Health education in America tends to treat most topics about the self as taboo. Americans are afraid to broach topics such as gender and especially sexuality, probably for reasons that social psychologist and researcher Brené Brown points out in her own research about the fear of shame and vulnerability that these bring. Or, even worse, some people want schools to ignore these topics so they can maintain their own information and pass it along to their children. In either case, it does Americans harm by not meaningfully addressing these subjects in school.
I know this from experience. I had a difficult time coming out of the closet as gay, because even though I knew the word “gay” and I was sure that I was attracted to men, I still had no understanding of what being gay actually meant. So, naturally I was afraid to come out and be seen as an outsider among my peers. But the funny thing was, after graduating from high school and keeping in touch with classmates throughout the years, now dozens more have come out as gay or bi or trans or queer too. I wasn’t alone at the time, but because teachers didn’t discuss gender or sexuality, this was a lesson I had to experience alone.
And then of course I became a sort of gay expert for my friends and family. I got a lot of questions like “Are you sure?” and some even suggested it was “just a phase”. When I started dating my first boyfriend, I remember my older brothers coming to me — in all seriousness — to ask how my boyfriend and I “did it”. And the thing was, they weren’t being mean or belittling about it, they had a genuine curiosity for understanding my love life.
This one incident alone highlights why it’s necessary to start talking about gender and sexuality. But my experience is in no way atypical from what other LGBTQ people experience. Americans make a lot of false assumptions and hold onto a lot of misunderstandings about what these topics actually entail. They jump to conclusions based on preconceived notions of what it means to be a “boy” or a “girl”, what is “feminine” versus “masculine”, and that sexuality only means heterosexual and homosexual. In reality, there’s so much more to these discussions that is left for people to just figure out by way of life experience.
Even I have misunderstandings, because even though I’m gay does not mean I’m an expert on gender or sexuality. I have had to educate myself on these topics, because I know that as a high school teacher my students look to me for guidance in developing and affirming their identity. For example, I once overheard a group of students talking to one another before class started. One of the students told the others that she identified as pansexual and that she tried to tell her parents this but they couldn’t understand. I’ll be honest that in that moment I had to google what “pansexual” was, because that was the first time I’d ever heard that term. Needless to say this particular group of students was more informed than most adults I know.
Thanks to this newest generation to which my students belong — dubbed Gen Z — there has been progress in these discussions. According to a recent survey showcased in a segment aired on the Today Show, more than half of teens shop outside of their given gender and know someone who goes by gender-neutral pronouns, such as “they” and “them.” In addition, more than one third of Gen Z believes that gender doesn’t define a person as much as it used to, instead believing in the concept of gender fluidity — that gender is a more of a spectrum.
I’ve definitely noticed this shift of beliefs in my classroom and pop culture is taking notice too. Now clothing retailers offer more gender neutral clothing and there are television shows and movies starring gender neutral characters. Or look at how pop icons dress and what messages they’re sending in their music videos. So kids and teenagers are starting to learn more about gender and sexuality than the previous generations.
Yet I’ve also had conversations with students that demonstrate the influence that mis-information can have on these topics. I remember back in 2016 when North Carolina passed the controversial bathroom bill, which banned transgender people from using any bathroom not for the gender assigned to them at birth. I sadly overheard some students saying how glad that they were that these “pedophiles” wouldn’t be using girls’ restrooms anymore.
One student even came to talk to me about it. He told me that he could understand how being gay could be genetic and not a choice, but that being transgender is only a choice because he couldn’t fathom how anyone would feel like a gender different than prescribed by their characteristic sex organ. While I couldn’t change his mind, it saddened me to think that this young person’s only understanding of such a crucial topic came from most-likely a biased news media source’s coverage of this law.
And having misinformation might not be enough of a reason to change some people’s minds, but the reality is far scarier. American society is harming young people by excluding these discussions from education. Lindsay Amer is a queer activist and she gave a TedTalk on the importance of talking about gender and sexuality. She offers some startling statistics related to these subjects…
- Lesbian, gay and bisexual teens are more than three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers and transgender teens are almost six times more likely.”
- According to one study, almost one third of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning and about four percent of homeless youth identify as transgender compared with one percent of the general youth population surveyed.
- According to the Human Right Campaign, there have been 128 killings of trans people in 87 cities, across 32 states since 2013. And those are only the reported cases. And 80% of those killings were trans women of color.
By allowing children and adults to carry misconceptions about gender and sexuality, Americans are essentially permitting these tragedies. We’re allowing children to feel isolated and alone through the most critical phases of their identity development.
I know that there were times when I felt this way. And Lindsay Amer had this same feeling when she was growing up too, which is what led her to create a video series on these topics called “Queer Kid Stuff”. Through her work, she tries to explain concepts like “nonbinary” and “transgender” to people young and old so that they might better understand.
Because these topics shouldn’t be viewed as scary and taboo. Nor should they be seen as political or risqué. Gender and sexuality are a part of us all.
By not talking about gender and sexuality from a younger age, many children feel unrepresented and misunderstood. And regardless of anyone’s opinions about gender and sexuality, it’s clear that Americans are doing a major disservice to children by hiding these subjects from them. If we ever hope to bridge more of the gaps that divide us, then we have to bring issues like these to the forefront and help each other understand our differences. In doing so, we not only affirm our identity and the identities of others, but we also save lives.