Representations of sex education in media and pop culture often resemble the abstinence scene from “Mean Girls” or employ comical tropes like using bananas to demonstrate condom usage. Despite being on different sides of the sex education debate, these representations have one thing in common: They promote the idea that sex is always heterosexual—existing only between cisgender men and women—and is limited to penetrative intercourse.
Heteronormative sex education is far from a Hollywood invention. These depictions of sex ed classes mirror the reality in many classrooms in the US to the extent that most exclude LGBTQ+ students entirely. Just 11 states mandate that sex ed be inclusive of members of the LGBTQ+ community, while six actually mandate that sex education curricula negatively depict queer relationships or sexuality. Only 8.2% of students reported receiving inclusive sex education, according to GLSEN’s 2019 School Climate Survey.
A significant portion of young people are affected by non-inclusive sex education. Estimates suggest that 9.5% of US youth aged 13-17 identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender; that’s nearly 1 out of every 10 students in that age group, according to the Williams Institute.
The health effects of non-inclusive sex education on queer young people can be physical and psychological, according to Dr. Myeshia Price, the Director of Research Science at The Trevor Project. When sex education does not address issues important to LGBTQ+ youth, “they think, ‘this doesn’t apply to me, I don’t need to listen,'” Dr. Price told Stacker. “They’re missing out on a very crucial and important aspect of their educational experience.”
LGBTQ+ young people face negative health outcomes at disproportionate rates. Queer youth are at higher risk than their heterosexual peers of contracting HIV and other STIs, becoming pregnant or getting someone else pregnant, or experiencing sexual violence. Seventeen percent of those who were out or perceived as transgender left a K-12 school due to mistreatment, according to the 2015 US Transgender Survey.
LGTBQ+-inclusive sex ed can help students understand gender and sexuality as a spectrum, break down harmful stereotypes about LGTBQ+ identities, and teach valuable health information about using protection, regardless of anatomy. Most queer students, however, do not receive this kind of education. “They’re not learning a lot of things that are related to their identities—they’re kind of washed away in terms of the curriculum that they’re getting at school,” Dr. Price said.
Non-inclusive sex education also risks adding to stigmas that have long existed around LGBTQ+ people and diseases like HIV/AIDS. Abstinence-only programs often gloss over the risks of having unprotected sex, while sex ed that is explicitly discriminatory toward LGBTQ+ people—or even neutral toward them—can contribute to the myth of HIV/AIDS as a “gay disease,” leaving students of All sexual orientations and gender identities are more vulnerable.
The impact of not receiving medically accurate, inclusive sex education continues to take a toll on the LGBTQ+ community, according to Alexis Rangel, Policy Counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality/NCTE Action Fund. “The lack of access historically to medically accurate sexual health information has pushed the trans community into a position now where trans folks are more at risk for a lot of negative sexual health outcomes,” she told Stacker. “We see that not only with commonly known STIs and HIV infections, but also with things as recent as monkeypox as well. Access to accurate information is so, so important for the sexual health and the physical health of trans and nonbinary folks.”
The exclusion of young LGTBQ+ people in schools has swelled in recent years, notably with the spate of so-called “Don’t Say Gay” laws. In 2022 alone, more than 162 bills have been introduced that aim to limit LGBTQ+ participation in school sports, restrict curricula from discussing queerness or LGBTQ+ issues, and make it harder for queer teens to access gender-affirming health care.
The mental health consequences of exclusion and discrimination in school can be severe, but LGBTQ+ inclusion has been proven to impact queer youth positively. “Our research has shown that learning about LGBTQ people and issues at school was associated with significantly lower odds of suicide attempts among LGBTQ students,” Dr. Price said. “What this is suggesting is that [when] youth are able to see themselves [in curricula]they’re able to be affirmed in the school environment, and that’s something that is a protective factor from some of the negative health outcomes that we see among LGBTQ youth.”
The need for schools that are inclusive of LGBTQ+ youth is a matter of safety, according to Rangel. ,[Trans and nonbinary people] are just a fact of life and a reality,” she said, “and the more we teach our young folks that trans and nonbinary folks exist and dignify the contributions that they’ve made to our society … makes it a safer place.”