This piece was originally published in the Dallas Morning News on October 6th, 2020.
The Texas State Board of Education is revising the health and sex education standards for Texas students, and we have a real opportunity to take a much-needed step forward for all youth across our state.
The last time the board revised the standards was 1997, a generation ago. Bill Clinton was in the White House, fewer than 20% of American households had internet access and the world was mourning the death of Princess Diana.
We’ve come a long way since then. Marriage equality has been the law of the land for five years, LGBTQ workers are covered under federal employment law, and public opinion polling shows Texans overwhelmingly support equal rights for LGBTQ people. But LGBTQ youth in Texas still do not see themselves or their experiences reflected in the curriculum. The board missed a chance in September to protect students by voting to exclude information on sexual orientation and gender identity, but there is still time to reverse course.
What does an LGBTQ-inclusive health curriculum look like?
Simply put, it is age-appropriate, medically accurate information that reflects the lives and experiences of all students. For younger students, it recognizes that some individuals are different from others but are equally deserving of dignity and respect. It teaches about gender stereotypes and the fact that often a person’s gender matches what they look like on the outside but sometimes it does not.
For more mature students, it introduces the distinction between sexual orientation, an enduring physical, romantic or emotional attraction to another, and gender identity, a person’s internal, deeply held sense of gender. Many people, even those with education about the LGBTQ community, still confuse these concepts. Such basic knowledge in the learning standards would go a long way to create more understanding and acceptance as young people develop.
What do we stand to lose by not including LGBTQ students in the standards? Unfortunately, LGBTQ students across Texas face hostile climates at school, putting them at risk for higher rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. According to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s 2017 state snapshot, 92% of LGBTQ students regularly heard remarks like “gay” used in a negative way and 85% regularly heard negative remarks about gender expression. Perhaps most worryingly, almost half reported negative remarks from school staff.
According to the Trevor Project, LGBTQ students face far higher rates of suicidal ideation and are almost five times more likely to have attempted suicide. Each episode of victimization reportedly increases the likelihood of self-harm by 2.5 times, on average.
Ignoring the realities of LGBTQ students in health and sex education standards will not make these problems go away. How do we turn the tide and protect all students if we effectively erase the identities and lived experiences of an estimated 10% of them from the learning standards?
Change comes from building dialogue and understanding. Studies have shown that students attending schools with inclusive curricula have lower absenteeism, lower victimization and better academic outcomes. While anti-bullying programs are a helpful tool, they alone cannot combat ignorance and misinformation. That information must come as part of age-appropriate learning standards that are reflective of all students. Sex ed at school is often the only reliable source of information a youth has about sexual development, and all children deserve to see themselves reflected in the classroom.
As the State Board of Education works to finalize the sex education standards this fall, it must not miss the opportunity to protect all youth across our state and create a new generation of students better equipped with fact-based curriculum to deal with the realities of today.
Cece Cox is chief executive of Resource Center