October 23, 2013

Including LGBT-Content in Sex Education: Four Wrong Ways (and One Right One)

Now that the school year is in full swing, we'd like to discuss one of the aspects of inclusive curriculum that we get asked about the most: the importance of incorporating lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues in sexuality education. Providing LGBT youth with accurate and useful information that is relevant to their sexual health and development is critical, particularly given the sexual health disparities widely reported for LGBT youth, such as increased rates of sexually transmitted infections. Perhaps these disparities are caused, in part, by the type of sex education LGBT youth receive (or don’t receive) in school. Researchers and health education experts alike have highlighted how sexuality education in U.S. schools often stigmatizes LGBT people and issues or excludes them altogether. For example, in our National School Climate Survey (pdf), we found that only 4% of LGBT students were taught positive information about LGBT people or issues in their health classes. And teachers in some states (i.e., Arizona, South Carolina) and individual school districts are explicitly prohibited from even mentioning any LGBT-related content in a positive way, if at all.

Here we lay out five possible approaches to inclusion of LGBT people and issues in sexuality education – four that are seriously flawed and one that is truly inclusive. Which type have you seen practiced at your school or at schools you have attended?pullquote

The Ignoring Approach. The curriculum ignores the existence of LGBT people and non-heterosexual behaviors completely.  Not only is there an omission of LGBT people and related topics, but heterosexuality is put forth as the norm and only conceivable option.  Given its focus on marriage (almost exclusively defined as between a man and a woman), abstinence-only education often falls into this approach (for more on abstinence-only sex education and how it affects LGBT students, check out p. 50 in our National School Climate Survey (pdf).

The Demonizing Approach. The curriculum includes, yet demonizes, LGBT people and non-heterosexual behaviors by either explicitly teaching that that homosexuality is wrong or implicitly communicating that being LGBT is undesirable and unacceptable.  For example, some curricula equate homosexuality with child sexual abuse or insinuate that gay men are responsible for the AIDS epidemic.

The Stigmatizing Approach. In this case, the curriculum may not outright condemn LGBT people or any non-heterosexual feelings or behaviors, but mentions LGBT people only when discussing risk behaviors (e.g., those related to HIV or other sexual transmitted infections). This portrays LGBT people as dangerous and their sexual behaviors as risky and abnormal.

The Transgender-Excluding Approach. The sex education curriculum may include LGB people and non-heterosexuality in an affirming, respectful manner, and yet still exclude transgender people and issues completely, negating their existence and value. 

The Truly LGBT-Inclusive Approach. This approach includes and infuses LGBT people and issues throughout the sex education curriculum. It does not assume heterosexuality in its definitions of sexual activities or discussions of romantic relationships. It challenges the gender binary (i.e., that there are only two genders, male and female, and that are mutually exclusive) and pays more than token attention to transgender people and concerns. It avoids relegating LGBT issues to “special topics” and instead includes discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity throughout the curriculum. Unfortunately, this is the least common type of sex education provided in our schools today.

GLSEN believes that sexuality education must be truly LGBT-inclusive. This would benefit not only LGBT youth, but also provide non-LGBT youth with an opportunity to dispel myths about issues of sexual orientation and gender and broaden their understanding about LGBT peoples and communities.

If you want to learn more, these five approaches to LGBT-inclusion in sexuality education are discussed in more detail in our recent book chapter on LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum.

Emily Greytak

About Emily Greytak

Emily Greytak, Ph.D. is GLSEN's Director of Research. She first became involved with GLSEN 15 years ago as a volunteer with her local chapter and has been part of the GLSEN staff since 2006. Follow @GLSENResearch to stay informed of current research on LGBT issues in education.

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