In turn, the stress on LGBTQ students manifests itself in increased risk for depression, substance use, and sexual behaviors that place them at risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Self-identified gay/lesbian and bisexual teens have been found to have experienced early heterosexual sex, to not use contraception and to be victims of sexual violence more than their heterosexual peers. In line with those estimates, the CDC reports LGBTQ students who are sexually active are significantly more likely than other students to report becoming pregnant or getting someone pregnant.
But when Mary Anne Mosack, the executive director of Ascend, a nonprofit that advocates schools adopt “sexual-risk avoidance” curricula, looks at statistics like that, she sees a problem with teen sex, not a problem with sex education. “We care very much about our gay teens,” Mosack said, and the problem isn’t that kids aren’t being taught about homosexuality and gender identity—it’s that they aren’t hearing about abstinence.
“Teen sex is designated by the CDC as a risk behavior,” Mosack says. “All students, no matter what sex they’re involved in or what orientation, they’re all at risk. Sexual delay for a teen is a protective factor. The fewer lifetime partners, the healthier they are.”
Studies have shown abstinence-only education is better than no sex education at all in terms of getting teenagers to delay sex. But advocates for LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed say directly speaking to kids about the realities of relationships for homosexual and transgender kids is important for harm and risk reduction, too.
“Often times, students will check out of sex ed if it doesn’t reflect them,” said Taylor Stein, the program specialist of OASOS, an initiative for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, and asexual youth offered by the the Boulder County, Colorado, health department. “We need to empower kids to make decisions, and when they do that, to make healthy decisions.”
And some advocates say students should be exposed to these lessons when they’re young. Kids shouldn’t have to wait until a high school health class to recognize themselves in their education, said Bethy Leonardi, the co-founder of A Queer Endeavor, a program housed at the University of Colorado, Boulder, that teaches grade-school teachers and other school staff how to tackle the topics of gender and sexual diversity in the classroom. The universal approach to gender- and sexual-identity inclusion is one that provides a building block for all kids, so by the time they enter health class, they’re comfortable talking about not just healthy sexual relationships but also how they might fit into them.
“As a queer kid in the Catholic South, as you might imagine, I could have benefited from hearing more sooner, having role models, hearing about LGBTQ people not as pathologized or sinful or unhappy or as defined only by their gender or sexualities,” Leonardi said.
That’s all kids like Russell are asking for—to see themselves in their education, the way she saw herself on a TV show.
“I sought out all of my sexual education information on my own, but I know many of my classmates do not feel comfortable doing that,” the 17-year-old said. “Watching the [Fosters] episode made me feel like the next generation of gay kids will be much better supported than my generation, and it felt amazing.”