has shifted towards higher degrees of inclusivity over the years, starting as simply LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) and adding initials as needed to represent the further developments in our understanding of (and vocabulary for) sexuality and gender identity.
The “Q” in the extended acronym represents “queer”—a term reclaimed to mean non-conforming to gender or sexuality “norms”—however, it can also refer to “questioning”. “Questioning” is a word embraced by those who are currently exploring or assessing their orientation or identity. These people may or may not currently, or wholly, identify with the existing descriptive terms.
The “I” symbolizes “intersex”. Sex characteristics, like most human traits, exist on a spectrum. They are variable, which means that the expression of chromosomes, hormones, reproductive organs, and genitalia in humans is also highly variable. As such, it is unrealistic to expect that every human on earth would fall into one of two categories delineating “typical” expression—especially when that expression covers four widely diverse traits regulated by multiple bodily systems. Many who do not possess sex characteristics pertaining exclusively to one of these two categories identify as intersex.
The “A”, is for “Asexual”. A colloquialism sometimes used in place of “asexual” is “ace”. Both are terms relating to those who experience little-to-no sexual attraction.
The plus sign (+) at the end of the acronym represents the idea that our understanding and language are constantly evolving. This means that there are conceptualizations of orientation and identity which we may not yet agree upon the terminology for, or fully comprehend. However, because we can conceive of this reality, we add a plus sign. We use this to denote that we are not willing to exclude those individuals residing outside the letters of the current acronym.
Other burgeoning variations on LGBTQIA+ include further sexualities and identities. Some of the more common variations may use the letter “P” for “pansexual”, a person whose attractions are not limited in terms of sex, gender, or gender identity. In other words, a pansexual individual is capable of feeling attraction regardless of the sex, gender, or gender identity of the person they are attracted to.
Related acronyms may also include the letter “D” for “demisexual”. A “demisexual” could refer to a person who does not typically experience much sexual attraction or whose sexual attractions are limited or absent unless or until a strong emotion connection develops.
What Does “Inclusive Sexual Education” Mean?
Inclusive sex education refers to sexual education programs which incorporate a variety of sexual expressions and experiences. This means sex ed that actually covers LGBTQIA+ sexual health topics and concerns. Inclusive sexual education would strive towards addressing the expansive territory of non-heterosexual sex and how participants can realistically ensure their sexual health and safety. (We’re looking at you, abstinence-only education…)
What do they teach you in schools nowadays?
The school-based “comprehensive” sex education programs which are currently in place are often not very inclusive. That is, they have a predominantly cisgender, hetero-centric focus.
Saying the programs promote a cisgender view means that they promulgate a narrowed interpretation of sex and sexual health. That particular interpretation (the cisgender view) is only consistent with the perspectives of people who were assigned a sex at birth and identify exclusively with that assignment. For example, if, at birth, a doctor declares a tiny human to be male, and that individual conceptualizes themselves (or identifies) as a boy or man, the assignment and identity are in agreement. Therefore, that person is “cisgender”. However, not all people are.
One issue with the way the programs have been “traditionally” taught is that there is this inherent bias. Specifically, the programs are biased in that they make the assumption that the information need only be presented from a cisgender perspective, and understood with cisgender applications. Therefore, this method excludes and devalues the experiences of every trans student.
Essentially, it’s like saying “We’re only going to teach trig to students who self-conceptualize as architects—the rest of you aren’t getting any math.” Except, of course, not at all, because doing this with sex ed is way more harmful since the subject matter is actually useful. And, no one thinks about trig immediately before having sex, unless they’re involved in an elaborate plot.
But there’s another factor making the current programs inadequate—the myopic coverage of straight sex. The problem here, is that the hetero-centric emphasis makes much of the material inapplicable to the lives and needs of its non-hetero recipients. Additionally, those to whom the hetero-centric information is inapplicable are forced to forego valuable, health-preserving information.
How would inclusive sex education be different?
A sex education program based on inclusivity would provide useful, valuable, and applicable information to all students. It would take into consideration the broad array of perspectives on sex and strive for a less biased presentation of information. It would not exclude students by omission of information. It would not invalidate the experiences or identities of those in attendance by turning a blind eye to their realities. After all, you don’t solve a problem by turning away from it.
