This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
A recent study published in the American Public Health Journal found that New York City youth who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual were more likely than heterosexual-identifying youth to experience a pregnancy. This research comes at a time when many cities are facing sexually transmitted infection (STI) outbreaks. Taken together, these data show widespread need not only for comprehensive sexual health education, but LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed in particular.
The lack of LGBTQ-inclusive, comprehensive, and medically accurate sexual and reproductive health education is a public health concern that many lawmakers, educators, and doctors are letting slip through the cracks.
As Reuters Health reported, the study’s researchers reviewed information from roughly 10,000 ethnically and racially diverse high school students in New York who had sex with a member of the opposite sex. Among other things, they found that “about 13 percent of heterosexual females and about 14 percent of females who only had male sexual partners had been pregnant, compared to about 23 percent of lesbian or bisexual females and about 20 percent of girls who had male and female sexual partners.” Additionally: “About 10 percent of heterosexual males and those who only had female sexual partners experienced a pregnancy, compared to about 29 percent of gay or bisexual males and about 38 percent of males with female and male sexual partners.”
While the study does not represent all lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth—only those who have had sex with someone of the opposite sex—it should give us youth advocates cause for concern. For starters, we know that curricula in half the states in this country stress abstinence. Unsurprisingly, many students aren’t following this advice, and since these students are not prepared for sexual encounters, there have been a number of outbreaks of various STIs nationwide, from California to Montana to Texas. Advocates for comprehensive sexual health education have long said that abstinence-only sex education is not adequate enough. This new study adds to a growing body of evidence showing the price generations are paying for limited access to information about sexuality and contraception.
Health-care professional Dr. Tonia Poteat was not shocked by the results of the American Public Health Journal’s research findings. She told Rewire (Rewire), “people make assumptions based on identity and not behaviors. This type of thinking informs the type of sexual health education we give.” Abstinence-only education, for example, puts an emphasis on hetero- and cis-normative language, which can have the effect of stigmatizing anyone who doesn’t fit neatly within the gender binary.
Dr. Poteat added that some youth might feel pressure to “find the right person to ‘fix’ them” and that this might lead to some of the unintended pregnancy outcomes.
As Nicole Cushman, the executive director of Answer, explained in a recent Rewire article, “deeper discussions in classroom environments are necessary to help students develop a more thorough understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity …. This understanding is essential in creating inclusive and safe school environments for all students.”
Sadly, as Colored Girls Hustle founder and Echoing Ida writer Taja Lindley has pointed out, the dearth of information on safe sex for LGBTQ youth extends beyond the classroom: In her experience, which she wrote about here, even at the doctor’s office the needs of LGBTQ youth are not acknowledged or addressed in a responsible way.
LGBTQ-inclusive education wouldn’t just help prevent unintended pregnancies; it would also help educators, policymakers, parents, medical professionals, and young people better understand the complexities of sexual orientation and gender identity.
A complete overhaul of the sexual health education in the United States is integral to helping society at large better understand individuals who identify differently than they do. Advocates see the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, which has not yet reappeared in Congress since its introduction in 2013, as a step toward filling this gap in sex education on a policy level.
The Real Education for Healthy Youth Act calls for sexual health education to discuss healthy relationships, reproduction, sexuality, and consent in addition to safer sex information with LGBTQ-inclusive language. Not only would LGBTQ-inclusive sexual health help reduce unintended pregnancy and the growing rates of STIs among young people, it also helps to inform youth about sexual health earlier on since the act supports K-12 training for sex educators. In addition, early education can help fight stigma on a cultural level.
When asked what LGBTQ-inclusive sexual health education would look like, Quita Tinsley, a queer activist and youth organizer for SPARK Reproductive Justice Now, explained to Rewire, “Sexual health education should provide anatomically accurate information without [an explicit focus on] gender roles or the gender binary. In doing so the education can help affirm students’ gender identities and sexualities.”
Tinsley also suggested it include “forms of protection outside of latex penis condoms, it would provide information on sex outside of vaginal penetration, it would include information on masturbation, and it would include gender-neutral language.”
Tinsley’s suggestions would directly address sexual health disparities between heterosexual and LGBTQ youth. Because sexual health education is geared toward a hetero- and cis-normative audience, LGBTQ youth are not receiving the information they need to protect themselves from all sexual activities and to enjoy the wanted experiences they do encounter. As a country, we cannot continue to discuss the need for medically accurate comprehensive sexual health education without talking about LGBTQ inclusive language, strategies, and curricula. Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters need it.