THE BLOG
05/01/2013 10:47 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Harm of Homophobic Sex Ed

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"Homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and ... homosexual conduct is a criminal offense."

As much as I wish this were a 1950s-era example of past homophobia washed away, the above text is from the current sex education requirements under Alabama state law. That is, Alabama law requires public schools that teach sex education to instruct students that homosexuality is immoral, unhealthy and, despite Lawrence v. Texas, illegal. Alabama is not alone in its anti-gay sex education regulations (that list includes Texas, Mississippi and Arizona, among others), but what is noteworthy about Alabama is that there is a push to change the law. This year Alabama State Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham) introduced H.B. 496 to eliminate the anti-gay portions of her state's sex education law; the bill was read for the first time in the Alabama House of Representatives' Education Policy Committee last month, and advocates from around the state have come to the Capitol to rally for it. I am excited to see this momentum and hope that it grows, but I would be surprised if Alabama or the other states with anti-LGB sex education policies eliminated their homophobic curricula in the immediate future. The sooner the better, though, as the anti-LGB status quo can both directly harm LGB youth and contribute to hostile school environments.

Anti-LGB sex education curricula encourage LGB youth to develop internalized heterosexism, the belief, based on messages and values from society, that it is best to be heterosexual. Sex education programs in states like Alabama tend to glorify heterosexual marriage as the only appropriate kind of sexual relationship, which isolates lesbian and gay youth who are neither interested in a heterosexual marriage nor able to get married in most states. But these programs also suggest that there is shame in being lesbian, gay or bisexual, that it, unlike heterosexuality, is unacceptable, a deviant choice and a health risk. Predictably, being taught such prejudice has consequences: Psychological research suggests that LGB people who come to believe messages that heterosexuality is better than other sexual orientations, or that it is bad to be lesbian, gay or bisexual, are at an increased risk for mental health concerns like depression, low self-esteem and suicidality.

It is also important to place sex education instruction in a broader context. Some LGB youth who receive prejudiced sex education have a supportive family and perhaps a supportive church or temple, watch LGB-affirming TV shows like Glee and Modern Family and have affirming friends; other LGB youth have virulently homophobic parents, are subjected to regular anti-gay sermons at church and have been taught from a young age that homosexuality is wrong. It is the latter group that I am most concerned about. While a school could provide factual information about sexual orientation to a student who does not receive it elsewhere (e.g., that it is normal to be straight, bisexual or lesbian/gay), schools in Alabama, Texas and other states with anti-LGB sex education laws become yet another place that serves up homophobic messages. That is unfortunate, because for many LGB youth, school has the potential to be one of the only places that affirms that their sexual orientation is OK.

Of course, it is not just lesbian, gay and bisexual teens who are in sex ed: Heterosexual youth can also come to believe prejudiced messages in sex education, and that is also concerning. Whereas an LGB-affirming sex education program would teach students that all sexual orientations are equally valid, prejudiced sex ed programs teach straight students that bisexual, lesbian and gay people are immoral and criminal or are at an extremely high risk for AIDS. Such messages add fuel to bullies' hate speech by demonstrating that their school supports negative attitudes toward LGB sexualities and, by extension, LGB people.

Given that young people support LGB rights such as marriage equality at record levels, it can be easy to forget that over 80 percent of LGB students are verbally or physically harassed at school because of their sexual orientation (see GLSEN's 2011 National School Climate Survey). That harassment, like the anti-gay sex education curricula, can contribute to depression and other mental health concerns. Notably, the same GLSEN survey found that LGBT students at schools with LGBT-inclusive curricula were less likely to be harassed than LGBT students at other schools, and were twice as likely (67 percent vs. 33 percent) to report that their peers accepted LGBT people. While it is possible that other causes explain some of this difference (e.g., LGBT-affirming parts of the country are probably more likely to adopt LGBT-inclusive curricula), it also makes sense that students come to accept the messages, positive or negative, that are conveyed to them about LGBT people.

I applaud Alabama State Rep. Todd and others who are working to end anti-LGB sex education in their states, as well as those in Congress who are working to prohibit federal sex education grants from being used for programs that aren't LGB-inclusive. While I hope that the push to end anti-LGB sex education -- and ideally adopt LGBT-inclusive curricula -- gains momentum, I have not seen any indication that states like Alabama, Mississippi and Texas will overturn their anti-gay sex education laws anytime soon. I cannot quite wrap my head around why, in 2013, lawmakers would see the need for schools to go out of their way to teach prejudiced and flat-out inaccurate information about sexual orientation. But regardless of why, I am concerned: It is difficult to ask students to accept themselves and all their fellow students for who they are when their schools can't lead by example.

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