Can We Adapt Sex Ed For The New LGBT-Inclusive America?

Shayna Knowles teaching a sex education class at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Lake Worth, Florida. CREDIT: ALAN DIAZ, AP
Shayna Knowles teaching a sex education class at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Lake Worth, Florida. CREDIT: ALAN DIAZ, AP

After the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, the conversation within various groups in the LGBT community is “What’s next?” There is still workplace and housing discrimination. There is still police abuse and targeting of LGBT people, especially trans women of color. One possible issue on the agenda that would provide a foundation for LGBT youth to feel secure and prevent the social isolation that can lead to dropping out of school, depression and suicide, is LGBT-inclusive sex education. Although something as simple as including same-sex relationships in classroom examples may seem small, the effect it has on LGBT-identified young people is huge.

“That may sound unimportant, but for young people who feel invisible and overlooked, even something that simple can be a signal that an outside educator or teacher is an ally and that may lead to a conversation outside of class,” said Leslie Kantor, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood. “So I do think there are small things that make a difference, and for heterosexual youth, it’s also modeling being an ally and that’s a very important role.”

LGBT youth are more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual teens, but even small things like signs of support at a school can mitigate issues such as depression and low self-esteem. A 2011 study from the Family Acceptance Project, which was published in Applied Developmental Science, shows that students with Gay Straight Alliances at their schools were less likely to experience depression or drop out and were more likely to have higher self-esteem and succeed in higher education, regardless of whether they participated.

Of the 22 states that actually require sex education, only 12 of them ask that teachers mention sexual orientation. Only nine states require that discussion of sexual orientation should be inclusive, according to the Guttmacher Institute’s latest July 1 update on the state of sex education.


One of the big questions, however, is what exactly an LGBT-inclusive sex education would look like, and how it can overcome the challenges in place.

Getting Over Parental Objections

Of course, some parents object to the idea of teaching children about even broad LGBT subjects in an easy to understand way, said Kris Gowen, senior research associate at Oregon Health and Science University, said the best thing she can do to is send the message that it’s about acceptance and self-esteem.

“When they’re 3 years old, their brain isn’t grabbing on to the idea of sexual orientation and gender expression as abstract things. People are like ‘Oh you’re teaching sexual orientation and gender identity to my 4 year old,’” Gowen said, “But what we’re teaching these young people is that they can shape their interests how they want to shape them and that they should not be restricted. Ultimately what we’re trying to do is build kids’ self-esteem, and I think when you put it that way it’s difficult for anyone to argue against that.”

Kantor of Planned Parenthood said there need to be not only support services for students coming out but also for parents who have questions about gender identity and sexual orientation, so they don’t risk hurting their relationship with their child by making potentially offensive remarks. She pointed out that because LGBT teens are coming out at younger and younger ages, running counter to a historical trend of LGBT people coming out once they reach adulthood and were independent from the family, it’s even more important to focus on parents’ reactions.


It’s not uncommon for LGBT children to experience everything from lack of support to abuse from parents after coming out. Half of LGBT teens receive a negative reaction from parents after coming out and 30 percent are physically abused, according to Psychology Today.

“Parental reactions matter tremendously to young people in middle school and high school. It’s pretty damaging to the parent-child relationship when the parents are having those feelings with those child and I think the gap is we haven’t really provided a resource for parents where they can take their parents,” Kantor said.

What An LGBT-Inclusive Sex Ed Curriculum Looks Like

An accurate and holistic sex education for straight, cis students could easily be adapted to include LGBT students. Sex education experts suggest beginning conversations about relationships and families and help children assert their own physical boundaries, whether it’s a stranger or people the child knows. As the children move through primary school, educators will sometimes begin to challenge gender roles, such as questioning why boys can’t wear pink or why something is a “boy” activity. Sex education experts have different ideas of when to begin talking about STIs and pregnancy, but 7th and 8th grade sex education classes generally focus on how you know whether or not you’re ready to have sex and consent and sexual harassment issues. Then in high school, the discussion often changes to teaching basic features of the reproductive system and STI and pregnancy prevention.

An LGBT inclusive sex education would mention that there are a variety of families, including same-sex parents parents, and challenges to gender roles would be helpful to including nonbinary, agender and transgender people. Teachers can talk about consent and STI prevention in a way that doesn’t just focus on heterosexual relationships or penetration and cover pregnancy prevention in a way that doesn’t exclude transgender people.

“One of the most frustrating things for me … is that it’s rare that teachers are adept at separating identity and behavior. They muddle the two up in ways that does a disservice to prevention education, to students and to anyone they’re talking to,” said Maureen Kelly, vice president for programming and communications at Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes. “I think that a lot of really good-hearted teachers struggle to talk about STI prevention and pregnancy prevention without just accidentally dropping in such heterosexual presumptions.”


Fortunately there are a few good guides for LGBT-inclusive sex education teachers, including The Future of Sex Education Initiative or FoSE’s National Sexuality Education Standards. FoSE worked with several organizations, including the National Education Association and The American Association of Health Education.

At Green Acres Middle School, where Danner teaches, there is a “Day of Action,” where students can attend various panels and listen to LGBT high school students talk about their experiences and relationships or listen to non-LGBT youth talk about how to be a proper ally.

“Instead of regular classes, kids get to sign up for seminars that are we begin the day with an assembly and end with assembly,” Danner said. “It’s is all about talking about issues that affect LGBT community, and we bring in students from high schools and have a panel of allies and panel of LGBT students who tell, in an age-appropriate way, their story.”

