Some thoughts on sex ed from a queer/trans* perspective

A while back, I wrote a guest post on the GLSEN blog entitled “6 Ways I Make My Science Class LGBTQ-inclusive as a Trans* Teacher.” (Technically my title used the acronym LGBTQIA+, but moving on…)

I love the ways that being openly queer and trans allows me to teach sex ed in a different way than if I was closeted.  I also love the ways that my experiences as a queer and trans person whose truth is CONSTANTLY minimalized or erased in biology and health language, medical studies and research, health curricula, and textbooks allows me to see through a lot of attempts at including LGTBQIA+ voices that don’t actually meet our needs.

I think of sex ed in terms of universal design – how do I present information in a way that makes sense for the needs of any student walking in my door?  The lessons I teach should be relevant to an intersex student without throwing something in about intersex conditions as an afterthought.  Trans* kids should see themselves reflected there, and so should cisgender students.  A well-designed curriculum doesn’t even need the term “inclusive” – that implies that it takes extra work to put marginalized voices into what’s there.  Instead, it should intentionally point out that all bodies are different while sharing common principles, something that I try and weave into everything I teach about human anatomy and health.

So when I was able to meet with a group of young people who wanted to talk sex ed at an interscholastic GSA social event, I was *stoked.*  Here is a run-down of the things we talked about, in a group of middle- and high-school students grades 6-12 (mostly grades 6 and 7) – the black “-” column were negatives from their experiences with sex ed in the past, and the blue “+” column were positives or aspirations for the future:

A whiteboard reads text from students' notes about sex ed. Negatives: Dumbed down/too kiddish. You're not ready. Teacher not comfortable. Only learn about assigned sex/segregated. Not trans-inclusive or LGBTQ-inclusive. Just puberty. Emphasizes sex "binary" and not accurate. Questions not completely answered. Too short. Does not reflect complexity of identity. Focus on reproduction and preventing reproduction. PiV intercourse in hetero context only. Positives: Nice, funny teacher - comfortable with role. Tools. Not awkward/cheesy. Pads on shirt. Includes the complicated stuff. Sex! Not just puberty. Identity & LGBTQ topics. "Methods" included. Pleasure included. Sex positivity. Acknowledging/educating about LGBTQ communities. More explicit & direct information at younger ages. On the side of the whiteboard is written other notes: XX/estrogen/testosterone XY/testosterone/estrogen XXX XXY Scarleteen

Stuff that works:

  • The biggest thing that kids wanted was teachers who were comfortable talking about sex with kids.  It is unsurprising that many teachers end up teaching sex ed who aren’t actually comfortable, excited, or qualified to do that work.  Recruiting sex educators should be a priority for schools so that students receive a comprehensive education that doesn’t perpetuate discomfort in talking about sex.
  • Having lessons about all kinds of experiences – not just those of a student’s presumed gender or assigned sex at birth – is really important, especially to kids questioning their gender identities.  Several kids expressed disdain over the combination dysphoric-and-potentially-triggering experience of being segregated into a group of people based on assumed gender and then talking about genitalia and hormonal changes that they detest for hours.  Don’t force kids to segregate by (assumed) assigned sex at birth.  You may find that having a single-saab group available is helpful for some students; you can offer this as an opt-in space that kids can go to if they would like (and let them choose which group to attend!).
  • Similarly, talking about the experiences/identities of queer, trans, and intersex people is important for all kids in the room, regardless of who they present as in the moment.
  • Acknowledging that sex is not just for reproduction, not all sex carries a risk of reproduction, and not all queer sex lacks a risk for reproduction… again, think “universal design”!  The same goes for talking about sex: don’t start with “normal” sex and get into the “weird” stuff.  Talk about sex in a universal way – pleasure, reproduction, and consent.  They apply to everyone who chooses to have sex, period.
  • A subset of this thinking for me as a teacher is also explicitly naming that what “sex” means to different people is different.  I do an activity that was modeled for me in high school where students receive an envelope with different intimate activities in it, ranging from cuddling with clothes on, to masturbating alone, to penis-in-anus sexual contact.  They have to rank the acts in terms of their own sense of how intimate they are, and then mark where “sex” starts for them.  Then, they look around the room: not a single list is the same, including the line of where “non-sex” ends and “sex” begins.  It’s a beginning to an important conversation about communication, clarity in how you talk to potential partners, and how we define our own relationship to sex and sexuality.

I’m still learning and growing as a sexual health educator – and I’d love to hear your thoughts about what resources have been helpful in your own sex education.  I’ll leave my favorite resource, Scarleteen, here – share others in the comments!

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