Lily Furgeson had a great experience in sex ed in middle school. Furgeson, who is a 17-year-old senior at a Chicago Public Schools high school, said her eighth grade sex ed teacher made sure to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender identities as part of their curriculum.
Furgeson is a member of the youth committee of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance — a statewide group that promotes healthy development, safety and support for LGBTQ youth. Furgeson said her sex ed experience took a turn for the worse when she entered high school. She said she felt like her high school didn’t prioritize sex ed — and especially not sex ed that was inclusive of LGBTQ experiences and identifies.
Illinois law does not mandate sex ed across all school districts, nor does it require that sex ed curriculum include discussion of LGBTQ identities and experiences. If districts choose to teach sex ed, the law states that all course material must “teach honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage.”
Illinois’s sex ed law is not an outlier on the national stage; only four states and the District of Columbia require LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed curriculum, while eight states restrict the teaching of LGBTQ subject matter in schools, according to the Human Rights Campaign’s 2014 State Equality Index. Studies also show that well-designed sex education curriculum can reduce the number of unintended teen pregnancy, delay the age at which teens have sex, and reduce rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Recent data shows Furgeson’s experience in her high school is also likely not unique. Less than 7 percent of LGBTQ youth who participated in the 2017 National School Climate Survey from the advocacy group GLSEN reported receiving LGBTQ inclusive and affirming sex education. Nearly a quarter of surveyed students reported receiving no sex ed at all, and close to 9 percent said they were taught sex education that included negative representations of LGBTQ topics.
‘A big red signal’
Elizabeth Nash said the reason for the widespread lack of inclusion is due to the manner in which sex education laws and policies have evolved over time. Nash is the senior state issues manager for the Guttmacher Institute — a policy and research organization focused on advancing reproductive health and rights.
Illinois’s sex ed law dates back to 1989, and it included the line about heterosexual monogamous marriage at its inception, Nash said. At that time, she said, “there really was no such thing as marriage equality. So when you said marriage, you meant heterosexual marriage. You really were essentially closing off the sexual education to LGBTQIA individuals.”
A spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education, Jackie Matthews, wrote in an email that how schools teach honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage “is up to the school district.” She added that the law does not expressly prohibit schools from discussing LGBTQ issues.
But Nash said having a line like that in the law sends the message to educators and school officials that providing information that’s relevant to LGBTQ youth is not important.
“You are sending a big red signal, a big flashing sign, that discussion around LGBTQIA issues are not on the agenda,” she said.
‘The opportunity to make them feel seen, make them feel heard’
Some educators are wary of discussing LGBTQ content in sex ed due to a lack of explicit policies or mandates specifically including those topics, according to Dan Rice. Rice is director of training for Answer, a national organization based at Rutgers University that promotes and trains teachers to provide comprehensive sex education.
“I hear from a lot of educators that they know that there are LGBTQ youth in their schools, and they find that talking about this topic is super important,” Rice said. “But they also fear they don’t have the support of the administration. Or there’s no policy in place that allows them to talk about this information, so they feel hesitant.”
Answer and GLSEN, as well as several other organizations, published “A Call To Action: LGBTQ Youth Need Inclusive Sex Education,” in late 2015. The groups cite research that shows that LGBTQ youth are more likely than their heterosexual peers to start having sex at an earlier age and with multiple partners, are more likely to have sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, more likely to experience dating violence, less likely to use birth control and condoms, more likely to contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as more likely to experience teen pregnancy.
Sex education that reflects LGBTQ identities and experiences can go a long way toward turning those statistics around, according to Rice. In their 2017 survey, GLSEN also notes that prohibiting inclusive sex ed may contribute to an unhealthy school climate for LGBTQ youth.
Rice said affirming sex ed that includes discussion of same-sex relationships can also support the emotional development and health of LGBTQ students.
“When we are recognizing the lived experience of a diverse range of students we have the opportunity to make them feel seen, make them feel heard,” he said. “That builds their self esteem, it builds their confidence. They feel less isolated.”
‘An uphill battle’
Nash, of the Guttmacher Institute, recommends Illinois policymakers strip out the language around monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and the law’s heavy emphasis on abstinence education, and add language that requires schools to adopt curriculum that’s inclusive of LGBTQ identifies and experiences.
Illinois Sen. Heather Steans said such an effort would likely pose a challenge for lawmakers. Steans helped pass a bill in the state Senate in May that would mandate high schools teach a unit focused on the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender historical figures. The bill has yet to pass in the House and Steans said she’s hopeful the legislation will become law in the next session.
Steans also helped pass a comprehensive sex education bill in 2013. She said she wasn’t aware that the line about heterosexual, monogamous marriages still remained in the state’s sex ed law.
She said she thinks she would have “a much harder time” passing an LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed bill. Steans cited resistance from conservative religious groups that seek to limit legislative measures that mandate acknowledgment and inclusion of LGBTQ individuals.
Rodrigo Anzures, who serves as policy and advocacy manager for the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, agreed with Stean’s assessment.
“I think the fear that a lot of people have about talking about LGBT identities in school is that if you’re talking about these issues, aren’t you talking about sex,” Anzures said. “They don’t want people talking about certain types of sex with their students or their children even though you know you’re allowing them to talk about other types of sex with their children.”
Anzures, however, supports the elimination of that line about “heterosexual monogamous marriage” because he said he thinks the state can’t make any policy progress while it remains in the law. But, he adds, parents, youth and educators should work locally to adopt affirmative and inclusive sex ed curriculum so that lawmakers and policy advocates can point to those districts as a model for other schools to follow.
Rice, from Answer, also acknowledged that implementation of inclusive and comprehensive sex ed curriculum is “certainly an uphill battle.” Despite political obstacles, national surveys from Planned Parenthood indicate high levels of support from parents for discussion of sexual orientation as part of sex education in middle and high school. In their call to action from three years ago, GLSEN, Answer, and the other organizations who published the report — including Planned Parenthood — recommend action on the part of students, parents, educators and legislative levels.
What makes Rice hopeful about the issue, he said, is the support for this type of education from young people.
“I think young people understand issues of diversity and gender inclusiveness a lot better because they’ve grown up with young people who are more open about their sexual orientation and more open about their gender identity and it’s become a normal part of their lives,” he said. “I think it’s the older generations — us adults — who are still kind of looking at things very much in a binary and being very heteronormative about things.”
Furgeson, the 17-year-old student at CPS, agreed. She said young people can contribute a lot to this effort.
“I think more students pushing for more comprehensive sex ed can be helpful, because if students want something enough, schools have to listen to us.”