Although people identifying as LGBTQ+ have been around for just as long as those identifying as cisgender and heterosexual, there is a lack of education when it comes to the range of sexuality and gender orientation that actually exists.
Typically schools teach students about heterosexual relationships and the associated biology, ignoring everything else – if the school offers sex education at all, that is.
As a result, a significant number of young people are left to figure out what it means to be gay, bisexual or transgender by themselves.
Information can come from families, peers, the media or the internet, but the pitfall is a potentially skewed interpretation as informants project their own beliefs and ideologies onto the various types of sexuality.
It can be hard for young people to find straightforward, unbiased facts about any subject and their understanding can form with the bias of other people, communities, or religion.
While a lot of families and communities are welcoming of LGBTQ+ and raise their children with the knowledge everyone should be accepted for who they are, unfortunately there are many young people who are left in the dark about the matter, or taught archaic prejudices anything other than heterosexual is abnormal.
Reflecting on my school experience, there was SO much homophobia that was thrown around from kids at school like it was normal. It’s absolutely integral that we teach kids about LGBT equality to avoid homophobia being so rampant in schools.
— Aleesha (@a_leesha1) March 30, 2019
Of course, this lack of unbiased education poses a problem for any young person who is LGBTQ+.
19-year-old Hannah, from California, spoke to UNILAD about how the environment in which a young person is raised can severely impact their ability to appropriately identify their sexuality.
Hannah grew up in a religious, right-wing household and attended school at a convent until eighth grade, when she transferred to a private Christian high school.
In a post on Reddit, she described herself as being raised as a ‘conservative catholic’, and other than a fifth grade sex education class, where she learned about what genitals were and the mechanics of heterosexual intercourse, she wasn’t taught anything about sexuality in school.
Hannah told UNILAD ‘sexuality was never brought up’ at home and she knew ‘next to nothing’ in regards to sex, sexuality, or anything related in her younger years.
The only word I knew in regards to anything related to LGBT until around 6th grade was ‘homosexual’. I didn’t know anything about different sexualities other than ‘a man who loved another man’.
I didn’t have strong homophobic sentiments, but I was definitely homophobic in Catholic school. I was very much influenced by my peers and teachers to look down upon it, and all I knew about it was that it scared and confused me.
So when she had a dream about being intimate with another girl in her class, Hannah, who was around 10 years old at the time, was naturally unsure what to think.
She told UNILAD:
I woke up terrified, I cried and prayed for the rest of the night. I thought I was surely going to go to Hell and be tortured for eternity (it was my biggest fear). I was very shaken up and confused.
Due to her lack of education, the young girl had no idea how to identify what she was feeling and knew very little about what it meant other than that it was ‘wrong’.
As she explained on Reddit, she ‘realised [she] was bisexual before [she] knew there was a word for it’.
In an attempt to keep in line with the beliefs imposed upon her by her Catholic upbringing, Hannah suppressed her feelings for a long time, a decision which impacted her happiness.
The 19-year-old explained:
Most of the time I distracted myself from thinking about it. But eventually I just felt like crap about myself. I felt like I failed God. I just felt like a freak in general.
I didn’t find it difficult to pretend, but honestly looking back, I never really fit in at Catholic school anyway – I always refused to wear the girls uniform and insisted on wearing the boys’ slacks.
Little things like that that made me look like a weirdo to others.
I wouldn’t be surprised if people raised suspicions about me.
“Is it morally right to teach primary school children about LGBT relationships?”
— Sam Wise 🏳️🌈🇪🇺 (@SamWiseSW) March 28, 2019
Hannah didn’t feel she could talk to anyone at school about her feelings, however things began to change the summer before she transferred schools, when she started using social media and learning about other sexualities and gender orientations on the internet.
She told UNILAD:
Around my freshman year of high school, I finally felt comfortable enough to come out to my close friends. I would say my biggest motivators to embrace how I felt were my new, more progressive friends, and social media.
I also did a lot of research about sexuality on the internet, and it helped me feel at ease knowing there were other people like me and I wasn’t a screwup.
The 19-year-old eventually felt able to tell her mum and sister how she identifies and explained they are ‘indifferent’ about it, ‘probably because I only mentioned it once and I’ve never brought a girl home before’.
Although they aren’t against Hannah’s sexuality, she added they would likely be disappointed if she brought a girl home romantically. The American has chosen not to tell her father how she identifies as although she doesn’t think he would react ‘drastically’, she is ‘afraid of being treated differently’ and doesn’t want to jeopardise their relationship.
Speaking about how she came to accept her bisexuality, the student said:
[I] slowly learned to accept that part of me. It also was a great way for me to realise that being gay or bisexual IS in fact, not a choice, because I didn’t even know it existed when I realised I was bisexual, so there’s no way I could’ve chose it.
