(WOMENSENEWS)--By age 11, Elina Kuusisto knew that she had no interest in boys. She also knew that being gay was clearly unpopular. But, she says, her sexuality education stopped there. Open about being a lesbian since ninth grade, Kuusisto, now 18, says she sat through sex education classes that addressed her boy-crazy classmates, but failed to acknowledge her confusion.
"They made me feel like I wasn't a real member of society," she says of the teachers and students at her high school in Almelund, Minn., about 50 miles north of Minneapolis. Despite support at home from her mother, the lack of discussion about homosexuality and harassment from her peers and teachers left her depressed and frequently visiting the school counselor.
"I just felt like the only weird kid out there. I didn't have any idea what I was supposed to act like, how I was supposed to dress, how to protect myself," Kuusisto says.
Despite the nearly 1 million gay teenagers in the United States, and the growing visibility of gays and lesbians in the broader culture, few educators are willing to address homosexuality in the classroom. Advocates assert that including gay issues in sexuality education could help address heightened health risks faced by gays and lesbians due to misinformation and lack of information about safe-sex practices; emotional isolation that contributes to high suicide and dropout rates among gay teens; and widespread harassment of gay and lesbian students by their peers and teachers.
Nearly 70 percent of U.S. school districts mandate some form of sex education, but very few include the health risks and lifestyles of lesbians and gays as part of the curriculum. In fact, spurred by federal funding incentives in the 1996 welfare law, school districts in 48 states have adopted an "abstinence-until-marriage" curriculum specifying that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexuality."
Only 20 states mandate sexuality education in their statewide content standards and 37 mandate HIV and sexually transmitted diseases education, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. But none require that teachers address homosexuality.
"Sexuality education as it stands ignores gay youth, both lesbians and gay men," says Heather Sawyer, a Chicago-based senior staff attorney for the LAMBDA Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national organization that advocates for the civil rights of lesbians and gays. "It renders them invisible, and by doing that you ignore particular health issues."
Gay and Lesbian Teens at Risk for Suicide, Homelessness, High-Risk Behavior
Many students, regardless of their orientation, say they don't receive information that encourages healthy sexual development; yet lack of information appears to particularly sting those who feel they are not part of their peers' fascination with the opposite sex. "H," a 16-year-old lesbian from Vancouver, Wash., who asked that her name not be published and would only be interviewed via Instant Messaging for fear of being "outed" to her parents, says she had a sexuality education class in sixth grade, but her teacher never mentioned homosexuality.
"It would be beneficial to have some coverage on the topic of homosexuality," says H, adding that information about sexually transmitted diseases would have been helpful as well. H, during the interview, said she had never heard of a dental-dam, a barrier used during oral sex to reduce the risk of disease.
"I see no problem with engaging in sexual activities with another girl:" H wrote, "Maybe if I knew some of the risks, I would think differently."
Stacy Weibley, a sexuality educator and public policy associate at the education council, argues that lesbian teens face increased health risks, largely because of fear and ignorance. "When young people do get the courage to talk with a practitioner or medical provider, they assume they're straight. They're not asking if a girl is using a dental-dam when having sex with her girlfriend," Weibley says.
Lesbian Teens More Likely to Become Pregnant
A 1995 study of Minnesota teens published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that lesbian and bisexual girls were more likely to become pregnant and more likely to have multiple pregnancies than heterosexual girls.
"Youth that are struggling with their sexuality or sexual orientation are at risk for engaging in sexual behavior because they're trying to work things out," says Sawyer. "Lesbian youth, for example, might fight against that by engaging in sexual behavior with older men."
Ruth Bell, author of "Changing Bodies, Changing Lives: A Book for Teens on Sex and Relationships," argues that the psychological effect of stigmatizing homosexuality in the classroom is as potentially harmful as not educating teens about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
"We need to teach ways for teens to protect themselves, but also give them a place to get support," she says. "It's more than the sexuality education side; it's the support side of it, having someone to say you're not bad."
Studies document the emotional toll on gay teens. A 1993 report by the Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, for instance, found that 97 percent of students in public high schools in the state regularly hear homophobic remarks from their peers. Not surprisingly, many lesbian, gay and bisexual youth skip classes and eventually drop out of school; LAMBDA reports that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as lesbian or gay.
