What they need to know about gay

Through a round-about series of events I ended up having a late Saturday night dinner with a lovely woman from a local non-profit who teaches sex and health educators how to teach their content effectively.  We spoke specifically about how – and what – to teach young people about sexual orientation.  It’s gotten me thinking on the subject, on both how I present material in the classroom and how it can be done in far more depth at home.

The issue with this particular topic is that the potential information is broad and wide that it can be both hard to know where to start and where to stop.  Most of what I’m saying here is developmental appropriate to teach to middle school students.  (I need to write some sort of a caveat that I can link to in cases like this: I am referring to an average of middle school students.  Some children will benefit from this information younger, some should probably wait a little longer.  It’s all a range, and the only way I can speak to the needs of any specific young person is by talking about only that young person.)  Of course, if someone older hasn’t learned this information, and plenty haven’t, they’re probably overdue.

There is simple, definition-level information along the lines of breaking down LBGTQ, letter by letter.  As a part of this definition-level introduction, young people need to understand that homosexuality is not an illness or a personal problem that can or should be changed.  It is a natural impulse that falls well within the range of normal for humans.  Here’s what The American Psychological Association says: “sexual orientation emerges for most people in early adolescence without any prior sexual experience. And some people report trying very hard over many years to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual with no success. For these reasons, psychologists do not consider sexual orientation for most people to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed.” Also to the point, homosexuality is natural.  There are many animals where homosexual relationships exist.

Then we move on to the social and interpersonal issues, which are much more tricky.  Here are the four issues that come up most often among my students:

  • Coming out – the process of telling friends and family that you are gay – is often a milestone moment for young gay people.  It can be scary, and the reactions of friends and family can have a big impact on how the young person sees him or herself for many years.  A bit of guidance for young people on what to say – to tell their friend that they love them for who they are, to tell their friend they are happy their friend is finding their way, and so on – is often well placed advice.
  • Many young people ask me – very much with honest concern – how gay couples have sex.  They have a clear understanding of what heterosexual sex looks like, but they can be baffled by homosexual sex.  When the answer is presented clearly, without considering the content shocking or surprising, the simple knowledge that most homosexual sex doesn’t actually look all that different from most heterosexual sex can demystify homosexuality in general and reduce stigma and homophobia.
  • Homophobia, particularly for students living in relatively liberal places, can be dismissed as something that might have existed in the past, but certainly isn’t a problem any more – or here in this enlightened place where I live – or among my friends.  But homophobia is still a substantial problem in many places.  My students, from middle through high school, are often stunned that hate crimes happen even here in Austin.  But far more subtle than gay beatings and homophobia are the heterosexism and heteronormativity that are so ubiquitous in our society.  Heterosexism applies to the discrimination that homosexual couples face when compared to heterosexual couples (as with marriage rights).  Heteronormativity is more subtle still and begins with the assumption that all people are heterosexual and homosexuality is, by definition, a variant.  People who are homosexual have to deal with these issues on a regular basis in a way that people who are heterosexual often never have to even think about.  These are tricky topics, and could use full posts in themselves, so I hope if you’re unfamiliar with the terms, you’ll follow the links and read more on them.
  • Gender and sexual orientation are separate and distinct topics.  It is a common mistake to assume that particularly effeminate boys and particularly tomboyish girls are gay.  This is simply not the case.  Individuals do not necessarily identify with their biological gender (although that’s a conversation for another day), and their sexual orientation is not necessarily obvious from either their biological or expressed gender orientation.  This can be a tricky point, so I’ll address it more thoroughly in a post all of it’s own sometime soon.

There are other social topics, of course, these are just the ones that my students bring up with the most regularity.  And these are pretty important topics to cover.

But the classroom is so restricted in time, and sex and sexuality are such incredibly broad and wide topics, that we just can’t cover everything we would like to.  So what I have found to be the most helpful in human sexuality classrooms when discussing homosexuality, particularly for middle and high school students, is having a panel of gay and lesbian young adults who are open to telling their stories and answering questions.  Invariably my students leave these panels saying something along the lines of, “Those were nice people and all, but the most interesting thing about them was that they’re really not any different from straight people.  At all.”  The definitions of LGBTQ are often important to define before the panel, and depending on the group and their background, it would probably be useful to state that homosexuality is not in any way wrong or deviant.  But the rest of the information will probably come out in the process of the conversation between the panelists.

I often regret that most middle school and high school students don’t get the experience of talking about sexual orientation in open and honest ways either through a structured class setting or with a panel or individuals who identify as homosexual.  By the time I talk to my college students, they often need the same information and exposure and conversations that they really should have had many years before. What’s important is that we respect and acknowledge everyone’s identity and individuality and members of LBTQ and trans community have access to trans healthcare services and all other basic necessities.

I would like to take my college students into a deeper analysis of the history of homosexuality and society’s acceptance or lack thereof.  But without this background knowledge, they’re generally just not ready for the deeper conversations.  One example of a great resource that some background knowledge is necessary for is a recent episode of This American Life called 81 Words that documented the process by which homosexuality was removed from the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) in 1974.  But while I have scant time to present this kind of information in the classroom, the home is a fabulous place for exactly this kind of conversation.  Listen to this podcast during a long car ride, and talk about it.  I’m sure a great conversation will come!

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.