Sex Education Needs to Be Less Straight
What does an inclusive version of ‘the talk’ look like?
When Alex Clavel was in eighth grade, in 2015, his health teacher started the class’s “sex unit” with a familiar activity. Posting signs around the room with the names of reproductive organs — uterus, cervix, testes — she called them out, one by one. The students were supposed to run toward the sides of the room labeled “male” or “female.”
When the teacher yelled “uterus,” every student flocked to the female side, except Clavel. Stationed in the middle, he remembers asking: “What about transgender men?” The teacher didn’t contradict him, but said that for the purpose of this lesson, the uterus is something only women have.
This was the only school-based sex ed that Clavel, now 19, received as a teenager in Ithaca, New York. His experience is not unique: Across the country, many American students receive sex education that’s limited in scope, or doesn’t teach safe sex behaviors at all. LGBTQ teens can feel the limitations acutely, and many say they are overlooked, erased, or willfully ignored in the classroom, particularly when it comes to sex ed. Studies show that sex education that stigmatizes LGBTQ students — by gendering reproductive language or only including examples of heterosexual couples in a lesson plan — contributes to disproportionately high rates of unintended pregnancy, intimate partner violence and sexual abuse, and sexually transmitted infections, particularly for LGBTQ youth of color.
Fortunately, Clavel found a way to get answers outside of the classroom. That same year, he joined a youth group for LGBTQ teens run by Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes. The group of around 14 teens — many of them the only out kids at their high schools — gathered weekly to discuss sexual health, host game nights, and do community service. The organization’s vice president for programming and communications, Maureen Kelly, describes the program as a “sanctuary” and a place where young people are allowed to ask questions like, what about transgender men?
Clavel credits the group with helping him build the confidence to come out as a lesbian, and one year later, as a transgender man. In a youth group, no one misgendered him. Once, one of his peers…