It’s important for LGBT youth to be well-educated on issues around reproductive health care, because often health providers make assumptions and don’t offer services they would otherwise. For example, plenty of health care providers assume lesbian patients don’t need cervical cancer screening because they think the patient has not previously had sex with men, according to a 2012 guide released by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists on health care for lesbian and bisexual women.

Another common misconception is that teenagers who identify as lesbian or gay don’t need to learn about pregnancy prevention. But studies have shown that whether adolescent women identify as lesbian/gay or bisexual, their pregnancy rates are as high or higher than adolescent heterosexual teenagers. There is also evidence that male gay and bisexual adolescents are more likely to be involved in a pregnancy than their heterosexual counterparts.

Making Sure LGBT Education Includes Bi and Trans

Planned Parenthood’s Kelly said she’s particularly concerned about how bisexuality is covered in sex education, as well as trans people or anyone who falls into a less discussed sexuality or identity such as demisexual or genderqueer. She’s concerned about “bi erasure,” or the idea that bisexual people are categorized as either gay or heterosexual without acknowledgement of their true identity.

“I just think that it is still profoundly misunderstood. And unfortunately in some educational contexts, it’s still a punchline, which is hurtful. It’s also a really inappropriate way for people to talk about risk, and thus a bisexual person being where a lot of that risk is cited, and often times being part of a problem scenario rather than identity scenario,” Kelly said. “But I think with lesbian and gay administrators and principals are like ‘Yeah, we have to be good about these gay kids. That’s important.’ I think that bi and trans stuff is definitely an issue, as well as anything around a nonbinary aspect or genderqueer kid or asexuality or aromantic.”

Ryan Sallans, an LGBTQ healthcare educator and trainer, said it is vital for trans people to be represented in sex education. Sallans’ own sex education in the 1980s consisted of a now infamous video of a woman making pancakes in the shape of fallopian tubes.

“When I think about transgender students, one of the biggest gaps we have in education is around fertility and reproduction and transgender identities, especially students who are on hormone therapy, or currently on puberty blockers,” Sallans said.

One of the common issues trans students have with current sex education is with the gendering of body parts, when they would prefer explanations such as “when a person gets pregnant …” Sallans said that he has seen misinformation spread as a trans man getting hormone therapy, which is why it’s important for trans students to know the correct information at an early age.

“For example, when I began my transition 10 years ago, I was told by a medical provider that after six months on testosterone, there was no risk of pregnancy, and after five to 10 years on testosterone I would have to have a hysterectomy,” Sallans said. “Now, we know that testosterone should not be relied on as a person’s birth control, and it is not medically necessary for all transgender men to have a hysterectomy. For some, it may be, but that isn’t because of being on testosterone, but rather other medical needs and risk factors, and also is not set within the five to 10-year range.”

Teachers Fear Getting It Wrong

Advocates say that even teachers who really care about teaching an LGBT-inclusive sex education reflexively use heteronormative language, but they need to be trained and be allowed some understanding that it takes time to learn all the language and adjust their mindset. They say teachers can be given room to make mistakes as long as they listen to students’ feedback and consider their training a continuing education.

“Most of the people teaching sex ed in schools, we weren’t trained to do this. You also have people of varying cultural backgrounds and ages and experiences and you can’t help but carry some of that with you,” said Kappell Danner, a middle school counselor at Green Acres School, who admits her training on sex education has been informal, like many sex education teachers.

The fear of being imperfect and saying something wrong can be paralyzing to teachers, even though it comes from a good place, Kelly said. She has seen it firsthand as she has trained teachers to speak on LGBT-inclusive sex education.

“A lot of teachers, when it comes to sex education, let alone inclusive sex education, just don’t want to screw up, and I love that about them, but you’re going to screw up,” Kelly said. “I just have to be responsive and say, ‘Thank you, I didn’t know that word. Let me correct that and keep teaching.’”

Political Vs. Cultural Changes

The big challenge is whether to get LGBT-inclusive sex education, and accurate sex education in general, into schools through national legislation or by state-by-state legislation. The experts say mandates have a mixed record.

“Whether or not there’s a mandate has very little to do with what happens on school district level. Those mandates just don’t tend to have a lot of teeth and are hard to enforce, so this is very much a local district issue,” Planned Parenthood’s Kantor said.

Kantor said that working with Adolescent Health Office in the U.S. Health and Human Services Department to provide LGBT-inclusive sex education may be the best strategy. The Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, which would award federal grants to schools so they can teach comprehensive sex education, including gender identity and sexual orientation, was introduced in 2013 but has been sitting in the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. However, it still wouldn’t be a requirement for schools to follow through with any of these actions, as it would be a grant they would have to apply for.

But these efforts have been met with resistance. Conservatives have misinterpreted comprehensive and LGBT-inclusive standards as Common Core standards. The Common Core standards do not include sex education.

Planned Parenthood is planning to team up with the Human Rights Campaign to offer digital resources to LGBT youth who want support services on everything from sexuality to coming out but aren’t comfortable visiting a local LGBT center, offering a non-legislative solution for LGBT youth.

LGBTQ educator Sallans said that if the SCOTUS ruling affects sex education, it would more likely influence current abstinence-only curricula, since marriage includes same-sex couples. He said more inclusive sex education will really depend on well-trained teachers.

“To have overall inclusive sexuality education … it is set on the hinges of schools having standards in place that allow them all to adopt a universal comprehensive sex-ed model, and have teachers who are properly trained in order to provide consistent and adequate education,” Sallans said. “All of us need to have education about our sexuality. To have non-shaming and unbiased education is imperative so that we all can understand who we are as sexual beings.”