At 13, Chris Angel Murphy left an abusive home and entered Los Angeles’s foster care system. “I was struggling with thinking about suicide, I was trying to figure out my sexuality,” Murphy said.
Murphy, now 31, identifies as non-binary, queer, and transgender. But high school was “just such a confusing time,” they said. “I didn’t even know that gender was on the table.”
Murphy’s initial experiences with understanding their gender and sexuality were met with shame and rejection. They were released from foster care in 2002, where one foster family rejected Murphy because the family thought they might be lesbian. “The first thing they said when I arrived at the foster home was, ‘Oh, we thought you were bringing a girl. That was because the closest thing I had to language at that time was identifying as a tomboy,” Murphy said. “I just didn’t have the language or resources, and so I didn’t know what to say.”
Bridget Brownell, a health education teacher, department chair and sponsor of the Genders and Sexualities Club (GSA) at the William Howard Taft Charter High School in Los Angeles, helped Murphy place the initial call to the Department of Children and Family Services, and later introduced them to the school’s LGBTQ community. “She was just one of those adults that took me seriously and didn’t treat me in a way that was condescending and just opened me up to a whole new world,” Murphy said. GSA became a safe space for Murphy, and through Brownell, they were introduced to “Sex 101.”
“I didn’t have access to the resources to make sure I was being safe based on who I may have been with and just talking about body parts and all of that,” they said. “A lot of it was from a cis-heteronormative perspective that didn’t always fit for me.”
“Whether it was because it was an English class or a health class, I just noticed that either we never talked about this community, or even if we referenced it at all, you could tell that more often than not a lot of the teachers had a lot of discomfort around even having basic knowledge of what the community is,” Murphy said. Meeting Brownell was a “life-saving” experience.
“Sex 101,” as Murphy calls it, is inclusive health education that offers age-appropriate and medically accurate information to people of all gender identities and sexual orientation. California is one of nine states that mandates health education be inclusive of sexual orientation, and in 2015 passed one of the most progressive sexual health education laws in the country. Among other things, the law prohibits abstinence-only sex education, requires sexual health and HIV prevention be taught at least once in both once high school and middle school, and mandates that all information be medically accurate and respect students of all gender identities and sexual orientations.
As Murphy’s experience illustrates, seeing their experiences reflected in school curriculum and community is validating and, in some cases, even life-saving. (LGBTQ youth face higher rates of bullying and are three times more likely to contemplate suicide than heterosexual youth.) Without proper education, teens are also exposed to more health risks: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of teens surveyed in 2017 report that they’ve had sex, and many engage in high-risk behaviors. Teens who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or are unsure about their sexual identity status “have a higher prevalence of many health-risk behaviors that might place them at risk for unnecessary or premature mortality, morbidity, and social problems,” the report concludes.
“The vocabulary that you use is very important because you don’t want to dismiss or exclude or make people invisible in the classroom,” says Tim Kordic, project adviser for Los Angeles Unified School District’s HIV/AIDS Prevention Unit. “If anything is not inclusive, including pictures, then it’s not approved.”
For example, when demonstrating how to put on a condom, educators are supposed to avoid words like boyfriend or girlfriend. Rather, they are trained to say “partner.” Diagrams should refer to a person with a penis or a person with a vagina, rather than assigning a gender solely by a person’s genitalia. In addition to talking about heterosexual couples, teachers should be using examples that feature same-sex relationships, couples with gender-non-conforming partners, and other identities and orientations.
“It may sound minor, but it makes a really big difference for somebody who maybe identifies with a same-sex partner. Because when you don’t do that, it makes you feel invisible,” Kordic said.
Brownell teaches two semesters of health education, and while she spends three days specifically on inclusivity, “I hope that I’m teaching inclusivity throughout the semester,” she said. Brownell has students talk about pronouns, not assuming someone’s gender identity, and using that inclusive language throughout the course.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, of which Taft High School is part of, is one of at least 50 school districts across the country that has adopted aspects of curriculum from Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit that promotes inclusive sexual health information. The curriculum reaches an estimated 2.5 million young people, according to president Debra Hauser, who considers it a human right. “They need to see themselves reflected,” she said.