Hannah’s experience with trying to suppress her bisexuality and having to learn about it through social media is a prime example of why LGBTQ+ education in schools is so important, not only to help those who will eventually discover their identity exists outside heterosexuality, but also to discourage prejudice.
If the 19-year-old had been taught about different sexualities in school, she would have known much earlier she wasn’t alone and that she wasn’t ‘a screw-up’. In a world waking up to the realities of mental health awareness, ignoring the existence of different sexualities in education will only contribute to the idea it should be ignored or hidden in other parts of life, creating potentially harmful scenarios rooted in a flawed sense of shame.
Things that I was taught in school, but didn't become;
– The Russian Revolution. – Semi Colons -Photosynthesis
They didn't teach me that LGBT+ people lives are valid, so I learned to hate myself, to edit myself and to not open up to others #TeachLGBT pic.twitter.com/POvGps3iXy
— yorkshire mesmac (@yorkshiremesmac) March 22, 2019
To encourage education in schools, Tim Ramsey, chief executive of LGBTQ+ charity Just Like Us, founded School Diversity Week in the UK, a national celebration of LGBT+ equality in education.
During Diversity Week, which this year takes place July 1-5, Just Like Us provides schools with a free toolkit for teachers and pupils with everything they need to organise events to champion LGBTQ+ equality and challenge prejudice.
Tim told UNILAD he launched School Diversity Week as a way to unite schools when it comes to teaching about sexuality and gender orientation.
When I launched Just Like Us, I kept hearing from teachers that their schools were in areas with no local LGBT+ organisation to help them teach LGBT+ issues and that they were worried about being the only school to address LGBT+ issues.
My idea was to create a national week that would unite schools, giving them confidence and providing them with everything they need to celebrate LGBT+ equality.
We hope for schools just starting on their LGBT+ inclusive education that the week will give them confidence to do more, and for those who are already far down that path that the week enables them to empower students to drive change in their communities.
Join hundreds of thousands of pupils across the UK celebrating School #Diversity Week, 1-5 July! Use our free toolkit to unleash your students' creativity and champion LGBT+ equality! #SDW19 Sign up here https://t.co/RfqC55WaU9 pic.twitter.com/7Hw4w0S0Qv
— Just Like Us (@JustLikeUsUK) June 25, 2019
Research commissioned by Just Like Us showed almost nine in 10 LGBTQ+ young people experience anxiety or depression and three in four experience bullying.
Speaking about the statistics and the importance of educating young people about sexuality, Tim, who is gay, said:
Growing up LGBT+ is unacceptably tough.
We need to educate young people about sexual orientation and gender identity if we’re going to change [the statistics] – we cannot condemn more generations to poor mental wellbeing and lost potential.
We believe every parent wants their child to grow up happy, able to be themselves and realise their potential. It’s clear from the stats that not teaching and supporting LGBT+ young people is a barrier to this.
Inspiring and moving reflections from one of our courageous ambassadors at the launch for School Diversity Week 2019, reminding us all of just how important our urgent work to support and empower LGBT+ young people remains. Sign up your school at https://t.co/6rFzV1se3J #SDW19 pic.twitter.com/heiaPjlR5F
— Just Like Us (@JustLikeUsUK) June 24, 2019
Some schools have added information about being LGBTQ+ into their curriculum but many of those have been met with backlash from parents who disagree with the need for the education.
Some parents argue it is up to them to teach their children about sex and sexuality, others are concerned youngsters are being taught about sexuality too young and some disagree on religious or personal grounds.
LGBTQ+ education protester Amir Ahmed spoke to RT UK about the issue and argued parents want ‘traditional family values’, ‘that this country has had for decades and centuries’, to be respected.
He said just because parents are ‘frank’ about family values doesn’t mean they are intolerant.
You can’t condition the children to come to believe something and accept something that is in direct conflict with the parents’ values. That’s taking away the parents’ right.
We accept individuals who are in same sex relationships as human beings and they should be given the respect and dignity the same as any human being is given but there is a difference between our moral positions.
While parents can of course choose to teach their children about their own beliefs, youngsters are individuals and should not be denied the opportunity to access unbiased information, allowing them to at least understand all walks of life.
It’s up to an individual what beliefs they take on, and although religion and upbringing will undoubtedly always have an impact it is unfair to restrict what a child learns in school, where students are meant to gain general knowledge. As in Hannah’s case, it’s clear this can limit the child’s ability to truly be themselves and live their lives to the fullest.
Being exclusive with learning will only serve to exclude those who aren’t represented and make them feel as if they are outsiders, while conditioning those who are represented to perpetuate the exclusion.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to [email protected]
Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.