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Our Students Are Being Forgotton: The Importance of LGBTQ And Sexuality Education

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This paper explores sexuality education within public schools in America, focusing on LGBTQ+ sexuality education topics, based upon research conducted from scholarly articles and print books. It has been found that sexuality education has changed little over time, from its inception within American public schools in the early 1900’s to its current form today (Elia & Eliason, 2010a). LGBTQ+ youth are being left out of sexuality education through three of four styles of sexuality education that currently exist in our school system. Sarah Conrey (2012) found that LGBTQ+ youth face major physical health issues, like STI’s (Sexually Transmitted Infections), due to a heteronormative (heterosexual ideas being shown as a given, instead of being one of many possible identities) sexuality education approach that caters to an “anti-pregnancy” message. This paper further examines the importance of LGBTQ+ sexuality education given in an inclusive curriculum as countries around the world have been seen providing. This paper will use the acronym LGBTQ+, which is defined as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and all others whom identify as something other than straight (heterosexual).

Imagine that you are back sitting in a sexuality education classroom. Assume that you are a heterosexual identifying individual where within the sexuality education classroom, only LGBTQ+ topics are taught (i.e., anal sex, vaginal stimulation without a penis, STI’s that are more common within LGBTQ+ individuals, etc.) excluding heterosexual sex practices, information on preventing pregnancy, and STI’s that may be more common within heterosexuals. Would you feel uncomfortable, awkward, or like the information doesn’t pertain to you? Would you feel confident that you could make informed decisions on heterosexual sex practices? These questions are what many students identifying as LGBTQ+ are thinking about within their own sexuality education classes. To understand why these questions are thought about by LGBTQ+ youth, we start by looking at the history and evolution of sexuality education.

Sexuality education was introduced to American public schools in the early 1900’s, originally preaching a strict abstinence-until-marriage approach. At this point in history, there was zero mention of any LGBTQ+ type topics within this education. As time progressed, so did our political views, personal and social views, and the advancement of equality through the nation. With these advances, sexuality education followed suit to attempt and match the social acceptabilities and norms. Sexuality education formed over time into four defined types: no sexuality education taught, abstinence-until-marriage (or abstinence-only), comprehensive (sexuality education being taught in a more open way, occasionally including mention of LGBTQ+ topics, allowing students to make their own informed decisions on sexual matters), and inclusive (a comprehensive sexuality education with full inclusion of LGBTQ+ topics, allowing for open discussion and education for all students) (Elia & Eliason, 2010b).

Within our modern sexuality education, underrepresentation of LGBTQ+ topics within curricula have been found, which in turn lacks in giving support and pertinent information to our youth identifying as LGBTQ+, who may be questioning, or who may be curious to learn the information in general. Steps can be made in order to create an inclusive curriculum, allowing full representation of all students, and we can look towards what other countries in the world are doing to meet this standard. Although the majority of public schools in America teach to a heteronormative curriculum in sexuality education, schools that actively and openly teach LGBTQ+ topics experience safer school environments and see students make more informed decisions about their own sexualities and sexual practices. Therefore, sexuality education curriculum in America should be inclusive of all LGBTQ+ students and topics.

In L. Kris Gowen and Nichole Winges-Yanez’s (2014) study of LGBTQ+ focus groups, it was found that of the 30 youth who participated between differently located focus groups, all participants had sexuality education in their public education settings and a majority of them had received the federally funded model of abstinence-until-marriage sexuality education. Through this study, Gowen and Winges-Yanez (2014) noted a majority of students felt that their sexuality education was very exclusive to a heteronormative perspective.

Similarly to Gown and Winges-Yanez’s findings, David Milo McCarty-Caplan (2013) found that due to the federally funded abstinence-until-marriage sexuality education, schools are not prepared to address and discuss issues that pertain to LGBTQ+ youth. The lack of preparedness, harassment/bullying, and assistance of LGBTQ+ youth has been found to be associated with a high likelihood of dropping out of school, health (mental and physical) risks, and poor choices for these youth (McCarty-Caplan, 2013).

In 12 states (and Washington, D.C.), laws have been passed in which LGBTQ+ topics are required to be taught and discussed in a positive light (McNeill, 2013). Though this is the case for these 12 states and Washington D.C., a large number of schools still teach to an abstinence-until-marriage approach, or an approach called comprehensive sexuality education (Elia & Eliason, 2010b). This approach does expand the curriculum past abstinence teaching about condoms, STI prevention, and safe sex practices, but Elia and Eliason (2010b) have found that LGBTQ+ topics are still skated around, and in some cases are providing false or inaccurate information about these topics.

Interestingly, when we look abroad to other countries around the world, Norway sticks out as being a country where LGBTQ+ topics are taught cross-discipline and from an early age (Røthing & Svendsen, 20110). Åse Røthing and Stine Helena Bang Svendsen (2010) found that Norwegian classrooms actively teach and provide students with a safe and inclusive environment for all students, including LGBTQ+ youth, protecting against bullying and teaching to have sympathy for people who tend to be discriminated against worldwide. Røthing and Svendsen (2010) also found that Norway began to include LGBTQ+ topics within their national curriculum in 1987, which continues to strengthen today. Similarly to Norway, Canada has been found to have a highly inclusive sexuality education curriculum and the country takes pride in it’s openness and inclusivity (Elia & Eliason, 2010b).