Ultimately, inclusive education is a worldview that does not end and begin with a class or a specific grade level. It includes creating a culture where LGBTQ students have resources, like access to library books, clubs, and student organizations, and the ability to safely use facilities that correspond with their identities. It also introducing inclusive curriculum at younger ages.
Steven Chen, the Director of Training and Accommodations for Boston Public Schools, works with the Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools initiative, which trains elementary school educators to create LGBTQ and gender inclusive environments for students and their families. “A lot of the time when we think about supporting our students, we think about it through the lens of middle school and high school,” Chen said. “However, the conversations of gender identity, we are seeing, are starting a lot earlier.” He recommends that teachers read Red: A Crayon’s Story in their classrooms. “Ostensibly, it’s a book about a crayon whose outside label says red, but every time this crayon tries to draw, it’s drawing in blue,” he explained. “It’s not explicitly about gender identity, but it can be for kids who are thinking about.”
According to a 2017 survey by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national education organization focused on fostering inclusive school environments, LGBTQ students at schools with inclusive curriculum have lower levels of depression, are more likely to have higher GPAs, and are less likely to feel unsafe because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Murphy explained that access to an inclusive education at a younger age could have been life-changing. “I think if I had had access to community like that much sooner, just openly discussing the LGBTQ community in health classes, or even other classes for that matter,” Murphy said, “it would have helped to normalize it and probably would have saved me a lot of years of shame and guilt.”
But despite the statistics, more states encourage abstinence-only education over comprehensive sex education. According to the Guttmacher Institute, while 24 states and Washington D.C. mandate sex education in public schools, only 13 require that information to be medically accurate and eight require education must be culturally unbiased. Conversely, 37 states mandate education about abstinence in schools and 27 of those states require educators stress abstinence.
Contrast Brownell’s lessons with notes from Lifetime Health: Sexuality and Responsibility, a textbook approved by the Alabama State Board of Education, that defines marriage as “a lifelong union between a husband and a wife, who develop an intimate relationship.” A chapter about the benefits of abstinence education claims that “Many teens are physically and emotionally hurt by sexual activity.”
Alabama state law requires that sexual health education must emphasize, “in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.” The state is one of seven, along with Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas, with laws that prohibit the “promotion of homosexuality.” These so-called “no promo homo” laws effectively ban any positive discussion of homosexuality or LGBTQ people.
South Carolina, for example, prohibits “discussion of alternative sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted diseases, and Arizona prohibits schools from portraying “homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style,” or even suggesting “that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.”
According to the GLSEN, students in states with “no promo homo” laws face more hostility, are less likely to have access to resources or support, and are more likely to see negative representations of LGBTQ people in school curriculum.
While California’s sexual health education law is one of the most progressive in the country, the mandate is hardly a panacea. The law allows parents to opt students out of the sexual education curriculum, but prohibits exemption from sections on sexual orientation and gender identity. Several schools continue to resist the law and, because the state has not funded surveys to assess compliance with the law, it’s unclear how many schools have successfully implemented the law. At least two school districts in Orange County last fall moved to delay implementation “indefinitely,” according to EdSource. Some LGBTQ rights activists are braced for a legal challenge.
But Hauser is hopeful for the future. “Young people themselves are honestly very progressive, much further ahead of the adults around them when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity,” Hauser said. “They understand that gender comes on a spectrum. They understand that sexual orientation can also be a spectrum.”
Brownell can see the impact inclusive sex education has on kids, first hand. She tells me of a recent breakthrough with a boy who identifies as a straight, cis male. Last fall, when he was discussing a student-produced skit he said, “You know, I shouldn’t have assumed that the people who are going to have sex in this skit identify as a heterosexual couple.”
“The kids are starting to think about it and internalize it,” Brownell said, “And, in the work that they’re going to do, apply it.”