How do we fix America’s LGBT sex education problem?
Eric Marcus didn’t grow up in a conservative, midwestern town in Ohio or Georgia or anywhere in the Bible Belt. He grew up in New York City.
But not in blood-and-glitter-soaked Greenwich Village, home of the Stonewall Riots. Marcus grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens, of Kitty-Genovese-being-stabbed-to-death and remembered-by-her-“friend”-Mary-Ann-Zielonko fame.
Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Marcus says, “There was no LGBT representation of any kind. At all. Zero.”
Out of 125 students, maybe 150 students, in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism’s 1983 class, Marcus recalls two students who were out as gay. He was one of them.
Working at CBS This Morning in 1988, he was the sole person out as gay on staff. He was told that there was “no chance” of being putting on air as gay person on a national network.
“It left me feeling that there weren’t clear paths to the life I wanted,” Marcus says.
Apart from barriers to his career, society told Marcus that being gay would pose barriers to his life. Marcus points to reading the popular “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask” in high school as a nail in the coffin.
“The picture it painted of what to expect of life if you were gay was horrifying,” says Marcus. “All you could expect was furtive relationships. Furtive sexual encounters, no real relationships. My thoughts about what I could expect didn’t come from nowhere.”
When it comes to teaching kids about LGBT issues, America’s public school system doesn’t have a very strong track record. What’s more is that sex education specifically has become a battleground for LGBT representation.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get some information about HIV / AIDs prevention and a few minutes of acknowledgement during that week of health class that boys can like boys and girls can like girls.
But what’s more likely is that you’ll get nothing. About 42 percent of students surveyed by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) said they could find LGBT-related material in school resources. Only 19 percent reported positive representations of the LGBT community as taught in class. And of that sliver, only 25 percent could see that positivity extend to health classes.
Marcus says not having any visible role models in the media or in his life made him and his queer friends pioneers, if reluctantly. It also made him want to change that.
Having fielded FAQs about LGBT identity in “Is It A Choice?”, Marcus’ editor asked him to pen a youth version of the book. About a decade later, he published “What If?: Answers to Questions About What It Means to Be Gay and Lesbian.” His goal in releasing the book was to give gay and lesbian kids what he wish had been on the shelves when he was young.
Looking back, Marcus said it took him years to gain confidence in his identity.
“The anxiety that I had around people knowing I was gay, my fears,” Marcus says, “Didn’t simply evaporate.”
Mar Regan, a queer student at Syracuse University, getting to that point of confidence.
The 20-year-old theater design major rocks a leather jacket, not-one-but-two nose rings and black combat boots to top off an all-black ensemble. They — Regan, being genderfluid, uses they / them / theirs pronouns — have a taste for Nirvana and Avenged Sevenfold along with Snoop Dogg.
Atop a flushed, freckled face with green eyes and thick, filled-in eyebrows sits a quiff of cherry red hair. And by the time you read this, it will probably be a different color.
But for an exterior that oozes punk rock badassery, Regan’s still coming to terms with their sexual and gender identity.
While Regan reps Cincinnati, home for them is Mason, OH. It’s what they call a typical suburb: “there’s-five-churches-on-every-block-type of thing.” And while Regan doesn’t have anything against religious ideology, it’s been problematic for them in practice.
The suburb’s conservatism meant no one ever taught Regan about LGBT issues when they were growing up. But more than silence, the community offered staunch opposition.
Regan tried to form a Gay-Straight Alliance to no avail. And naturally, they challenged the status quo in their high school health class.
“I remember asking, ‘Okay, but what about for people that aren’t hetero?’” Regan said. “And the teacher just gave me this weird look and changed the subject. And it was like, ‘Great! Great to not be validated!’”
Sex education for Regan was lackluster in general. The school glossed over consent and sex outside of marriage as well as queerness.
“The only things about sex ed that they really got into were STDs and stuff like that. Not anything else,” Regan said. “It was very technical. You didn’t really talk about it as a whole entity.”
