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Schools play an important role in ensuring that youth have the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information, a right guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.93 This right includes the right to have access to information about sexual orientation and gender identity.

In addition to supporting gay-straight alliances, which are addressed in the previous chapter, schools may provide students with access to information about sexual orientation and gender identity by including such information in health education classes and other parts of the curriculum, by making information available in school libraries, and by providing them with information about outside youth groups.

Health Education

Every state we visited requires its public schools to provide health education to their students. Accurate health information is critical for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth because those who are victimized are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including alcohol and drug abuse and unprotected sex. Despite this fact, youth repeatedly spoke of receiving limited, erroneous, and biased health information as it related to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"In our health class, we didn't even touch on homosexuality at all. It's almost like forbidden ground. That would have eased a lot of people's minds," Lauren M. said.94 "There needs to be more education, not just one awareness month or one day. Sex ed is a place to do that," the mother of thirteen-year-old Tod R. told us. "I read [Tod's] sex ed book. It's not homophobic-gay issues are just absent."95 Both students and youth service providers working with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth called on health education classes to be inclusive. Their recommendations are consistent with 1990 and 1994 resolutions of the AmericanSchool Health Association that call on schools to address sexual orientation as an aspect of sexuality in the health education curriculum.96

Nevertheless, most health education programs are not addressing the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. "When gay kids start hearing things about heterosexual sex, they tune it out," suggests Ralph Bowden, an attorney in Decatur, Georgia. "They don't get information."97

The missed opportunities-and resulting risks to youth-are not limited to sex education. Karen M. Jordan notes that "information initiatives, geared toward all youth (and adults as well), would educate them about the realities of gay and lesbian life and dispel myths."98 Including as a matter of course information on issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity helps to remove social stigma against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. An inclusive approach to health education has the potential to reduce harassment and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. Such an approach may also combat their sense of isolation, reduce depression and other mental health concerns, and reduce the health risks that result.

The denial of accurate, relevant health information to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth is not only unwise, it is also discriminatory. "That's one of the biggest disservices that's being done to gay youth," Bowden says. "It means the school district is denying them access to information that their straight counterparts are receiving."99

In fact, legislation or policies in some states forbid teachers from providing their students with complete and unbiased health education. For example, South Carolina law requires high school students to receive "comprehensive health education." The statute provides, however, that health education "may not include a discussion of alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted diseases."100 In Georgia, the Clayton CountyBoard of Education's health education policy states, "When homosexuality is discussed in sex education classes it shall not be presented as an acceptable alternative lifestyle."101 Arizona's health education standards prohibit the teaching or "promotion of homosexuality" in the AIDS and sex education curriculum. Similarly, Utah's health core curriculum provides: "The following may NOT be taught: . . . . (2) The acceptance or advocacy of homosexuality as a desirable or healthy sexual adjustment or lifestyle . . . ."102 In Oregon, an initiative on the November 2000 ballot would have prohibited public schools from "encouraging, promoting, or sanctioning homosexual or bisexual behavior." Voters rejected the measure by a narrow margin, with 47 percent casting their ballots in favor of enacting the prohibition.103

Such measures may even be permitted when state law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Minnesota Human Rights Law contains the caveat that it does not "authorize or permit the promotion of homosexuality or bisexuality in education institutions or require the teaching in education institutions of homosexuality or bisexuality as an acceptable lifestyle."104 Connecticut's human rights law contains a nearly identical provision.105

Especially when they are faced with hostile laws or policies, teachers and administrators are often uncertain about what information they can give students on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues. The result is that the little information youth do get on these issues is frequently inaccurate or misleading. To compound the problem, the uncertainty and discomfort many educators feel when addressing these issues allows some teachers to express their personal prejudices without challenge. Dempsey H. told us, "My health teacher was like, `There's a huge AIDS crisis in Lubbock; do you know why?,'" he said. "We said because it's a college town, there's lots of students here. He said, `No, it's because there's a huge gay community here.'"106 And Drew L. related that in a health class at hisLouisiana high school, "We were talking about AIDS, and the teacher said the rate in the homosexual population was higher. He gave us some answer like, `Generally homosexual men are less picky about who they choose to be with.'"107

Other Classroom Instruction

Similarly, students rarely hear anything about issues relating to sexual orientation or gender identity elsewhere in the curriculum. If they do hear about someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, it is almost invariably in a negative light.

"I think, yes, a few times issues were brought up with the topic of homosexuality," said Lavonn R. "Nothing positive."108

James L., a gay sophomore, said:

Nobody talks about it. Nobody really mentions gay or lesbian issues. Well, there was this article in the school paper, but even after I reread it I didn't get the point of the article. Something about gay people getting more visible in society. But I haven't had any teachers talk about it, except that my history teacher has a sign up for Project 10. It doesn't sound encouraging: the sign says something about the "loneliest" students. I'm not lonely. I just don't know anything about it. I don't know any teachers who are gay.