Inclusivity is needed because sex ed affects LGBTQIA+ youth’s access to information
In the cisgender, hetero-centric model of sex education, LGBTQIA+ youth are sent away, no questions answered. These students, often between the ages of 13 to 18, then have the choice to remain uninformed or take the initiative to supplement their educational needs with alternate sources. Personally, I’d be hard-pressed to find a teen interested in doing extra homework. So, it’s safe to say that many never get the supplemental educational material they need.
For those who do go the extra mile, the internet is typically the go-to resource. Unfortunately, the web isn’t always the most scrupulous with regard to the material it provides. Therefore, the information these individuals are accessing is of considerably inconsistent reliability.
It shouldn’t be up to youth to provide their own education. That is why we have schools and school-based programming in the first place. LGBTQIA+ youth deserve safety and guidance delivered to them in a reliable and accessible format, just as much as their heterosexual peers.
Inclusivity is needed because sex ed affects LGBTQIA+ youth’s health. According to the CDC’s report, “Health Considerations for LGBTQ Youth”, LGBTQIA+ youth are at a higher risk for many negative health outcomes. These include higher rates of STD contraction among young men who have sex with men, as well as an increased likelihood of prior youth pregnancy among adolescent lesbian and bisexual females. But it’s not just syphilis and pregnancies we have to worry about.
In 2018, the CDC did an evaluation of new HIV cases in the U.S. and found that the majority of new HIV diagnoses were among gay and bisexual male youth. The CDC also found that youth were the least likely age group to be aware of their HIV status. The very first challenge to prevention the CDC cited as being responsible for these health disparities: inadequate sex education.
We don’t have to connect the dots—the research is doing it for us. When sex education lacks viable information for LGBTQIA+ teens, those teens pay for it with their health.
Inclusivity is needed because sex ed has a positive impact on emotional health. In 2017, the Human Rights Campaign, in conjunction with the University of Connecticut, organized a comprehensive study on the experiences of LGBTQ youth in America. The findings regarding mental health and emotional wellbeing were devastating. The study found 95% of LGBTQ youth have trouble sleeping, 85% report their average stress level as being above a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, and a whopping 70% faced bullying at school due to their orientation. The study also found that 77% of LGBTQ teens surveyed reported feeling depressed in the last week.
And while that HRC study is an eye-opener, the facts don’t stop there. The CDC, in their previously cited report, “Health Considerations for LGBTQ Youth” also discussed risks to the mental health of transgender youth. According to that report, “transgender youth are more likely to have attempted suicide than their cisgender peers”.
These stats underline a youth community in need, and while the challenges facing LGBTQIA+ youth are staggering, there is one potential solution which may help alleviate at least some of the mental health burden—and it’s an option we know hasn’t been adequately explored—inclusive sex education.
It may sound like an oversimplification of a complex problem, but according to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Medicine in January of 2019, “LGBTQ-inclusive sex education is associated with positive mental health outcomes and fewer reports of bullying victimization”. The study reported LGBTQ-inclusive sex education had a protective effect against depressive symptoms, suicidal thoughts, and making a suicide plan for all youth (which highlighted that inclusive school environments benefit heterosexual youth, too!). The inclusive programming also decreased the odds of gay and lesbian youth getting bullied on school property.
While the addition of school-based inclusive sexual education won’t fix everything, this study promises hope. It shows that there is light at the end of the tunnel and we can do something to support our LGBTQIA+ youth in meaningful and practical ways. But more than anything, it demonstrates that inclusive sexual education yields results.
So, why is a more inclusive discourse about sexual education so important? Well, the majority of sexual education being taught in school-based programming is geared toward cisgender, heterosexual individuals, and that discounts a significant portion of the youth population because, simply put, not all students are heterosexual, cisgender students. This means that while the youth of our population becomes more diverse in orientation and gender, sexual education fails to evolve with the needs of its pupils. That’s an issue, because adolescent sex education has been shown to reduce at-risk sexual behavior and may help prevent sexual assault in college—and if that education isn’t applicable to 20% of students, then this problem is neither innocuous nor victimless.
Furthermore, LGBTQIA+ youth face confounding risks to their physical, sexual, and mental health every day. Research has proven that inclusive sex education significantly reduces many of these threats, while, at the same time, providing benefit to non-LGBTQIA+ students as well. So, the evidence shows, if we include everyone, no one is left behind.
Everyone deserves an education. We need programs that recognize sex education as an important aspect of public health. An inclusive sex education program would ensure LGBTQIA+ students access to reliable information and resources, ease the mental health burden of our youth, promote better health outcomes, and create a more supportive environment for all.