I didn’t know that when I grew up, I’d be advocating for reproductive justice and sexual education reform. I didn’t know that I’d become a vocal person about the intersections between race, gender, and sexuality. If you asked me a few years ago, I wouldn’t have known I’d become a digital activist.
In fact, I didn’t I’d become very aware and disillusioned with the sexual education system.
I grew up in the Bronx, a borough of New York City. As many people can safely assume, New York City is pretty liberal as most American cities go. Most of my life, I’ve gone to public schools, where it was mandatory to teach about HIV/AIDS but not explicitly sexual education. I ended up going to a Catholic, all-girls high school and got a decent sexual education. Instead of getting abstinence-only education, I ended up getting basic information on how to be protected during a sexual encounter and what to do to prevent pregnancy (my high school was also in a neighborhood that had a pretty high teen pregnancy rate, which might explain why they avoided abstinence-only education).
In that same city, though, depending on the district, people might not have learned how to properly use a condom in sexual education. As liberal as New York City is, there is a lot of work that has to be done to make sure sex-ed more inclusive and educational (and practical). And if even a liberal city manages to have a problem with their sexual education system, I can only imagine a small rural area further upstate.
Let’s be real with ourselves, the sexual education in the United States of America is tragic.
It varies from state to state, city to city, district to district, neighborhood to neighborhood. Ranging from abstinence-only education to education that will actually discuss sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as a scare tactic instead of a simple education tool, there is not a limit to the amount of flaws in sexual education. But there is a major problem that isn’t addressed as much as it should be in spaces that advocate for reform.
It’s only centered towards cisgender and heterosexual people.
I am a pansexual and agender person that works as an online sexual educator and this was something I noticed within the first few days on the job. I understand that most of the people I end up getting are cisgender and heterosexual, but I am also a fan of creating safe spaces for trans and queer folks who might avoid asking questions because of how cis and heterosexual focused the language used in a lot of sexual education related spaces.
Just to remind people, I went to a Catholic all-girls high school. While the sexual education compared to even public schools in New York City was pretty adequate, it enforced a lot of cis-heteronormative ideology that is present in society. There was an assumption that no one would be having sex with women and that if you slept with someone with a penis, it would definitely be a man. Of course I wasn’t expecting much. But I have heard about public schools lacking in much more severe was than my high school.
What does this mean? It means if you’re queer or transgender, you probably won’t get the adequate education you need and will have to resort to the internet or your peers to get to know your body (and the bodies of others), which isn’t the best of ideas. However, what is someone supposed to do when the education you’re getting as a queer or trans person doesn’t reflect the things you do or want to do? Especially when only 19 states require these lessons to be medical and factually accurate and 8 states ban discussions of LGBTQ issues in sexual education settings? This would make sense that queer and trans people are more at risk of transmitting STI’s and even getting pregnant, because they are still considered “taboo” topics
Here are some ways someone can provide queer and trans inclusive sexual education lessons.
- Degender the language of how we talk about genitals: As an agender person who is very into reproductive justice issues and sex ed reform, this is one of my main things I advocate for in safe spaces. Not everyone who has a uterus, takes hormonal birth control, or needs an abortion will be women. Not everyone who is doing the penetration in PiV (Penis in Vagina) sex will be a man. Two women can participate in sex that involves a penis. People with penises or vaginas might not even be men or women. One of the main reasons why trans and queer people don’t know their bodies is because sexual education follows a specific type of dichotomy (male = penis, female = vagina) without taking into accountability that this has the potential of being toxic. No
- Ask for pronouns/names: As I’ve mentioned before, not everyone who will be participating in sexual education lessons may use the name on the roster or be the gender that they were assigned with at birth. Asking for pronouns in a class or discussion allows for a sense of comfort to be established for people that might not feel comfortable as the gender they identify with as of right now. Also, asking for pronouns is common courtesy and shows a sign of respect for people that are not cisgender. This also includes not asking invasive questions like why their IDs still say their deadname while they want to be called the current name they go by now. If you want to be considerate of privacy, you can allow people to sign a piece of paper with their name and pronouns, so no one will ever have to know their dead name.
- Acknowledge that while we might attempt to degender the language of how we talk about genitals, some people call their genitals different things and that it’s definitely okay : For example, some people with vaginas might call their clitorises, penises or random names that might sound wrong to some people, but right to them. Another example is that some people with penises might call their penises “girlcocks” or enlarged clitorises. This is on a majorly case by case basis and if someone is comfortable enough to discuss this with you, please be considerate of the fact of the reasons why they might do this. One of them being that they don’t want to associate with the gender they were assigned with at birth and using a different name for their genitals provide them with affirmation of their bodies.
- Validate and be affirming: A lot of queer and trans folks will turn to the internet or strangers to express concerns related to sex. As the educator, it is your job to make sure everyone’s basic needs are met and answered in the most basic way possible. Remind someone who is nonbinary and assigned female at birth that you don’t need to be sleeping with anyone right now to use birth control and that you can use it to alleviate dysphoria. Make sure to affirm trans women that the sex they have with cis men is not “gay sex”. Remind people that virginity is a social construct but that it’s okay to value it. Discuss with people that sex takes on various forms and aren’t limited to PiV sex. Everyone’s experiences are different and unique and it’s important to remember that.
- Assume that people don’t know the basics of Trans 101: This might sound a bit condescending, but as someone who definitely understands that education varies from person to person, a lot of people don’t know the basics. There are queer cisgender people that don’t know what the word “cisgender” is or might not understand terms like “assigned male at birth” or “assigned female at birth”. There are cisgender and heterosexual people that might call themselves “normal”, which implies that everyone else that isn’t cisgender or heterosexual are “abnormal”, which develops a false dichotomy. Understandably, this can be very frustrating, especially when people might not be willing to learn. If that is the case, go to the next step which is :
- Understand not everyone will be open and willing to learn. This is when you have to create a backup plan: As someone who is majorly into intersectional public health, I have learned that there are some battles that might not be won. It is very frustrating and this is when you need to figure out a plan of what to do when after many times of explaining why someone’s word choices are problematic. Perhaps it is because they are influenced by family members or religion? Maybe it’s because they’re just too stubborn. Either way, you as an educator can only do so much and try so hard. Just know that if you put in as much effort as you could, it does pay off.
There are a lot of things that can be done to start providing safe spaces related to sexual education and reproductive justice. But these are the things I think that are the most important to me.
LGBTQ+ people are here to stay.
It’s important to give them accurate information and affirm them. They are not wrong for having sex or wanting to know about their bodies. Sex is not a dirty thing. Everyone wants to reform education, but not include queer and trans youth in your discussion.
You’re not advocating properly when you put LGBTQ+ youth in the backburner.
Mickey Valentine is an angry agender polyamorous pansexual femme of Jamaican descent born and raised in the Bronx, NY. Things they are passionate about include community health education accessibility to queer and trans people of color, as well as intersectional feminism and reproductive justice. Their goal is to work in community health with QTPOC populations.