The battle over LGBT rights moved into schools this past year as South Carolina lawmakers launched efforts to restrict transgender students' access to shared bathrooms. But, while students have spoken out in front of school boards and state legislators in support of fair treatment, there remains silence in the classroom regarding the sexual health of LGBT students. In South Carolina, educators are still restricted from discussing "alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships" except in the context of sexually transmitted diseases, according to the state's Comprehensive Health Education Program.
This means that in a time when same-sex couples are allowed to legally marry, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students are still prevented from receiving the same level of instruction provided to their fellow students — and it extends beyond just health education.
"Technically, the law as written does not apply to all curricula, so it shouldn't bar the discussion of lesbian and gay people in history, English class, and government," says Peter Renn, staff attorney at Lambda Legal, a national organization that focuses on the civil rights of LGBT people. "In practice, the law may be interpreted or enforced more broadly than it is actually written. That's definitely been our observation of how laws like this nationally tend to play out. Teachers, school districts, and their lawyers tend not to perceive the nuance. They see these laws and treat them as if they can't talk about LGBT people at all, so these laws are actually much more harmful than they appear on their face — and on their face they're already pretty bad."
According to Renn, these restrictions on LGBT health education have been in place since 1988, and he is unaware of any legal challenges made against these laws. By limiting any discussion of LGBT sex education to the issue of sexually transmitted diseases, he says students are stigmatized and sent the message that there is something about them that is unmentionable and shameful. And as this enforced silence reaches outside of sex education into other subjects, the harm is only multiplied.
"As a practical matter, teachers want to play it safe and err on the side of caution. This law doesn't block that information, but our experience in practice nationally is that this does seem to be the case."
So now that we know the legal side of the issue, what about the students and parents who have to deal firsthand with overcoming this gap in education?
"I actually went up to my teacher at the end of class, and I asked, 'What's the deal with LGBT students? When do we discuss that stuff?' She said, 'I know you are going to be disappointed, but the only time we are allowed to discuss it is when we speak about AIDS and HIV,'" says Madison Frank, a rising sophomore at Wando High School who identifies as lesbian and has taken it upon herself to educate her fellow students on the LGBT community. "I made up a little PowerPoint, and one day I explained how there are more than two genders because some people still think there are only two genders and that's all there is. I can't stand that whatsoever. Other days, I explained that you can be attracted to this person, male or female, you can be attracted to male and female, or you can be attracted to no one, and that's fine. It was really cool that people were understanding."
With little guidance in the classroom, Frank has turned to after-school groups like Spectrum and We Are Family to learn more about the LGBT community and have open discussions about their personal experiences. In Spectrum, Frank has learned about LGBT history, safe-sex practices, and the best way to talk to those of different genders. As a parent, Frank's mother Melanie sees the lack of instruction provided to LGBT students as a matter of safety, but also one of respect.
"I feel like parents forget who they were. What were you wanting to do and what were you thinking about doing as a teenager? I feel like it's the ostrich syndrome: Let's just stick our heads in the sand and pretend that nothing's happening," says Melanie. "If Madison hadn't gone to Spectrum club after school, she would have no grasp of the reality of sexuality — how to talk to someone who is transgender, how to refer to them, just basic, common human decency. Why can't we teach that in sexual health? ... Why can't we teach people to respect other people's sexuality? Until we do that, we're still going to get people who think that it's OK to treat other people badly in the sexual arena because we're teaching them to disrespect them and that they're dirty and sick."
As executive director of We Are Family, Melissa Moore believes that LGBT individuals are often invisible in many parts of society, including the classroom. With safe space groups like Spectrum and We Are Family, these students are put front and center, which is important for any student, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Moore says that the first thing that's needed is for policies to be changed, so that students cannot only learn lessons that keep them healthy, but also be educated on the history of the LGBT community and its heroes.
"Instead of writing these people out of history, people need to have LGBT heroes celebrated alongside the other heroes that we talk about in this country. They helped build this country and students need to know that," Moore says. "I think the sex ed curriculum that's taught needs to be gender neutral, based on behaviors rather than identities because when you base it on identities, that's going to go right over people's heads. That would make it more accessible to all kids. We're not talking about doing anything special to the LGBT kids. We're talking about doing things that are positive for the entire student population."
Jake Myers, a gay sophomore at Hanahan High School, is another student who looked to Spectrum and We Are Family for the opportunity to learn more about the LGBT community, as well as get the chance to talk to his fellow students about the issues they all share. Leading back up to the start of another school year, he's unsure if Hanahan's Spectrum club will continue because the teacher who hosted the group's meetings is no longer at the school.
But whether it's after-school meetings with Spectrum or the safe space provided by We Are Family, Myers believes all students need a place where they can feel free to express themselves and be reminded that they are not alone.
"These groups are life changing. They help you with your questions. They help you come out of your shell. They help you learn a lot. Without them, I don't know if I would be here today, honestly," Myers says. "It's brought me out of a lot of depression just to be able to speak with people who are like me. A lot of times, you're afraid to ask questions. You're afraid to do a lot of stuff. Here, you just feel open where you can talk to other people."