A 1995 report from the Centers for Disease Control and the Massachusetts Department of Education found that lesbian and gay youth are four times more likely than non-lesbian and gay teens to attempt suicide. And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has reported that gays and lesbians account for 30 percent of all teen suicides.
"It would lessen that hostility if there was an open discussion about sexual orientation and sexuality," says Sawyer. "It's a valuable message not just for kids who may be having issues of sexual orientation, but for all students."
Some Schools Buck Trend toward Abstinence-Only Education
Including information about homosexuality remains highly controversial among parents, school administrators and teachers. About 1 in 12 high school health teachers taught their classes that homosexuality is wrong in 1995, according to a survey of 211 U.S. school districts published in the Journal of School Health. LAMBDA reports that 77 percent of prospective teachers would not encourage a class discussion on homosexuality and 85 percent oppose integrating gay and lesbian themes into their existing curriculums.
Parents and educators who oppose discussion of homosexuality in schools commonly express fear that exposure influences sexual orientation. Some gay teens agree: Danielle Kruszewski, 18, says she doesn't know if she'd be gay if she didn't attend an accepting school in Levittown, Penn., and hadn't met her first girlfriend. "I don't think people are born with it," she says. "It's like drinking Pepsi or Coke. You're not born to like Coke. You're not born to like Pepsi."
Yet even at Kruszewski's school, where numerous students are openly gay, health education teacher Edwin Neumann says the faculty skims the chapter on homosexuality, providing little more than a definition of the term. "Basically, we provide an explanation of what [homosexuality] is," he says. Any further discussion about homosexuality, including safe sex, is "something that individual families make decisions on," Neumann says.
Sex education policies vary widely from state to state and from district to district. Under the doctrine of "local control," each school district devises its own sexuality education curriculum in accordance with any statewide content standards, such as HIV and AIDS education. Local, rather than state or federal control, not only dilutes the possibility of consistent sexuality education curriculums, but also allows direct parental input over what children learn.
Nevertheless, while the U.S. Department of Education does not mandate specific standards to the states, in the 1996 welfare legislation the federal government did provide funding incentives for schools that adopted an abstinence-based education program. By 1999, 35 percent of school districts that have a sexuality education policy had implemented the abstinence program, reported Family Planning Perspectives.
Everyone should be abstinent until marriage, including gays and lesbians, who can only acquire legal marriage status in the state of Vermont, says Debbie Daniels, president of the National Abstinence Association, an organization that supplies educators with abstinence-until-marriage materials and seminars. Daniels says her organization does not discuss exceptions to its beliefs--not even for gay teens. "They need to be abstinent too, and we don't need to go any further than that because it takes away from our point of focus, that abstinence until marriage is best," Daniels says.
While the vast majority of schools avoid discussing gay issues, a handful of schools have tried a different approach. In 1984, gay and lesbian activists in New York spearheaded the first and largest U.S. high school specifically for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. The Hetrick Martin Institute in Manhattan houses the Harvey Milk High School, a public school that follows the New York City Board of Education's curriculum to educate about 100 students grades nine through 12.
Before enrollment, students at Harvey Milk must demonstrate that they are unable to succeed in their previous high school because of violence, harassment or other learning obstacles. The dropout rate is minimal and the school currently has a three-year waiting list.
"It's a high school where sexual orientation is taken off the table," says Carl Strange, a spokesman for the Hetrick Martin Institute. "There's no excuse not to excel."
A similarly accepting atmosphere exists at Friends Central School, a private, K-12 grade Quaker school in Newton Square, Penn. Lindsey Stetson, 18, an only child adopted from Hong Kong, attends classes like "Sexuality and Society" and "Gay and Lesbian Representation in Literature" along with sexuality education classes that discuss all sexualities. She has also had an open dialogue about her sexuality with her parents. Stetson is acutely aware that her experience is not commonplace, so she is anxious about going away to college.
"I live in a school, social setting, family and church of very accepting people," Stetson says. "I feel like I haven't experienced the real world of being gay."
Carol Lee is a student at New York University Department of Journalism and Mass Communication.
For more information:
SIECUS, The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United Stateshttp://www.siecus.org/index.html
Choosing the Best
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund
"Lambda and GLSEN Team Up to Create a New Publication for LGBT Youth,"
January 15, 2002: