Making the Case for Sexual Orientation Education in Middle Schools

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Research shows that sexuality education helps students achieve more academically, reduces bullying, and improves attendance (Russell, Kosciw, Horn, & Saewyc, 2010). Including information on sexual orientation in sexuality education increases these positive affects for LGBQ students. To be truly helpful, this information needs to be taught before students are entering the average age of coming-out (just like teaching about menstruation after the average age of onset for menarche would be unhelpful, teaching information on sexual orientation and identity should be planned before the average age of coming-out). Therefore, the most appropriate time to introduce sexual orientation information would be in middle school (grades 6-8).

Why this matters

The “coming-out” narrative has changed drastically in the past two decades. In 1991, the average age of coming-out as Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual (LGB) was twenty-five; as of 2010, the average age of was sixteen (Shilo & Savaya, 2011). Parents and educators need to know how use this information to improve outcomes for children who may identify as LGB.

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Ongoing political debates regarding gay marriage (and other gay rights) are widely covered in the media. Gay marriage is the subject of nightly news shows, Supreme Court hearings, activist efforts, and a ferocious conservative backlash. The fervor of the argument has served to elevate sexual orientation from a secret and speculative topic to one of political and public importance. The spotlight also changes the nature of the coming-out process. Coming-out is not only a highly personal disclosure that allows friends and families to know someone better, but can also be a bold political statement and opportunity for advocacy (Corrigan & Matthews, 2003). The increased media attention on sexual orientation has obviously not been all positive. The spotlight on gay rights has also revealed the anxieties and fears of a divided culture. Triumphant stories of gay people who have fought to marry their partners are run back-to-back with the tragedies that result from hate crimes, bullying, and discrimination (Kosciw, et.al., 2012). It is impossible to ignore how these events effect gay people and those who love them. For adolescents who are struggling with their sexual orientation and identity, the process of coming-out represents a very real danger: many risk being kicked out of their homes, ostracized from their churches, and forced out of their schools (Cox, Dewaele, Van Houtte, & Vincke,2011).

Minimizing Controversy

When dealing with “hot-button” topics such as sexual orientation, educators must be mindful of how to decrease the chance of controversy. One way of reassuring parents and school districts is using lesson plans, curricula, and statistics that are widely accepted as factual, age-appropriate, and verifiable. In order to teach sexual orientation to middle school aged children, the educator should align the proposed curricula with the National Sexuality Education Standards (NSES). The NSES were informed by the National Health Education Standards, the Centers for Disease Control’s Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (HECAT) and the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics (used by most states). The NSES are designed to be used in conjunction with the National Health Education Standards. The goal of the NSES is to provide clear and consistent recommendations for minimum fundamental sexuality education topics that are developmentally appropriate for students in kindergarten through twelfth grade (FOSE, 2012).

The NSES guidelines include seven topic strands for sexuality education:

  1. Anatomy & Physiology
  2. Puberty & Adolescent Development
  3. Identity, Pregnancy & Reproduction
  4. STDs & HIV
  5. Healthy Relationships
  6. Personal Safety

Using the Advocates for Youth Growth and Development Fact Sheets (Huberman, 2002 a-b), the concepts can be organized by considering the developmental characteristics of students in each grade of middle school.

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Sixth graders (ages 11-12) entering middle school are more able to organize and analyze complicated ideas than ever before (Huberman, 2002a). This makes it a good time to introduce the First NSES Identity core competencyDifferentiation between gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. By this age, children should understand basic biological aspects of anatomy and physiology, which teachers can build on by introducing the idea of biological sex vs. gender expression. In addition, teachers can introduce the concept of gender roles, which is the Seventh Identity core competency. In addition, 6th grade teachers should discuss and demonstrate the Fourth Identity core competency for this age group: respectful communication about people of all gender identities, gender expressions, and sexual orientations.  Teachers should review diversity of families; including married and divorced parents, same-sex parents, multi-generational families, foster and adoptive families, and other kinds of family constellations. An emphasis on the value of all kinds of families is a great way for teachers to model respectful communication and give students a chance to demonstrate this skill. During this year, students are usually developing “crushes” and romantic attractions, which they may or may not disclose to others (Huberman, 2002a).  Teachers can use this opportunity to introduce sexual orientation by recognizing that people can feel attraction to any gender

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Seventh graders (age 12-13) are likely to consume a lot of media, through social networking on the internet, television, movies, and written media. Friends and media are usually more important sources of information than parents or teachers (Huberman, 2002 a-b). This would be a good time for teachers to address the Second Identity core competency: Analyze external influences that have an impact on one’s attitudes about gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. External influences can range from social media, face-to-face interaction with peers, or lyrics in popular songs. Encouraging students to identify the impact of these influences and analyze how they can affect one’s attitude promotes media literacy, self-evaluation, and values clarification. In keeping with the theme of media literacy, seventh grade teachers should also help students with the Third Identity core competencyAccess accurate information about gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. It is important to remember that although children at this age may act as if they already know everything, they still need permission and access to information regarding relationships and sexuality (Huberman, 2002a).

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In eighth grade (ages 13-14), students are becoming increasingly independent from their families and eager to plan their futures (Huberman, 2002b). This natural focus on the future makes eighth grade a perfect time to work on the Sixth Identity core competencyDevelop a plan to promote dignity and respect for all people in the school community. Because students at this age are more able to understand nuanced and detailed concepts (like ethics and justice), teachers should promote opportunities for students to advocate for themselves and others. While this age is full of excitement about the future, it may also be characterized by increased anxiety. Many students are experiencing puberty at this time, and most worry about “being normal” when it comes to sexuality-related topics (Huberman, 2002b). This is a good opportunity to revisit the concepts from sixth grade and explore them further.

