From the Classroom

Education is key to reimagining the ‘gay lifestyle’ for young adults

LGBTQ+-Inclusive sex education minimizes stereotypes attached to gay social and sexual behaviors.

“Be safe” is the extent of the sex talk I had with my parents; my mother to be exact. We still don’t talk about sex. Sex education in school was crucial to my development. But as a young gay kid growing up, I would often read online or hear people talk about the “gay lifestyle.” Whatever it was, I clearly wasn’t living it.

I have always struggled with the terms “gay lifestyle” or “homosexual lifestyle.” They have historically been used by anti-gay proponents to denigrate LGBTQ+ people and perpetuate negative stereotypes that we live promiscuous, deviant, and reckless lives. But I was abstinent.

A gay friend of mine has attempted to reclaim these offensive terms, insisting the “gay lifestyle” means freedom to love and be loved for who you are. Like the LGBTQ+ community at large, I am not ready to reclaim anything. But our LGBTQ+ youth would certainly benefit from a reimagining of the “lifestyle” through inclusive sex education in schools.

There is no set way to live life as gay; we all have differing social, sexual and dating behaviors. Just like straight people. Sadly, anti-gay thinking continues to exist and it’s often to the detriment of LGBTQ+ kids.

Conservative groups in Arizona recently pushed for one of the strictest anti-LGBTQ+ education bills in the country. The proposed bill banned sex education lessons involving sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV/AIDS issues unless parents were notified in advance and opted in for their children to participate in the discussions.

It also went a step further to prevent lessons discussing homosexuality in a historical context, such as the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York which helped launch the modern gay rights movement, the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage or even ancient Greek history without parental approval.

The bill passed in the state House and Senate, and was vetoed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in April. Supporters are moving forward with a revised version. The bill is just one of several Republican-led attempts across the country to restrict LGBTQ+-inclusive sex education to replace outdated or repealed bills that banned “promoting a homosexual lifestyle” and to retaliate against social change.

This is happening abroad, too. As global authoritarianism increases, Hungary approved legislation in mid-June that prohibits sharing any content portraying homosexuality or transgenderism to minors in an effort to combat pedophilia. It passed in a 157-1 vote and is the latest effort by Hungary’s ruling conservative party to limit LGBTQ+ rights in the European country. Human rights groups have denounced the bill for conflating LGBTQ+ people with pedophilia.

LGBTQ+ youth already have limited access to sex education in American schools, especially those who are also people of color. A May 2021 study by multiple LGBT organizations, such as GLSEN and the Human Rights Campaign, found that 24% of LGBTQ+ students had no sex education in schools. Of those who had, only 8.2% reported that the classes were LGBTQ+-inclusive.

Students without these inclusive programs are more likely to be subjected to homophobic comments from school staff, less likely to report such incidents, and less likely to have effective ways to respond to harassment. Suicide rates among LGBTQ+ youth also decrease when they are in accepting and inclusive environments.

Sex and health education is important for all students, but crucial for LGBTQ+ students. Along with safe sex tools, it provides medically accurate information and reliable resources to help LGBTQ+ youth understand and feel more comfortable with orientation and gender identity. Students will see positive representations of LGBTQ+ people, relationships, and families. And it will help eliminate the negative stereotypes perpetuated by “gay lifestyle” rhetoric.

I relied on health and sex education in school for information. Although the curriculum wasn’t LGBTQ+-inclusive, we were taught about our bodies, consent, safe sex and sexually transmitted diseases. With this education, I chose abstinence; a decision that was right for me. But that meant I had to learn about LGBTQ+-related issues on my own. Even now I’m still learning.

The recent GLSEN study shows that most LGBTQ+ youth also have limited adults they feel comfortable talking to about sex health. This leads them to seek information from other sources, often inaccurate and inappropriate for their age, or become sexually active without the proper sex education.

It’s 2021 and we can do better for our LGBTQ+ youth. 85% of parents support LGBTQ+-inclusive sex education in high school and 78% of parents support it in middle schools. Instead of proposing restrictive bills out of fear of mythical “gay lifestyles,” it would be more beneficial to prioritize the safety and health for teens of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

And progress is being made at the federal level. During “Sex Ed for All Month” in May, Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. and Alma Adams, D-N.C., introduced the Real Education and Access for Healthy Youth Act. The bill focuses on comprehensive sex education and health services for youth, with an emphasis on those without equitable access to those services.

“For too long, many sex education programs and sexual health services have been inaccessible or failed to meet the needs of young people who are LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous or from other communities of color,” Lee said in a press release. “This legislation is a critical step in providing young people with the sex education and sexual health services they need to make informed decisions about their health and their lives.”

This story was reported and written through a journalism course on opinion writing and edited by USC Annenberg Associate Professor Alan Mittelstaedt. Annenberg Media student editors reviewed the story and published it per newsroom guidelines.

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