The alarming rate of bullying, homelessness, HIV and suicide among LGBT youth should be an outrage: Nearly a fifth of students are physically assaulted because they are LGBT; among homeless children, 25 to 50 percent are LGBT; the CDC reports among youth aged 13 to 24 diagnosed with HIV in 2014, 80 percent were gay and bisexual males; and gay teens are also eight times more likely to report having attempted suicide.
Instead, the outrage swirls around who gets to use whose bathroom. Sparked by North Carolina’s “bathroom bill”, the legal battle over transgender rights recently escalated to include over a dozen states suing the federal government in response to the Obama administration’s transgender bathroom policy. What if all the time, energy and taxpayer money spent on litigation were invested toward providing comprehensive LGBT inclusive health education for all children?
The Guttmacher Institute’s analysis of state laws and policies on sex and HIV education reveals disparities that are equally alarming and illustrates how most children are not learning about sexuality.
While nine states require public school teachers to recognize common expressions of human sexuality in sexual education classes, including LGBT relationships, most states eschew such a requirement. In fact, four states demonstrate an open hostility toward teachers even mentioning any sexual relationship other than heterosexual relationships. According to South Carolina’s Comprehensive Health Education Act, for example, “alternative lifestyles from heterosexual relationships” may only be discussed “in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted diseases.”
If these gross deficiencies aren’t startling enough, when you consider how bias and intersectionality (a theory of how social identities and related systems of discrimination overlap) further complicate learning environments, it becomes less surprising that our public schools are failing our children.
Curricula that ignore science, are medically inaccurate and/or fail to affirm diversity, multiple identities and normal childhood development are unethical. Students’ learning is further impeded by climates that are often violent, racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic.
Without support, many LGBT youth leave home and school when staying is no longer tolerable; tragically, many take their own lives when they believe they will never be accepted for who they are and how they express themselves.
According to Daniela Liget, a 42-year veteran school counselor, developing romantic inclinations for someone of the same sex is part of normal, healthy childhood development. “It would be incredibly irresponsible when talking about the emotional, social changes of puberty with 10 year olds not to say ‘some of you will find that you are romantically interested in somebody of the same sex, some of you will find that you are romantically interested in somebody of the opposite sex’…. It’s a fact of development.”
Karen Rayne, PhD, an expert in sexual education, agrees. "Heteronormativity harms young people because it puts them into an identity box, molding them to our assumptions, often before they have even begun to understand their identities.” Her book, Breaking the Hush Factor: Ten Rules for Talking With Teenagers About Sex, is a primer for adults interacting with young people grappling with their emerging understanding of identity and sexuality.
However, activist, author and ally Sam Killermann cautions against talking “facts” when discussing gender identity. Killermann publishes curriculum and activities to help educators create safe zones for LGBT students. “What we’re learning is how much we don’t know and that’s incredibly powerful. What we do know is most kids have a good understanding of what their gender identity is by about age two or three. So when kids are saying their gender identity is different from what they are assigned at birth and people dismiss them saying, ‘You’re only six you can’t possibly know that,’ that actually goes against the science.”
Rayne says, “We have to watch for such moments when we (inevitably) make assumptions about young people. We have to apologize for being dismissive and then leave space for the young people to tell us who they are, when they are ready…. they are looking for someone to listen to them.”
The GLSEN 2013 National School Climate Survey measures how schools support LGBT students. Not surprisingly the survey reveals schools with supportive educators, Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs), anti-bullying/harassment policies and comprehensive LGBT-inclusive curricula have healthier school climates and better learning outcomes for LGBT students.
Educators say one of the main benefits of LGBT-inclusive curricula are the diverse narratives that get shared. Students see themselves reflected in stories where they usually don’t appear and hear narratives that might sound like their own. In turn, students normalize that diversity in their own lives by learning to speak up and speak out for other narratives as allies.
Learning how to use different language is part of the process, enlisting allies is another. Such massive social change requires a bottom-up grass roots movement of everyone who sees the damage done by heteronormativity. Killermann believes questioning our own assumptions and asking questions about identities we don’t understand, is also essential.
Rayne added, “Moving beyond the set of assumptions that heteronormativity imposes is sometimes as easy as a shift in language (from boyfriend to partner or sweetheart, for example), and sometimes invites us, the adults in the young people's lives, into a deep dialogical interaction with ourselves, with our friends, partners, and colleagues, and with the culture at large.”
This cultural conversation is happening now. The attorney general’s strong statement and the Obama administration’s directive on transgender bathroom policy, sends a clear message that legislating identity and discriminating against transgender students because others are uncomfortable is unlawful and not who we are as a nation.
Supporting LGBT youth, improving their health and educational outcomes, and ending the stigma and violence requires cultural perceptions of sexual orientation and gender identity to evolve beyond heteronormativity. Meeting this requirement means funding education and mandating robust LGBT inclusive curricula and culturally responsive pedagogies focused on expanding our knowledge and understanding of the diverse learning needs of every child. As this turbulent election season reminds us, our experiment in democracy depends on an educated citizenry. Our children are our future.
Cirri Nottage is an educator and consultant who enjoys living in Vermont. Previously, she worked as a creative executive in the film and music industries.