It’s that time of year again: Pride Week. The Pride lights are shining at City Hall, and rainbow unicorn t-shirts are flying off the racks at Target. In recent years, especially here in Massachusetts, it’s become easy to imagine that being queer is at worst no big deal, and at best one big party. But in many ways, it’s still scary and hard to be a member of the LGBTQ community. Just look at the threat Washington poses: The Trump administration refuses to acknowledge Pride month. The federal Department of Education rolls back protections for LGBTQ youth every chance it gets. The Health and Human Services Department eliminated the requirement that teen pregnancy prevention programs be LGBTQ inclusive, and instead erased any mention of queer kids at all. Here in Massachusetts, trans people’s basic right to public accommodation is being put to a popular vote, putting progress at risk and inundating our state with anti-trans propaganda.
There’s a bill wending its way through the State House right now that could help blunt the impact of this backlash. It’s called the Healthy Youth Act, and among other things, it would ensure that any sex education curriculum taught in our public schools affirm LGBTQ youth and directly address their specific needs as they grow into healthy adults. The Senate has already passed the Healthy Youth bill. Now it’s the House’s turn.
We don’t talk enough about queer kids when we talk about sex education, largely because too much of sex education is focused on scaring kids and ignoring that sex happens rather than on providing teens with the information they need. Leaving sex education to pop culture means straight boys see stories about their sexual coming-of-age everywhere, but the rest of us are invisible, stigmatized, or objectified. When sex education doesn’t address itself directly and supportively to LGBTQ students, it perpetuates the shame they already feel and the tenacious belief that they shouldn’t exist, let alone have needs and desires and boundaries of our own. Then, when they encounter sexual situations that make them uncomfortable, they don’t know how to stand up for themselves, or even that they deserve to. Maybe that’s why the Centers for Disease Control reports “young gay and bisexual males have disproportionately high rates of HIV, syphilis, and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and adolescent lesbian and bisexual females are more likely to have ever been pregnant than their heterosexual peers.”
As LGBTQ teens enter their first relationships, they, like their peers, need communication skills and an understanding of consent in order to build healthy relationships. And they need age-appropriate and medically accurate information specific to their health needs. Their straight peers need this information too, to help them move past stereotypes to develop empathy and understanding. This kind of sex education can transform a whole school culture: One California study found that including LGBTQ-affirming content in school curricula led to lower rates of bullying.
For many adults, it’s uncomfortable to think about teens and sex, and even more uncomfortable when you have kids of your own. But the discomfort required to talk about sex education is nothing compared with the discomfort the state’s young people suffer without it. Currently, Massachusetts schools can teach whatever they want under the umbrella of sex education. If they so choose, they could teach that queer kids are going to Hell, or that girls who have sex with more than one partner wind up like used-up masking tape. But even schools that simply don’t mention LGBTQ students at all are failing. Young people deserve more than a school that tolerates them — they deserve a school environment where they are welcomed and affirmed.
Politicians march in our parades so often it’s become cliché. But if state representatives really want to make the LGBTQ community proud, they’ll approve the Healthy Youth bill this month. The federal government is abandoning these kids. We can still protect them here in Massachusetts.Jaclyn Friedman is an author and educator. Her most recent book is “Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How To Stop Letting the System Screw Us All.”