Now that the school year is in full swing, we'd like to discuss one of the aspects of inclusive curriculum that we get asked about the most: the importance of incorporating lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues in sexuality education. Providing LGBT youth with accurate and useful information that is relevant to their sexual health and development is critical, particularly given the sexual health disparities widely reported for LGBT youth, such as increased rates of sexually transmitted infections. Perhaps these disparities are caused, in part, by the type of sex education LGBT youth receive (or don’t receive) in school. Researchers and health education experts alike have highlighted how sexuality education in U.S. schools often stigmatizes LGBT people and issues or excludes them altogether. For example, in our National School Climate Survey (pdf), we found that only 4% of LGBT students were taught positive information about LGBT people or issues in their health classes. And teachers in some states (i.e., Arizona, South Carolina) and individual school districts are explicitly prohibited from even mentioning any LGBT-related content in a positive way, if at all.
Here we lay out five possible approaches to inclusion of LGBT people and issues in sexuality education – four that are seriously flawed and one that is truly inclusive. Which type have you seen practiced at your school or at schools you have attended?
The Ignoring Approach. The curriculum ignores the existence of LGBT people and non-heterosexual behaviors completely. Not only is there an omission of LGBT people and related topics, but heterosexuality is put forth as the norm and only conceivable option. Given its focus on marriage (almost exclusively defined as between a man and a woman), abstinence-only education often falls into this approach (for more on abstinence-only sex education and how it affects LGBT students, check out p. 50 in our National School Climate Survey (pdf).
The Demonizing Approach. The curriculum includes, yet demonizes, LGBT people and non-heterosexual behaviors by either explicitly teaching that that homosexuality is wrong or implicitly communicating that being LGBT is undesirable and unacceptable. For example, some curricula equate homosexuality with child sexual abuse or insinuate that gay men are responsible for the AIDS epidemic.
The Stigmatizing Approach. In this case, the curriculum may not outright condemn LGBT people or any non-heterosexual feelings or behaviors, but mentions LGBT people only when discussing risk behaviors (e.g., those related to HIV or other sexual transmitted infections). This portrays LGBT people as dangerous and their sexual behaviors as risky and abnormal.
The Transgender-Excluding Approach. The sex education curriculum may include LGB people and non-heterosexuality in an affirming, respectful manner, and yet still exclude transgender people and issues completely, negating their existence and value.
The Truly LGBT-Inclusive Approach. This approach includes and infuses LGBT people and issues throughout the sex education curriculum. It does not assume heterosexuality in its definitions of sexual activities or discussions of romantic relationships. It challenges the gender binary (i.e., that there are only two genders, male and female, and that are mutually exclusive) and pays more than token attention to transgender people and concerns. It avoids relegating LGBT issues to “special topics” and instead includes discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity throughout the curriculum. Unfortunately, this is the least common type of sex education provided in our schools today.
GLSEN believes that sexuality education must be truly LGBT-inclusive. This would benefit not only LGBT youth, but also provide non-LGBT youth with an opportunity to dispel myths about issues of sexual orientation and gender and broaden their understanding about LGBT peoples and communities.
If you want to learn more, these five approaches to LGBT-inclusion in sexuality education are discussed in more detail in our recent book chapter on LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum.
With all the attention to preventing bullying in schools, many of us should (and do) wonder how effective these programs are. A recent national study assessed relationships between rates of 6th-10th grade student victimization and various individual and school-level characteristics. The study is valuable in that it provides information on numerous factors that may be related to increased victimization. However, this study has garnered attention for one particular finding: students in schools with bullying prevention programs had higher rates of victimization than students in schools without programs, leading some to wonder if bullying prevention programs actually increase bullying. It is important for us (researchers, scholars, educators, and advocates) to take a step back to consider what these findings really tell us – and don’t tell us – about the effectiveness of bullying prevention programs.
The authors, who admittedly did not expect this finding, suggest one possible explanation – students who engage in bullying behaviors learned, but chose not to use, the lessons of the program. Yet, surprisingly, the authors did not entertain one of the more likely explanations: correlation is not causality. In other words, just because students in schools with bullying prevention programs had higher rates of peer victimization does not mean that bullying prevention programs caused the victimization. It is just as likely that schools with higher levels of victimization are the exact schools that choose to implement bullying prevention programs. So it may very well be that the bullying prevention program is not causing high victimization, but that high victimization necessitated the program.
We also do not know what types of bullying prevention programs were assessed for this study. School administrators were simply asked to respond “yes/no" whether their school had a bullying prevention program. Each administrator may have a different interpretation of what qualifies as a bullying prevention program – some may consider anything that addresses peer relationships; others may adhere to a strict definition of bullying (victimization that is repeated, occurring over time, and committed by someone with greater power) that may or may not address broader peer victimization behaviors like those assessed in this study. Yet, as the authors themselves note, there is no information about the programs’ type, content, or scope. Were these programs in-depth or just a one-time assembly? Did they reach all members of the school community or were they focused solely on students? All these factors would influence the effectiveness of a program.
Undoubtedly, there are good bullying prevention programs and some not-so-good programs. Schools often have few staff resources or financial resources to devote to program selection or implementation; they also may have little information on what programs would work best, and thus may resort to selecting a program of convenience (i.e., the one adopted by their neighboring school or one requiring less investment) rather than the one most effective for their school community. Therefore, this study might be demonstrating that bad programs are ineffective at best, or potentially damaging at worst. It likely tells us nothing about the effects of a well-designed and properly implemented program.
One question we have about bullying programs is whether they address bias-based bullying (i.e., bullying that is motivated by bias or prejudice against a group of people), a type of bullying found to have greater negative effects than other types of bullying. Specifically, programs need to explicitly address bias and prejudice, including bias against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Programs that do not may fail to effectively make schools safer for LGBT youth (a population who suffer from disproportionately high rates of school victimization). Any assessment of bullying programs should examine LGBT-inclusion. Unfortunately, this study does not help shed any light on these questions. Like most research on peer victimization, the data used for this study did not include sexual orientation or transgender status in student demographics, nor did it ask about experiences of anti-LGBT victimization. And given that most bullying programs do not explicitly address anti-LGBT bullying, it is unlikely that the programs implemented by the schools would have a real impact on the victimization of LGBT youth.
So, what does this study tell us about the types of programs we believe schools should have in place - high in quality, designed to address a broad array of peer victimization (including bias-based bullying), matched to schools’ needs, and implemented with fidelity? Most likely, not much. More research is needed to better understand which programs are effective and for which types of victimization. What we already know is that schools cannot wait to take action – they need to thoughtfully assess and select an approach to combat peer victimization, and ensure that it explicitly addresses bias and prejudice, including anti-LGBT bias. And we all should strive to ensure that schools have the financial support and public will to do so.