PITTSBURGH (WOMENSENEWS)–Kimberly Gomez, 16, wants to learn more about sex.
As a lesbian, she wants to know how to avoid sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, and figure out what is a safe environment for experimentation.
"Being young and inexperienced is hard enough," Gomez said in an email interview from her home in Denton, Texas. "It’s frustrating not knowing what you’re doing, and while the freedom to experiment is liberating, it can also be scary and overwhelming. Having some type of guidance would be greatly appreciated. Queer sex ed needs to be added to conventional programs."
While sex ed is a required part of the health curriculum in the public schools of 22 states and the District of Columbia, information specifically for LGBTQ youth is not mandated as part of the lesson plans.
However, issues normally stressed in conventional programs, including STIs and pregnancy, prove to be just as pressing for LGBTQ+ teens.
Pregnancy, for instance, can be a misunderstood and overlooked issue for LGBTQ+ teens. The 2009 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey found higher rates of lesbian identifying teens becoming pregnant than expected. When it came to queer students, 11 percent had been or had gotten someone pregnant, as opposed to 5 percent of other students.
"We presume that identity equals behavior," said Carla Silva, director of the Health Outreach to Teens program at the Callen-Lorde Health Center in New York City. "Adolescence is a time to be really exploratory about many issues, including sexuality, [but lesbian teens] are not part of any dialogue that’s happening around sexual health."
In the absence of any formal instruction, teens often go looking online where, Silva said, information is not always reliable.
LGBTQ+ teens are more likely to have started having sex at an early age and to have multiple partners compared to their heterosexual peers and less likely to use contraception during intercourse, therefore being placed at risk of unexpected teen pregnancy, according to a data analysis by advocacy groups.
Without queer sexual education classes at school, LGBTQ+ teens can find themselves ill-equipped to deal with these situations. As a result, LGBTQ+ youth are experiencing issues that make them more likely to have sex and experience issues like dating violence, STDs and unexpected pregnancy.
"As a queer teen, you have to worry about so much more," said Gomez. "If you or the person you’re experimenting with isn’t out to their family yet, experimenting becomes so much scarier. You never know how parents will react to walking in on their children with someone of the same gender."
Sixty-one organizations recently came out in support of comprehensive sex education, according to a press statement from one of those organizations, the Sexual Information and Education Council of the U.S. Other groups include the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood.
The statement, "A Call to Action: LGBTQ Youth Need Inclusive Sex Education," says only 19 percent of U.S. secondary schools provide curricula or supplementary sex education materials that are LGBTQ-inclusive. "Fewer than 5 percent of LGBT students have health classes that included positive representations of LGBT-related topics," according to the statement.
Anna Labick, 16, lives in Pittsburgh and said the health programs at her school are inadequate for queer teens such as herself. "It can be quite dangerous considering if one’s sexuality is ignored and no information is provided to help the teen practice safe sex (which is kind of the point of health class)," she said an email interview. "If health classes/educators talked about this openly, it would also create a safe space for kids who may not be able to talk about things like this at home."
In the absence of information at school, Labick relies on the online sex content created by the video-blogger, or "vlogger," Laci Green, a public sex educator.
This lack of information can put lesbian teens in danger of making poor decisions and at a greater risk for associating sex with shame, said Silva of the Callen-Lorde Health Center.
For Gomez, it’s a safety issue. "The biggest risk when experimenting is the fear of someone walking in on you; having someone who doesn’t know about you find out like that is terrifying," she said. "There is so much violence against the LGBT+ community, you’re constantly worrying if you’re safe enough."
She said online information was key in helping her understand she could get an STI or HIV through vaginal sex. "It wasn’t something we learned in school," Gomez said.
Some states are taking action to prepare queer teens for healthier sex lives. While California’s schools are not required to teach comprehensive sex education, 96 percent of them do and must follow a specific set of laws regarding content and parental consent.
Six other states, including Texas, Arizona, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio, are making greater efforts toward inclusive sex education. Four states – Arizona, Hawaii, California and Ohio – have addressed gender identity in their efforts.