This stereotype of the affluent, urbane gay person seems to suggest that queer people only live in tolerant, metropolitan areas. It ignores the fact that queer people — due to pervasive homophobia and transphobia, especially in conservative regions — actually experience higher rates of homelessness and food insecurity than the general population. Most efforts to remedy LGBTQ+ inequality revolve around equal protection laws, like barring housing or employment discrimination. But one of the most powerful ways to break barriers for LGBTQ+ folks could be a currently underrated method: requiring sexual education that affirms and teaches about queer identities.
LGBTQ+-inclusive sexual education is already a reality, albeit a limited one. A CDC study using data from 2016 found that the majority of schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia offered LGBTQ+-inclusive sex education, but only three of these states were located outside of the West or Northeast. Presumably, this is the case because these are generally the two most liberal regions in the country. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, a leading advocacy group on LGBTQ+ issues, has argued that lower levels of reported harassment against queer students in the Northeast and West are direct results of inclusive sexual education. In the rural Midwest and South — which tend to be more conservative and where acknowledgement of LGBTQ+ issues in sex ed is scant — queer students report higher rates of harassment and less support from faculty.
It is unclear whether acceptance of queer students is in fact a direct result of inclusive sexual education — schools that seek out such curricula may already be part of more accepting communities. Still, it is hard to imagine that LGBTQ+-inclusive sexual education in conservative schools could do anything but promote the acceptance of queer students.
For one, exposure to LGBTQ+ identities through sex education can be a powerful catalyst for increased tolerance. Just as LGBTQ+ advocacy groups improved public opinion on gay marriage by increasing the visibility of same-sex couples, schools can promote tolerance for LGBTQ+ individuals by offering inclusive sex ed. Because teachers and school curricula are often the most authoritative sources of information for students, inclusive sexual education courses can help all students, queer or not, recognize that LGBTQ+ identities are real and ubiquitous, rather than deviant and taboo. Of course, conservative parents can still attempt to instill queerphobic views in their children. But since inclusive sex ed would teach about queer identities in a technical, matter-of-fact manner, they could be an effective counterweight to parental indoctrination. Thus, whereas equal protection laws could help prevent active discrimination against queer folks, inclusive sex ed would counteract one of the sources of queerphobic biases.
This dismantling of anti-LGBTQ+ prejudices can also have immense benefits for queer students. In schools where bigoted epithets are common and faculty turn a blind eye to anti-LGBTQ+ bullying, queer students can internalize the homophobia and transphobia around them and become ashamed of their LGBTQ+ identity. Internal prejudice materially harms queer students by damaging their mental health and academic performance. And as Ellen Kahn from the Human Rights Campaign argues, if a queer student does “not get any positive messages or find a safe space at school, that’s weighing on (them) everyday.” Inclusive sex ed — which would portray queerness in a technical manner — could show queer kids that their identity is not a matter of morality, helping to lift the weight of internal prejudice.
Beyond fostering self-acceptance, queer-inclusive sex ed could improve the well-being of LGBTQ+ youth in other important ways. In recent years, mental health professionals have begun to observe a phenomenon called the Minority Stress Effect in queer youth, finding that prejudice and discrimination can make them more likely to engage in risky behavior and more prone to negative health outcomes. And in a survey of over 150,000 high school students from 2001 to 2009, the CDC found that gay and bisexual students were more likely to experience relationship violence, attempted suicide and drug use. Other research has found that LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to engage in unprotected sex and contract HIV than their heterosexual, cisgender peers.
Inclusive sexual education classes can mitigate these negative outcomes for queer students. Increased acceptance and decreased internalized bigotry could diminish the Minority Stress Effect and thus reduce the likelihood of risky, life-threatening behavior. Secondly, sex ed that teaches about the particular health risks faced by queer individuals could have the same effect by encouraging safer sex practices.
In conclusion, inclusive sexual education, by framing queerness as a fact of life — rather than something subject to moral debate — could be an effective intervention against anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry. Ideally, in other classes, schools would also teach about LGBTQ+ history and the more subjective components of the queer experience. But sexual education is a good start. As queerphobia is the overwhelming culprit for the disadvantages that LGBTQ+ people face in the United States, attacking this prejudice in school-age children could have dramatic effects on the queer folks of future generations.
Unfortunately, implementing inclusive sexual education across the entire country is a tall order. Just this week, the Texas State Board of Education rejected a proposal to require schools to add LGBTQ+ issues to their sex ed curricula. And last year, some Orange County parents pulled their kids out of school in protest of sex ed classes that address queer identities. Achieving nationwide inclusive sex ed will be an uphill battle, but for the sake of our country’s queer youth, it is one well worth fighting.
Matt Walsh ’23 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.