Skip to main content
Sex ed for teens leaves LGBTQ out of the discussion
Medill Reports: Yana Kunichoff, March 12, 2009
Tea Sefer, 16, guffawed in disbelief at the time her teacher asked their sex ed class to name seven different definitions for abstinence.
“I’m like, I can’t come up with seven different ways,” said Sefer, a student at Lincoln Park High School.
Scott Jaburek, 17, studying at Walter Payton High School, managed to name a few: “One, stupid. Two, irrelevant. Three, ineffective.”
“Four, boring,” added Lucky Mosqueda, 21, a student at Malcolm X College.
Advocates say LGBTQ teens suffer from misdirected sex ed, but they see promise in the Obama administration for a more comprehensive program.
“Although we’ll all go broke trying to bet on what Congress will do,” said Ed Yohnka, American Civil Liberties Union director of communications and public policy, “We do have a significant hope that in fact president Obama will change the way federal funds are distributed.”
Laurie Higgins, director of the division of school advocacy for the Illinois Family Institute, a pro-abstinence education non-profit organization, also sees a more comprehensive sex education plan coming in with the new administration, though she does not see this as a positive for the way LGBTQ issues are taught.
“I would be confident that his administration would support comprehensive sex ed,” she said.
Under the Adolescent Family Life Act, Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act, and the Community Based Abstinence Education funding stream, states that accept federal money must have an abstinence-based curriculum.
Each state that accepts Title V funding must spend $3 on abstinence-based issues for every $4 spent on general sexual education, and by the fiscal year 2007, eight states had refused Title V funding, though Illinois was not one of them.
States are not forced to stress all eight federal abstinence points, but those who commit to the funding must place their main curriculum emphasis on them.
Heather Corinna, an alternative sexual health educator who runs the Web site www.scarleteen.com, said the value of “one-stop sex ed” is greatly limited. “If you are not talking to every teenager that you have in the classroom, they are not going to hear you,” she said.
Jaburek, an actor for About Face Theatre, a youth group that performs plays about gender and sexual identity, said the sexual education he received was “disproportionately geared to one segment of society” – straight people. LGB students make up 6.5 percent of the student body, accounting for more than 9,000 high school students in the Chicago public school district, according to the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance.
Gay marriage is legal in only one state, Massachusetts, and eight others give gay couples rights associated with marriage and civil unions. However, Chicago Public Schools’ Family Life and Comprehensive Sexual Health Education Policy emphasizes what it refers to as abstinence as the expected norm, and provides main instruction on what it calls aspects of family life.
Corinna said this is to be expected, as “any kind of sex ed that we have happens within the macrocosm of the culture we live in, and the culture that we live in is in large part pretty sexist, very heterosexual and very binary in its thoughts about gender.”
Malzis Manani, a health educator who gives presentations with Forward PC, a non-profit organization that works to inform teenagers about what it terms the life-saving message of abstinence, recognizes the disconnect between family- and abstinence-based sex education and the reality for most LGBTQ teenagers.
“I think they should wait until they are a certain age, when they can be more responsible for their actions,” said Manani about teaching LGBTQ teenagers abstinence, but, “I think programs could be developed that support those issues. Life is changing now, and unfortunately I think the abstinence program needs to be re-adapted.”
Ena Ibrakovic, a student at Lane Tech High School, said sex education “should start with [learning about] healthy relationships in middle school. That’s the key.”
According to the 2003 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, LGB students are three times more likely to skip school due to feeling unsafe, and are almost three times more likely to have attempted suicide in the past year.
Lisa Jaburek’s son, Scott, changed high school to be part of a school at which the atmosphere was more LGBTQ-friendly. After watching her son in an About Face play, she said, “I was kind of shocked to think that there are places in this country where they teach abstinence.”
Corinna has hope for sexual education reform that will keep parents and children from being forced to make the types of decisions Jaburek and her son had to make.
“I think some of it is kind of recognizing the place that we’re at culturally with all these things,” she said, and because “we are dealing with an administration that, in and of itself, so far is much more diverse, there really is a way more inclusive viewpoint.”