Queer people are people too. For years, we have struggled to gain our basic rights: the right to marry, the right to care for our children, the right to engage with society, and the right to live our true and authentic lives. While that struggle has resulted in many of our rights becoming enshrined in law, there remains a public and private stigma around queerness. Our lives, our health, and our healthcare are not adult content. Even so, many still consider it acceptable to complain about seeing two men kiss each other in an advertisement, where a heterosexual couple doing the same is seen as “family friendly.” This kind of attitude would be harmful on its own, engendering as it does a heteronormative and cisnormative worldview, and othering LGBTQ+ identities. But the censorship of our existence leads to far deeper consequences.

In vast numbers of schools, our identities, genders, and sexual orientations are entirely ignored, going unmentioned throughout the curriculum.  According to a Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network survey, only 4% of students reported receiving any kind of positive information about LGBTQ people in their health classes. A Public Religion Research Institute study found that among millennials surveyed, only 12% learned anything about same-sex relationships in their sex education classes.

These statistics are stark, but they speak to the reality of queerness in the education system. It’s rare for any school to provide education or resources around queerness or about the LGBTQ+ experience to students.The “keep God in the classroom” crowd has seen to it that attempts to provide such resources are often met with protests, threats, and proclamations that the end times are upon us. In November 2019, in Loudon County, Virginia, the backlash against a mere 5% of school books featuring queer representation was so severe that parents began protesting to have them removed as a form of “sexual propaganda.” 

In classrooms that explore the basics of biology—some of which are still required to teach Creationism as a valid theory alongside evolution—there are often no mentions of any existence outside of the boundaries of accepted “normality.” That means pretending that trans people are a figment of the secular imagination and that gay sex doesn’t or shouldn’t happen.

Sending queer young adults out into the world without the most basic grounding in sexual education relevant to them is a complete abdication of not only their rights, but both the state’s and the school’s responsibilities as caregivers. Combined with social stigmas that may also be connected to a lack of public education, limited sex education is almost certainly tied to higher statistics and rates of STI contraction among the queer community. For example, although gay and bisexual men make up just 2% of the population of the United States, they account for up to 61% of HIV contractions. In addition, there are mental health concerns around the lack of support for LGBTQ+ students, who are reportedly four times more likely to attempt suicide. In addition, we are not educating cisgender and heterosexual kids about how to relate to people who don’t share the same background, orientation, or identity as them. We are missing a key opportunity to work against homophobia and transphobia, and we are not giving kids a fair opportunity to overcome their prejudices through education: the cornerstone of strong, courageous individuals with the best interests of their fellow human beings and society at heart. According to the California Safe Schools Coalition, all students—regardless of sexuality—reported feeling safer in their classrooms when LGBTQ+ issues were included in the curriculum.

The only answer, as I see it, is to compel every school to provide students with responsible, authentic sex education that goes beyond hetero and cisnormative standards by making government funding dependent on its delivery. Ultimately, no school should have the right to refuse to acknowledge that there will be a certain percentage of their students who are queer. No school should be able to decide that they will only offer vital health and well-being information to one set of pupils to whom it applies, and force others to take it on board without having their own needs addressed.

There are changes being made, as the result of public health and queer activism. In 2016, passage of the California Healthy Youth Act—which requires schools to teach classes on queer issues, identities and health—happened as a result of ongoing activism that centered the needs of queer students.

There is no way forward without beginning to enshrine the equality of queer people as more than just a set of laws about what you can and can’t do to us, and what we are and aren’t allowed to do in the eyes of the government. We need to be given the same basic levels of care, access and, yes, education.

There are kids out there in every single classroom who are scared. They feel alone. They’re exhausted. They’re struggling to deal with who they are, and they’re doing so alongside not only the traditional problems of just being teenagers in a confusing modern world, but the problems of prejudice that surrounds them in the media, in the political sphere, and in the corridors of their schools. Those kids not only deserve the support and assistance of the education system—they have a right to demand it as citizens and as people entitled to equality under the law.

Joan Westenberg

Joan Westenberg