chart of suicide rates by sexual orientation

How too many sex education programs harm LGBTQ youth

Ed. note: This post was originally published on the Community site.

In March, North Carolina’s House of Representatives passed HB 29, an education bill that includes a litany of requirements for how schools teach sexual health. It is riddled with contradictions, conservative ideologies, and scientific inaccuracies. Sadly, it will do little to improve—and, indeed might harm—the physical and mental health of young people across the state.

The bill requires that beginning in the seventh grade, all schools provide a reproductive health and safety course with a curriculum that is “objective and based upon scientific research that is peer reviewed and accepted by professionals and credentialed experts in the field of sexual health education.” Oddly enough, the requirements of the bill couldn’t be further from this very mandate.

Even more problematically, HB 29 promotes a school culture that marginalizes and harms LGBTQ youth. The bill requires schools to discuss sex as something that should only occur within the “mutually faithful, monogamous, heterosexual relationship” of marriage. By limiting what is taught and viewed as acceptable sex, this mandate stigmatizes and alienates LGBTQ students. By omitting the experiences and identities of these youth, the new curriculum implicitly defines them as deviant and socially unacceptable, and makes them invisible. Research shows that the median age at which lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults first report feeling they might identify as something other than heterosexual is 12, which means that non-straight students will face years of education that stigmatizes and invalidates part of their identity.

The current heterosexual bias in sexual education is a systemic policy failure that is harming young people. Teaching abstinence-only sex ed designed exclusively for heterosexual, cisgender students limits young people’s knowledge about their own sexuality and gender identity—and that of their peers—and poses a risk to students’ physical and mental health. Inaccurate and inadequate sex ed legislation and curricula contribute to risky sexual behaviors and foster an unhealthy environment for LGBTQ students who already experience higher rates of emotional distress, depression, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts than their cisgendered and heterosexual peers. Among transgender youth, 90 percent reported feeling unsafe at school because of their gender expression, and a shocking 33.2 percent have attempted suicide.

We know that sexuality education programs can make a big difference. Research shows that LGBTQ students in abstinence-only programs face greater verbal harassment than LGBTQ students in more comprehensive and inclusive sexual education programs. Additionally, schools that teach HIV/AIDS prevention appropriate for both heterosexual and same-sex relationships improve the health of LGBTQ students. LGBTQ students in these inclusive courses report lower sexual risk-taking and substance abuse than students in non-inclusive sexual health programs.

North Carolina is not the only state that continues to teach abstinence-only education despite proof of its inefficacy, and it is certainly not the only state to disregard the needs of LGBTQ youth in sexual health courses. In the United States, 25 states require that abstinence be stressed and three states explicitly require the teaching of negative information about homosexuality and bisexuality.

Sex ed in middle school and high school classrooms must begin to address issues that affect sexual minorities. Instead of reinforcing and perpetuating societal stigma, comprehensive sexual education can provide a space for all students to have a positive, affirming, and empowering environment in which to grow and learn for physical, mental, and sexual health. The benefits of this safe, inclusive environment extend beyond students. By setting a standard of acceptance and inclusivity for LGBTQ youth in schools, comprehensive education shapes how other LGBTQ individuals are viewed and treated in the larger community.

Public schools could—and should—encourage a more inclusive understanding and acceptance of gender and sexuality. They could turn the tide of violence and discrimination that plagues too many LGBTQ youth. But in too many states, lawmakers are determined to stay the course to the detriment of young people often already marginalized by their families and communities. Shouldn’t it be the duty of lawmakers to ensure that schools are safe spaces for all students? In refusing to provide accurate and comprehensive sexual education that is applicable and relevant to students across all gender and sexual identities, our leaders are failing to fulfill that duty.

HB 29 states that the North Carolina General Assembly believes the mission of the public school community “is to challenge with high expectations each child to learn, to achieve, and fulfill his or her potential.” Unfortunately, HB 29 is going to make fulfilling that goal much harder for North Carolina’s LGBTQ youth.

Co-authored by Missy Brown, Emily Cerciello, and Andrea Flynn

Asheville, North Carolina

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