Aleah Shandles, a bisexual television radio and film major at SU, describes an experience parallel to Regan’s. The scene was different: Tampa, FL instead of Mason, OH and Jewish school instead of churches pervading every neighborhood. But the end result was the same.
Sex-ed was strictly what Shandles called “anatomical” and inclusivity wasn’t even on the radar.
“It wasn’t that they were anti-LGBT, but they just didn’t educate anyone about it,” Shandles says.
Shandles was fortunate enough to have parental support to fill in some gaps. Shandles, 20, was out early on in life — she says all her friends and family knew by age 13. So her parents put her in touch with the LGBT folks they did know and Shandles was able to do some searching of her own on the internet.
When pressed for specific resources, Shandles says Google, Wikipedia “and then Tumblr, of course.”
“You know, now that I’m re-researching it,” she writes, doubling back, “It looks like most of internet same-sex ed was based off of shitty fanfiction with bad expectations.”
Shandles also mentions some of her gay friends turned to porn, but she never did when she was young. Outlets such as The New York Times have tried to crack the code on whether porn should be used as sex ed. Meanwhile, Vanessa Rogers developed a curriculum off of porn in her book, “We Need to Talk About Pornography.”
Next to Tumblr and PornHub, YouTube has broken through as a means of sex ed. YouTubers such as Laci Green and Lindsey Doe have become adolescent go-tos and make a point of being thorough and inclusive. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee media scholar Jessica Johnston likens them to modern-day Bill Nyes or Dr. Ruths for the sexually curious Generation Z set.
Green’s endless enthusiasm about lesbian sex, sex with disabilities and slut-shaming takes the edge off of discussing taboo topics. Likewise, the way Doe fearlessly and frankly sifts through questions about sex toys and proffers tips for your first time alleviates any embarrassment viewers might be harboring.
Caught between abstinence-only policies and the CW Network, it can be hard to make sense of what sex is supposed to mean in America — regardless of being queer or straight.
Cara Levine, a doctorate candidate in SU’s School of Education, firmly believes anything useful about same-sex sex, genderqueer bodies and pleasure has been left out of America’s sex ed conversations.
Perched among bleached cardboard boxes rising like glaciers, Levine declares this. When I arrived on a gray February afternoon, Levine was clearing out junk from staffers pasts. We make room at a little table near the door.
With her eyes trained on me intently, she speaks in a low voice. I’m not sure if she’s speaking quietly because she doesn’t want her voice to carry out her open office door or because of the subject matter at hand.
Levine, 34, studies counseling, but I got referred to Levine because of her background in sex ed. Early on in our conversation, Levine verifies her past as a sex educator and therapist, but gives me a warning .
“I don’t really talk about this as much anymore because it’s a very conservative environment here at SU,” Levine says.
But before Levine was working on her doctorate degree, before she was researching polyamory and doing seminars about sexuality, she was like the rest of the queer kids that I’ve interviewed.
Levine, who is lesbian, grew up in Marietta, Georgia and was served the usual, heteronormative fare in her sex ed class. She recalls watching videos about how babies are made, but that was old information to a seventh-grade Levine.
“I think I hit the sweet spot. My mom never discussed sex with her parents. But she was a ’70s feminist, so she brought that in,” Levine says.
One way Levine’s mom brought that in was by giving her a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” by Judy Norsigian, a book about women’s sexuality. Norsigian’s book had started as 193-page pamphlet called “Women and Their Bodies” and was based on a 1969 feminist workshop of the same name.
Levine says she knows women her age who have never had conversations about sex or sexuality with their families or at school. And that bothers her.
“I worry about that sense of not knowing,” Levine says. “Not what sex should be like. Not knowing (how) it should feel. What is or isn’t normal.”
As it stands now, just 24 states and Washington, D.C. require public schools to teach sex education. Twenty-one of those states go the extra mile and require HIV education. Twenty states alone require that sex ed is “medically, factually or technically accurate.”
