What Makes Sex Ed Inclusive of LGBTQ Youth?

A smiling young man.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Youths’ Perspectives of Inclusive School-Based Sexuality Education.” L. Kris Gowen and Nichole Winges-Yanez. Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 51, Issue 7 (2014).

What it’s about: L. Kris Gowen and Nichole Winges-Yanez wanted to create a youth-driven framework that explains what it means for sexuality education to be inclusive of students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning, or LGBTQ. They conducted five focus groups at Oregon-based community centers, during which they gathered information from 30 young people identifying as LGBTQ. Participants spoke about their positive and negative experiences with school-based sexuality education and the changes they’d like to see in future curricula. Questions included: “Did you feel the topics covered were relevant to you?” and “If you could design a sexual education class, what information would you want to include that you wish had been included in your class?”

Why read it: When it comes to teens who identify as LGBTQ, research shows a connection between supportive school environments and a reduced risk of mental illness and suicide. Past studies have focused on the positive benefits of school-based resources such as gay-straight alliances and zero-tolerance bullying policies. That said, researchers have yet to explore the potential impact of LGBTQ-inclusive sexuality education, or what LGBTQ inclusivity looks like in practice.

Getting LGBTQ student feedback can inform both the type of information taught in classroom-based sex ed as well as the way that information is delivered. Sharing non-biased information about sexual orientation and gender identity may also lead to reduced teasing and violence outside the classroom as students become more informed, the authors write.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Focus group members overwhelmingly identified their schools' sexuality education programs as “exclusive” because instructors did not provide enough information relevant to LGBTQ youth. Some young people said their classroom discussions left out LGBTQ-related information, while others said teachers actively avoided answering questions posed by students.

Focus group participants also gave examples of teachers who paired information about being gay with increased risk for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. As one young person who identifies as gay shared, “[We learned that] homosexuality goes with disease—disease and drag queens.” Indeed, only two participants described experiences that researchers categorized as fully inclusive—including one whose teacher shared his own gay identity to prompt an open conversation.

Additionally, participants offered their own ideas for making courses more inclusive. Suggestions included adding more conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity, focusing on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections rather than only pregnancy (although just because young people identify as LGBTQ doesn't mean they are not at risk for pregnancy as well), providing more information about external anatomy versus reproductive systems, and talking about the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships.

Building a framework to inform inclusive sexuality education programs, the authors write, may lead more LGBTQ youth to pay attention during classroom discussions and to practice safer sex. Subsequent changes to behavior, they add, may even reduce the health disparities faced by LGBTQ young people compared to their cisgender and heterosexual peers.

Additional references:  Look for more articles on LGBTQ youth and school safety in NCFY’s research library. We also offer an online course to help individuals delivering teen pregnancy prevention programming create a safe environment for LGBTQ participants.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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