By Sai Diya Sen
I didn’t even know being gay was a thing until 6th grade; I’d never even considered it as a thought, let alone possibility. And I would only gain a proper understanding about sexuality and gender identity 3 years later, after my new school took the initiative to educate their students about it. This meant that everyone I knew had vastly different levels of understanding of the community, and despite trying to inform others on the topic, it was too late to change how many still used ‘gay’ as an insult. If we truly want people to peacefully acknowledge and respect one another, the spectrums of gender and sexuality need to be taught during kindergarten and elementary years; diversifying the way we understand ourselves when we’re younger will help create an aware, more accepting, and safer environment for our future generations to grow into.
A typical education on the LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual) Community (also referred to as the ‘Queer community) would cover sexual orientation (one’s physical, emotional and/or romantic attraction to another), gender identity (one’s perceivement of their own gender), biological sex, and gender expression (how one’s gender is expressed) (Thomas, 2015). With children, this education would be modified to a simpler level, while still communicating the same information and ideas. For example, this could be done through the introduction of non-heteronormative family structures, and having realistic portrayals of heterosexual/cisgender, and non-heterosexual/gender-queer individuals, in the stories and interactions children are exposed to.
Multiple perspectives and a diverse environment will strengthen the quality of our education. Sexuality and gender identity are just as relevant to the present, as they were in the past. Consider Shakespeare, Florence Nightingale and Da Vinci; they were all queer, but that’s often ignored in history class (Duffy, 2019). Neglecting the history of sexuality and gender, would be the same as neglecting that of racism and inequality; Society’s history is skewed toward a heteronormative bias, and our education becomes incomplete. The latter is especially true, considering the relevance of sexuality and gender today. Schools have the job of educating future generations, and preparing them for the real world; learning about social and cultural differences are a must, in order to prepare students to become better citizens within their communities (Drexel University, 2014). Thus, neglecting this topic would be ignorant towards the progression of society, and would also diminish the quality of our education.
Teaching about gender and sexuality from a young age will also help abolish the harmful gender norms and roles in society. Growing up, the phrases ‘You shouldn’t do that because you’re a girl!’ or ‘Boys don’t cry!’ were abundant, and are still being used to this day. These culturally reinforced stereotypes carry links to increased health risks like violence, substance abuse, and even suicide (Scott, 2018). They’ve also encouraged toxic masculinity, and bred gender inequality within our society. A proper education will help children understand that there isn’t one fixed way of behaving, dressing or loving, and will put an end to the unequal, and outdated gender norms. But why children? The Global Early Adolescent Study showed that children are fitted into a gender ‘box’ from as early as 10 (Chandra-Mouli, 2017). If we want to prevent the harms of gender norms from affecting our children, then this education needs to be given at a young age. In doing so, we also take steps towards opening up the minds of the future generation to gender fluidity and queerness. Ultimately, we’re helping all children be comfortable in expressing themselves, regardless of their gender.
Finally, by educating our children about gender and sexuality, we can create a safe environment for everyone. Imagine being shunned for loving someone; Imagine, having to ask someone to use your name, only for them to force another name onto you instead. How would you feel, if your identity was treated as unwanted, unnatural or repulsive? Many of us have the privilege of never experiencing this; that’s why it’s important to educate ourselves about it. In Europe, studies have shown that LGBTQ+ students have consistently reported higher rates of victimization, violence, and bullying. Even those who aren’t LGBTQ+, have been targeted due to being ‘perceived’ as on the spectrum (Council of Europe, 2018). But, we know that a proper education has the potential to lower violence, and can help eradicate the rise of stigma that leads toward gender and sexuality based violence (Damante, et. al. 2016). School is your child’s source of education, and they’ll spend half of their childhood in it – violence and bullying will heavily impede on the quality of both. In choosing not to include such an education, we are voluntarily preventing measures to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all our children, regardless of their sexual or gender orientation.
The biggest obstacle to such an education, would be religious and conservative beliefs; many speak out against homosexuality, and under the belief that God created man, gender fluidity isn’t really a thing either. Due to the importance of religious freedom, schools are placed in a tough situation as teaching about sexuality and gender identity might go against a student’s religious beliefs. However, this promotes the idea that religion and the LGBTQ+ community cannot coexist, or that one is a threat to the other – which is false. Firstly, a study in 2015 showed that around 59% of LGBT individuals were affiliated with a religion, further proving that a person can be part of both the communities (Murphy, 2015). But, it is someone’s own decision to reject, or accept the LGBTQ+ community on the basis of their personal beliefs or religion. In this instance, it is crucial for everyone to understand that while being queer might not be acceptable within their own religious communities, Queer individuals still deserve equal treatment, respect, and are just as valid as their cisgender/heterosexual counterparts.
Unlike race or religion, sexuality and gender identity isn’t something that can be observed at the surface level, which is why placing young children in a diverse environment, without the proper education, isn’t going to solve this issue of intolerance. We’ve come so far in trying to bring racial harmony, equality in gender, and religious freedom; the next step can only be normalizing different sexual orientations and gender identity. It isn’t just about growing acceptance towards the LGBTQ+ community, but also about helping the progression of society by removing the boundaries and labels that have been forced onto us and our identities. The aim, ultimately, is to encourage the future members of society to create, and be a part of an environment that is less toxic, and more open to unfamiliar things.
Council of Europe. “Safe at School: Education Sector Responses to Violence Based on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity/Expression or Sex Characteristics in Europe.” Europe, Europe, Nov. 2018.
Chandra-Mouli, Venkatraman, et al. “Implications of the Global Early Adolescent Study’s Formative Research Findings for Action and for Research.” The Journal of Adolescent Health : Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, Elsevier, Oct. 2017, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5612022/.
Damante, Rebecca, et al. “Can Education Reduce Prejudice against LGBT People?” The Century Foundation, 30 Sept. 2016, tcf.org/content/commentary/can-education-reduce-prejudice-lgbt-people/?session=1.
Drexel University. “The Importance of Diversity in the Classroom.” School of Education, 2014, drexel.edu/soe/resources/student-teaching/advice/importance-of-cultural-diversity-in-classroom/.
Duffy, Nick, et al. “9 Historical Icons Who You Didn’t Know Were Queer.” PinkNews, 26 June 2019, www.pinknews.co.uk/2019/02/28/famous-lgbt-people-historical-icons-queer/.
Murphy, Caryle. “Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Americans Differ from General Public in Their Religious Affiliations.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 26 May 2015, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/26/lesbian-gay-and-bisexual-americans-differ-from-general-public-in-their-religious-affiliations/.
Scott, Katy. “There Are No Girls or Boys at This School.” CNN, Cable News Network, 1 Nov. 2018, edition.cnn.com/2017/09/28/health/sweden-gender-neutral-preschool/index.html.
Thomas, Jill E., et al. “Sex? Sexual Orientation? Gender Identity? Gender Expression?” Teaching Tolerance, 2015, http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/summer-2015/sex-sexual-orientation-gender-identity-gender-expression.