When Eleanor Formby (2015) looked into sexuality in the United Kingdom, many similarities to the United States became evident as giving a comprehensive sexuality education, but also having high rates of bullying based upon sexuality or identity not only from peers, but from teachers as well. Formby (2015) also found that even in comprehensive and fully inclusive curricula, the LGBTQ+ community has been seen as sexual others or at risk, which still shows them as different from the typical heteronormative viewpoint. Røthing and Svendsen (2010) also saw a similarity with this, where although the terms heterosexuality and homosexuality are used and taught as equal, LGBTQ+ topics are taught with the idea that they need sympathy from heterosexual people. This now puts LGBTQ+ people in a position “needing” sympathy and thus gives the connotation they are still not the normal heterosexual and need to be lifted up, thusly they are not actually equal to the rest of the heteronormative society. It has found that educating all of our students on all topics of sexuality, identity, and sexual practices equally, not referring to LGBTQ+ community members as sexual others or at risk, can provide safer environments for LGBTQ+ youth but also give students the perception that finding yourself mentally or physically through experimentation is an acceptable concept in society (Formby, 2015).

Sarah Camille Conrey (2012) has also aligned with the studies and articles written by those mentioned previously, but has also noted that there have been many steps being taken to create inclusive sexuality education in recent years. Conrey (2012) also found through a survey done by Cynthia Dailard, that parents actually want their children to learn about many different topics, including STI’s, mental health and emotions regarding sex, and sexual orientation. Many benefits have been found for students, both heterosexual and LGBTQ+ youth, for inclusive sexuality education.

Although our modern day societal views are more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, our society has not always seen the LGBTQ+ community in a positive light. There are many challenges and limitations that have been faced, and still continue to be faced, associated with the LGBTQ+ community which limits the ability to give inclusive sexuality education. I have identified three limitations in which LGBTQ+ sexuality education is challenged: religion, politics, and abstinence-until-marriage (or non-existent) sexuality education.

Religious Limitations. It has been seen throughout the country that religion has been a major contender against LGBTQ+ acceptance. Although not every religion is strictly against homosexuality or the LGBTQ+ community, many still fight to say that the Bible’s words are absolute moral law. If the Bible says that man sleeping with another man is wrong, it will always be wrong. States oriented within the Bible Belt of the United States, typically the southern states, are known to have large populations of people who follow the Bible strictly, exactly to the words said within it. This creates a major limitation to allowing for inclusive curriculum, teaching LGBTQ+ topics, to make any headway within our schools’ sexuality education. Campaigns against inclusive sexuality education, that are fighting for abstinence-until-marriage models instead, have grown through the religious voters and conservative politicians highly limiting the ability to stray from the very religious reasonings of abstinence-until-marriage sexuality education (McCarty-Caplan, 2013).

Political Limitations. The United States political system has been, and continues to be, very limiting when attempting to create an inclusive sexuality education. Between 1980 and 2001, three organizations emerged giving funding to schools for sexuality education: Adolescent Family Life Act (1981), Title V of the Social Security Act (1996), and Community Based Abstinence Education (2001). These organizations provided federal funding to schools whom followed their guidelines to provide an abstinence-only sexuality education (McCarty-Caplan, 2013). There are also federal mandates in place in which schools are to be teaching abstinence-until-marriage sexuality education. (McNeill, 2013).

Aside from just federal funding, there are limitations at the state level. State laws within six states (Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah) as of 2013 require that sexuality education within public schools are required to show the LGBTQ+ identities and topics in a negative connotation (McNeill, 2013). These laws not only discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community, but can also force inaccurate information upon the students in sexuality education, thus promoting the heteronormative lifestyle and family composition. These practices focus on only a narrow set of values which is harmful to not only just the LGBTQ+ youth in sexuality education, but to all students within sexuality education by way of creating a very narrow, and closed, mindset being engrained in the students (Elia & Eliason, 2010b).

Abstinence-Until-Marriage Sexuality Education. Sexuality education, from its founding in public education to modern day has been taught on an abstinence-until-marriage approach as the majority. Within this type of sexuality education, students are taught a very narrow approach to sex practices and sexuality by way of pregnancy and venereal disease prevention between a man and a woman (Elia & Eliason, 2010b). This approach only educates students with information that the only way to prevent pregnancy or disease is to abstain from sex completely until they are with their one and only sex partner of the opposite sex, advancing the heteronormative idea that sex is strictly to mate and conceive children. Not only are students identifying as LGBTQ+ being pushed aside, but even heterosexual children are not being given a proper sexuality education based on this model of teaching.

Abstinence-until-marriage sexuality education plays an interesting role within the limitations of teaching inclusive sexuality education in our public schools. This model seems to keep itself around due to its tie-ins with both the religious and political limitations mentioned above. The continuation of abstinence-until-marriage sexuality education will prevail in the United States as long as the federal government continues to provide funding to all public schools whom teach to this model and as long as highly conservative politicians, who seem to more often than not come from highly religious backgrounds, continue to lead federal efforts to keep sexuality education under this same model.

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