The majority of high school students can rattle off facts about the lives and legacies of figures like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Graham Bell, but can’t do the same for Marsha P. Johnson, Harvey Milk, or Leslie Feinberg. This is because in today’s school system, the contributions of key LGBTQ+ civil rights leaders and the movements they lead aren’t taught. This exclusion of queer history, coupled with the leaving out of LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education, affects all students in negative ways.
Being forced to seek information about people like us in the past and different sexual orientations as we figure ourselves out is incredibly alienating. Because I had never been given information about it anywhere, I thought of being queer as something that I shouldn’t and couldn’t be.
If I had been educated in school about these things, it would have been easier for me to recognize what I was feeling and realize that it was “normal” and natural for me. This is an experience that I share with many other LGBTQ+ youth, including my friends and classmates.
“I didn’t know it was possible to like girls, let alone like girls and boys, or to not be a girl or a boy until I did my own research on it,” says 16-year-old Willa, who is non-binary and pansexual. “It definitely hindered my journey in discovering myself.”
Fifteen-year-old JB Campbell, who is non-binary and biromantic, says: “There were many internal signs that would’ve made my journey easier had I been exposed to representation and had a chance to understand things that weren’t considered the norm.”
Furthermore, the representation of queer individuals in history who did groundbreaking things for the LGBTQ+ community will show students that people’s contributions to the world we live in now hold the same value as other historical events that shaped the way we live today. If we teach students about the pioneers of the queer rights movement who fought against police brutality at Stonewall and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, queer students are less likely to feel that their lives and experiences are less important because of who they are. Representation matters, and the stories of unapologetic LGBTQ+ figures inspire queer youth to be proud of who they are.
The narrative of the way that the LGBTQ+ community has been erased and devalued throughout history and how we’ve worked to overcome this inequity is a lesson that is beneficial to all students, according to teacher Colin O’Grady.
“When people see themselves represented in history, or in literature, it validates their sense of self-worth. It tells them that their lives matter and that they are valued members of society,” he says. “Revising the curriculum to be more inclusive, and teaching about the exclusion from historical narratives that occurred up until now also teaches all students a lot about the nature of how history is constructed and leads them to think critically about the narratives that they encounter.”
Students who are aware of the injustices faced by the queer community and how they shape our lives are better equipped to question inequality in their daily lives.
History being taught through a solely cisgender and heterosexual lense creates a stigma around queerness that affects cishet student’s perception and understanding of their LGBTQ+ peers. For students who grow up in homophobic and transphobic households, the only image they’re likely to have of the queer community is that we’re “weird” or “gross,” and this is harmful to both their queer peers and themselves. “I’m straight myself, but I have many LGBTQ+ friends and I want to do as much as I can for them,” says 16-year-old J. “I think if they had taught us about this in school, we’d definitely be more accepting.”
GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey found that 91 percent of LGBTQ+ students in Virginia secondary schools heard their classmates use the word “gay” in a derogatory way. Eighty-one percent had heard their classmates use homophobic slurs, and 73 percent had heard negative comments about transgender people.
If we’re taught from the beginning that queer people exist and are human beings who make valuable contributions to society just like everyone else, students who use the word “gay” as an insult and view being queer as something that’s unnatural and wrong would be less inclined to do so. If the etymology behind homophobic and transphobic slurs are included in the curriculum, cishet students who use these words against their queer peers would be likely to stop after they’re given the understanding of the true weight that they hold.
Only 15 percent of queer Virginia students who were surveyed by GLSEN in 2017 said that they were taught about the queer community in a positive light, and 3 percent said that the sex education they had received was LGBTQ+ inclusive.
As well as making queer students more comfortable, LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education would improve the safety of queer students, both physically and mentally.
According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 percent of new HIV cases were made up of gay and bisexual men in 2017. Sixty-four percent of those new cases were men between the ages of 13-34. A 2003 study by the University of Washington found that almost half of women who had intercourse with women in the past year tested positive for herpes simplex virus type one.
In order to lower these numbers and give queer students comparable health benefits from their health classes, students need to be educated about Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), dental dams, and STDs that disproportionately affect those who engage in same-sex intercourse.
As it is today, the majority of sex education curriculums include no mention of sexual orientation or gender identity. When these things are brought up, they’re often portrayed in a negative way. This contributes to the frequent bullying and discrimination that queer students face due to the LGBTQ+ exclusive climate cishet-only sex education generates. The Center for American Progress reported that almost one-third of LGBTQ+ students have skipped class because they felt unsafe at school. The negative bias around being LGBTQ+ that is caused by only portraying queerness in a negative light makes queer students miss out on academic opportunities and fall behind in their education.
Excluding queer student’s history and sex education doesn’t do any good for them or their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts. The stories of strong LGBTQ+ leaders and how they broke barriers teach lessons that everyone can learn from, and normalize queer identities and relationships. Inclusive sex education gives queer students the same tools as their classmates to make informed and safe choices.
Maeve Korengold, 16, is a high school junior and Safe Space NOVA’s newest Student