Apart from the home, school is the place where young people spend the majority of their time. It is the place where children are introduced to challenging ideas and situations that ultimately play an immense role in their understanding of themselves and the world around them. Educators are tasked with taking over the parental role while students are in their charge and are expected to teach children everything they need to know to get by in life once they leave the insulating halls of high school.
Students learn about the world both through what they are and aren’t taught in these institutions. Through their experiences, young people learn what is and isn’t acceptable in the world, in interaction with others, and – perhaps
most importantly – within themselves. Norms, stereotypes, and expectations surrounding sexuality and gender identity are constructed, reinforced, and constantly policed in schools, whether students and teachers are actively aware of it or not.
But, what does this mean for students whose blossoming self-concepts and identities are not represented in these spaces? This is a question that is especially salient for students who identify as LGBTQ or are investigating identities alternative to the heteronormative narrative. Sexuality and gender identity are taught in schools in many ways, though rarely explicitly, and the lack of education and discussion of these issues may be the most telling example.
The Tyranny of Silence
The political, legal, social, and cultural climates in the school system lead to a significant and deeply worrying silence in both the formal and informal curriculum surrounding non-heterosexual identities. Every absence, however, constitutes a particular kind of presence, and this stifling silence around LGBTQ identities represents an alarming unacknowledged discourse in education.
Whether educators acknowledge it or not, homosexuality is taught from children’s earliest days in school: through the lack of non-heterosexual role models; through the absence of discussion, study, inquiry, or subject matter; through the automatic assumption of heterosexual identities for everyone we meet; and through the blind eye that is often turned to heterosexist and homophobic practices. Thus, the construction of homosexuality as ‘other’ remains intact.
Interaction of Sex Education with Queer Identity
One of the most important ways that homosexuality is disregarded and marginalized is through the formal curriculum of sex education. A controversial and also extremely powerful topic, sex education defines what is normal or acceptable in a very physical and individualized way. It is important because it teaches young people how to navigate the world as agents of physical interaction within a subject that is often treated as “taboo” – and rarely discussed. Despite the importance of sex education in an informal and formal curriculum, it remains stuck as a social, political, and moral battleground.
The World Health Organization offers a positive and holistic way to approach sexual health and education when it states:
Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relation- ships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion discrimination and violence.
However, this is rarely the approach taken by educators when addressing issues of sexuality. With a focus on “plumbing and prevention,” more often than not, sex education discusses sexuality in strictly biological and reproductive terms, lending itself to a default heterosexual bias: focusing on “proper” function of genitalia and the prevention of STIs and pregnancy rather than holistic sexual health and agency. While these topics are not unimportant in any way, they have the potential to alienate any students whose interests and attentions may lie elsewhere.
In addition to a focus on sexual health, because of parent and political influence on classroom content, sex education is often expected to be a pillar of moral education. Parents expect educators to be a champion of abstinence rather than safe sex practices, taking the place of individual discussion and family guidance. This blanket approach to sex education leaves little room for direct, honest, and factual presentation or discussion of sexual activity.
With the prevalence of policing of gender and sexual norms by peers and faculty, students often fear ridicule or even physical harm as punishment for violation of those norms. By asking questions beyond the scope of abstinence-only heteronormative sex education, the student marks themselves as being outside the norm, thus making individual identity and knowledge invisible and invalidated.
LGBT youth from Basic Rights Oregon’s youth activist group QPOWER (Queer Portlanders Organizing and Working for Equal Rights) explain why LGBT inclusive sex education in schools is important:
Moving Forward: Questions for Consideration
- Who is responsible for changing the system?
- How much impact should schools have on moral sexual decisions? On sexual identity education? On sexual health education?
- What is the role of parents in educating youth about sexual health? About moral sexuality? About sexual identity?
- How do we end the silence without further alienating or causing harm to marginalized students?
- How can faculty be transformed from enactors of prejudice into allies?
Sexualities Equality in Schools: Why Every Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Student Matters by MAX BIDDULPH
Interrupting Heteronormativity: Toward a Queer Curriculum Theory by DENNIS SUMARA and BRENT DAVIS
Interrupting Discourses Around Gender Through Collective Memory Work and Collaborative Curriculum Research in Middle School by KIRAN D. PUROHIT and CHRISTOPHER WALSH