Sex ed is growing more inclusive of LGBTQ+ but is the norm in only 17 states

From 2016 to 2018, 27 states reported increases in the number of schools offering LGBTQ+-inclusive sex-ed instruction
By: | October 15, 2021
(AdobeStock)(AdobeStock)

Instruction that affirms LGTBQ+ students’ gender identities is spreading but still lacking in many states, as are gay-straight alliance clubs where young people can turn for critical support.

LGBTQ+-inclusive sex-ed curricula were offered in a majority of the schools in only 17 states as of 2018, says a new report from Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization, citing the most recently available CDC data.

From 2016 to 2018, 27 states reported increases of greater than 1 percentage point in the number of schools offering LGBTQ+-inclusive sex-ed materials. Seven states—California, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington—reported growth of 10 or more percentage points.

A handful of states reported declines with Mississippi seeing the most drastic decline of 17 percentage points, the report found.

The report also analyzed connections between instructional changes and state policies. As of 2020, six states—California, Colorado, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington (plus the District of Columbia)—required schools to teach inclusive sex-ed curricula. Legislation or court decisions have recently repealed anti-LGBTQ+ policies in Alabama, Arizona and South Carolina.

(ChildTrends/CDC)

Inclusive sex-ed curricula should explicitly address the needs of LGBTQ+ youth as a part of education about HIV, STDs and pregnancy prevention. Educators should use inclusive, non-gendered language and cover examples of healthy, non-heterosexual relationships.

Failing to provide inclusive sex-ed instruction can cause mental health problems in students and increase the stigma they face. These conditions have been linked to drug use and alcohol use among LGBTQ+ youth, higher rates of dating violence and increased risk of engaging in risky sexual behaviors.

“Access to sexual health education that is inclusive of LGBTQ+ youth is associated with improved health and reduced impacts from LGBTQ+ stigma as well as reduced suicidal thoughts among both straight, cisgender youth and LGBTQ+ youth,” the report says.

Safe spaces for alliances

Gender and sexuality alliances or gay-straight alliance clubs give students space to discuss and learn about sexual orientation, gender identity, and other youth LGBTQ+ issues.

Studies have shown that these clubs, also known as GSAs, improve both school climates and academic outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth, according to Child Trends.

“While LGBTQ+ youth may experience stigma and discrimination related to their sexual orientation or gender identity—including higher rates of victimization, such as bullying at school and cyberbullying—GSAs can serve as a buffer by providing LGBTQ+ youth with a source of community, a gateway to LGBTQ+-friendly resources, and a marker of safety,” Child Trends’ report says.

However, only nine states and Washington D.C., report that more than half of their high schools have a GSA while some studies have found the clubs are not inclusive of students color. Still, GSAs have been shown to benefit all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and that the positive impacts extend even to students who do not participate directly in the clubs.

State education agencies can help by offering accessible resources and training to school districts. Two national LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, GLSEN and GSA Network, provide resources for GSAs.

“This school year, GSAs will play a particularly critical role in serving the needs of LGBTQ+ youth—many of whom experienced poorer mental health and more stressful living situations during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Child Trends says.