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Anticipated arguments & responses

The arguments against including sexual orientation as a topic in sexuality education for middle school students are likely to be based on the century-old themes of most arguments against sexuality education (Levitan, & McCaffree, 2009). Because these are long-lived conflicts that are not easily resolved, educators must be prepared to meet opposition with clear, simple, and concise reasoning. Here are some examples of possible arguments and responses:

Teaching children [about sexual orientation] at a young age will “pervert” them or make them gay.

Response: There is no evidence that teaching children about sexuality related topics in an age-appropriate manner will cause them to engage in sexual behavior (FOSE, 2012). Teaching students that there are different types of sexual orientations does not teach them how to have sex.

Metaphor: Teaching about different sexual orientations is like teaching students about the different colors in a crayon box. Students may overwhelmingly choose blue as their favorite color, but that does not mean the teacher throws away all of the yellow crayons or avoids using the color yellow in the classroom.

Teaching children [about sexual orientation] will send the message to children that being gay is okay.

Response: Teaching children that there is more than one sexual orientation is not a value judgment. Acknowledging that different types of sexual orientations exist is not the same as telling students which is right for them.

Metaphor: Teaching students that there is more than one sexual orientation is like teaching that there are many religions in the world. Learning about another religion does not make a student a member of that religion.

Teaching children [about sexual orientation] is a job for parents, not schools. A school is not able to convey the morals and ideals that are important to my family.

Response: Teaching that there is more than one kind of sexual orientation is not a value, it is a fact. Each family has its own unique set of values and morals, and students are encouraged to express and clarify their own values, while understanding that other students may have different values.

Metaphor: Teaching children that there is more than one sexual orientation is like teaching that there is more than one kind of pizza. The teacher does not tell students which kind of pizza is best. Each student can identify their favorite kind of pizza and which kind of pizza their family prefers. No one kind of pizza is “the right one.”

Conclusion

LGB teens are much more vulnerable to dropping out of school, experiencing abuse by peers and parents, and becoming homeless (Kosciw, et.al., 2012). In addition, LGB teens may internalize the hatred they see, hear, and feel all around them. Internalization makes LGB teens more likely to engage in drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, and even suicide (Cox, Dewaele, Van Houtte, & Vincke, 2011; Mckenna & Bargh, 1998). As educators, we have a responsibility to help protect our most vulnerable students from these outcomes. In addition, teaching about sexual orientation and identity helps all students make sense of what is happening not only in their own bodies and minds, but in their schools and communities, as well as in the wider world around them (Russell, Kosciw, Horn, & Saewyc, 2010). Acknowledging that LGB people exist, and teaching basic information on sexual orientation and identity is the first step in protecting LGB youth and ensuring that all students have the opportunity for comprehensive education.

Adapted from: Michels, H. (2013). Making the case for sexual orientation education in middle schools. (Unpublished). Widener University, Chester PA.

References

Corrigan, P. W., & Matthews, A. K. (2003). Stigma and disclosure: Implications for coming out   of the closet. Journal of Mental Health, 12(3). 235-248.

Cox, N., Dewaele, A., Van Houtte, M., & Vincke, J. (2011). Stress-related growth, coming out, and internalized homonegativity in lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. An examination of stress-related growth within the minority stress model. Journal of Homosexuality, 58(1), 117-137.

Future of Sex Education Initiative. (2012). National sexuality education Standards: Core content  and skills, K-12 [a special publication of the Journal of School Health].

Gates, G. J. (2010). Sexual Minorities in the 2008 general social survey: Coming out and   demographic characteristics. The Williams Institute: UCLA.

Huberman, B. (2002 a). Growth and development, ages nine to twelve: What parents need to know. Washington, DC: Advocates for Youth.

Huberman, B. (2002 b). Growth and development, ages thirteen to seventeen: What parents need to know. Washington, DC: Advocates for Youth.

Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Bartkiewicz, M. J., Boesen, M. J., Palmer, N. A. (2012). The 2011 national school climate survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.

Levitan, J., & McCaffree, K. (2009). Sexuality education in the ongoing sexual revolution of the 1970s. In Schroeder, E., & Kuriansky, J. (Eds.), Sexuality Education: Past, Present, and Future (pp.96-122).Westport, CT:   Praeger Publishing.

McKenna, K. Y. A., & Bargh, J. A.(1998). Coming out in the age of the internet: Identity “demarginalization” through virtual group participation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(3), 681-694.

Rust, P. (1993). “Coming out” in the age of social constructionism: Sexual identity formation among lesbian and bisexual women. Gender & Society, 7(1), 50-77.

Rossi, N. E. (2010). “Coming Out” stories of gay and lesbian young adults. Journal of Homosexuality, 57(9). 1174-1191.

Russell, S. T., Kosciw, J., Horn, S., & Saewyc, E. (2010). Safe schools policy for LGBTQ students. Social Policy Report, 24(4).

Shilo, G., & Savaya, R. (2011). Effects of family and friend support on LGB youths’ mental health and sexual orientation milestones. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 60(3), 318-330.

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One response to “Making the Case for Sexual Orientation Education in Middle Schools

  1. What a great post! Thanks for breaking down the specifics of what is going on developmentally at each age, and providing responses to potential arguments. I hadn’t heard any of those metaphors in favor of teaching about sexual orientations in the classroom, but they make sense.

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