We have 50 states and only 20 of them say that sex ed has to be accurate.
More than fuzzy guidelines about what counts as scientifically accurate, many states operate under what are called “no promo homo” laws. It’s exactly what it sounds like: the laws on the books prohibit promotion of LGBT identity and queer existence.
This includes legislation emphasizing that homosexuality isn’t a “lifestyle acceptable to the general public” and reminding kids that “homosexual conduct is a criminal offense.” Or that being gay, an “alternative sexual lifestyle,” is not up for discussion. Unless, it’s in the “context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted diseases.”
When Kelly Madrone was working for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (known simply as PFLAG), she was constantly fielding information requests from parents. Even though Madrone did her best to help lesbian, gay and bisexual kids through their allied parents, Madrone still felt queer youth were falling by the wayside.
“What I found was that there just wasn’t a lot for teens that I felt spoke directly to them in a language that was approachable,” Madrone says. “Being a writer, I thought, ‘Maybe this is something that I could tackle myself, given my work in the area and my own personal experiences.’”
In 2003, Madrone published “GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Queer and Questioning Teens” under the name Kelly Huegel. A second version of the book, “GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Teens,” came out in 2011. Madrone says a third edition could be done “since so much has changed.” Here, Madrone is referring to trans visibility and SCOTUS’s legalization same-sex marriage.
Of the past, Madrone says simply, “That stuff wasn’t on the table.”
Despite these triumphs for the LGBT community, Madrone is skeptical about the state of sex ed.
“I think it’s not even there for kids who identify as straight,” Madrone says, laughing.
In regard to teaching inclusive sex ed, Madrone is understanding of the set of institutional and cultural values teachers are up against.
“For one, schools are worried that parents will freak out. Understandably, if they start including same-sex (content), some people will be worried that it will be viewed as condoning it,” Madrone says. “A lot of schools are in a tough position when it comes to that.”
Ultimately, Madrone says sexuality education should start at home. But it’s hard when the parents who should be teaching inclusive sex ed are the same ones freaking out about it. Even the straight parents who want to be allies “need to learn as much as their kids do.”
“I mean, my daughter won’t have this issue,” Madrone says. “Because she has two moms.”
There is a place you can turn to for LGBT Sex Ed 101. The initiative is called Answer and it’s housed by Rutgers University. For kids as young as 5 years old all the way up to high school seniors, Answer brings age-appropriate sex ed workshops to the greater New Jersey area and beyond, digitally.
Answer trainer Blythe Ulrich brings Answer’s workshops to one to two school districts a month, on average.
“We work with school districts and other youth-serving organizations to figure out what needs their teachers have around all different topics around sexuality education,” Ulrich says. “One of the more popular topics is LGBT training.”
Answer also hosts online workshops for educators and a site geared toward teens called Sex, Etc. There, young folks can find answers to all their pressing questions: from age-old queries about STDs and pregnancy and whether to come out to your parents, to the little things, like how to navigate the friend zone.
There are also interactive components, like Sex in the States. Clicking on each state will pull up local laws on LGBT rights, sex ed, abortion and sexting, as well as state-specific information on HIV / AIDs testing, contraception accessibility and ages of consent.
Ulrich says her work with Answer, though, is more than just about making sex ed more comprehensive. When it comes LGBT youth in particular, it’s about empowerment.
“What we do see is more shame. Feeling unseen and unheard in their classrooms,” says Ulrich of queer youth. “When people aren’t represented in what they’re learning or the media, they really feel unsupported. Unheard.”
Ulrich says a main institutional problem is a matter of which teachers end up conducting health class. Apart from mandating thorough sex ed — a Common Core-type model would be a step in the right direction, Ulrich says — equipping teachers with additional tools they need seems to be the best bet in the meantime.
“So often, the teachers who are teaching sex ed are PE teachers. They’re not really getting a lot of preparation in teaching comprehensive sex ed when they’re in college,” Ulrich says. “Until that changes, we’ll be doing this work for quite awhile.”