I would want people to feel comfortable talking about it, because, since people don't bring it up, people don't talk about it, they think it's just something strange, something weird. If you can make it so it's not like that, so it's seen as something you can talk about openly, that would change a lot.109

Lauren M. made a similar observation. "It's not even in the curriculum. It's like we're not even supposed to know about it. `That's so gay' is the only thing we ever hear about it." She returned to the topic at the end of our interview when we asked her what recommendations she would make. "Gay education," she offered. "It's not even in the curriculum. Anything that would let people know. Hatecrimes education. Let people know what's really going on. That would be really helpful."110

In 1990, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development adopted a resolution calling on its members to "develop policies, curriculum materials, and teaching strategies that do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation."111 Hilda F. Besner, a clinical psychologist, and Charlotte F. Spungin, an education specialist, note:

Schools are natural forums for presenting information to students, and homosexuality should be included in the curriculum. Other subjects that affect minority groups are covered, so it seems logical that the subject of homosexuality be addressed. In addition to the usual curriculum, schools throughout the nation are used as forums for teaching about alcohol and drug abuse, race relations, child abuse, automobile safety, voting, gun safety, sex equity, AIDS, world hunger, and many other special interest topics. It is the rare school or community that addresses the needs of gay and lesbian students.112

Most of the students with whom we spoke agreed with these recommendations. "I'd like to see in the majority of schools some service or class having a focus on GLBT youth," said Tyrone V., seventeen. "I think it should be in every school."113 Drew L., a Dallas freshman, urged teachers to "start in elementary school" with videotapes designed for the appropriate grade. After thinking a few minutes, however, he remarked, "Not a videotape, then they'd have to send out a letter, because then the parents would take their kids out of the class. It'd have to be something without getting permission. Something with no liability for teachers. Maybe they could have the parents sign a contract at the beginning of the year saying that the teachers can show educational videos."114

Nevertheless, most of the teachers we interviewed did not feel that they could bring up lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues in class. "My principal would faint," said a teacher in West Texas said when we asked him.115 Others expressed uncertainty about how to go about introducing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues into their classroom discussions.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues can readily be incorporated into existing school programs that address discrimination, civil rights, and minority groups.116

In addition, these issues can be raised in most subjects currently taught in U.S. public schools. For example, classes on the sciences, mathematics, literature, the arts, and other disciplines can note the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. Social studies classes can include discussions of related current and historical issues.

Some teachers shared the strategies they used. "I bring up gay and lesbian issues in class," a Georgia teacher told us. "I'm a literature teacher, so there are many natural ways to do it. Each day I start out with a five-minute news article. I bring it in so I can control the topic. For instance, today's was on gender issues in sports, on Title IX noncompliance in the State of Georgia. So there were gay and lesbian issues in the news. If we read something by a gay or lesbian author, I'll tell them even if there's the remotest connection to the book."117 The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network and teacher education specialists offer additional curriculum suggestions.118

Classroom discussions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues should not be confined to health education. Noting "the danger of medicalization,"education researcher Arthur Lipkin cautions, "We run the risk of having [students] think that homosexuality is inevitably linked with deviance and illness. Even if the teacher is gay-friendly and the curriculum is accurate, placing the matter under the subject heading of `health' or `disease prevention' carries its own message."119

Integrating these issues into the curriculum is beneficial to youth who are struggling with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity in much the same way that access to accurate health information is. Classroom acknowledgment of these issues reduces the sense of isolation faced by youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender or who are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Adding these issues to the curriculum has the potential to benefit all students by increasing their awareness and tolerance of those who are different from them. A straight high school senior is quoted by Lipkin as saying, "The more we talk about homosexuality in class, the more comfortable I am with the idea, with gay people, with my own sexuality, and with my own male identity."120

Despite these potential benefits, school districts probably do not have to be warned to proceed with caution in incorporating these issues into the school curriculum. Cautions Lipkin, "It would be a mistake first to require all teachers to teach this subject, especially without proper training."121

It is clear, however, that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues have a place in the general school curriculum, both because they are appropriately addressed within academic subjects currently taught and because their inclusion furthers the educational mission, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of promoting "the full development of the human personality" and "the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms."122

"I know school is not meant to be therapy," Tod R.'s mother said. "But they should be building good citizenship."123


"It's like gay people don't exist," Leslie H. said of her Dallas-area school's library.124 Given the resistance of most schools even to raising lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues in the classroom, it is not surprising that most students told us that their school libraries had few or no resources on these issues.

"We really needed more resources," William H. commented. "There were two books on queer issues in the school library. I read them under the guise of doing a paper on homophobia. The paper basically gave me permission to read about homosexuality. By the end of one of the books, I was bawling, a big mess. I thought to myself, `Why am I crying?' Then I realized that the book was about me."125

"You can't find any information at school," offered Manny V., a 1999 graduate of a San Bernandino Valley high school in Los Angeles County.126 And Philip G. said that in his Los Angeles school, "being gay there was never seen as positive. You would never find materials in the library, no books, no teachers who were out. There was no insinuation at all of a gay life."127

In schools where books and other materials on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues are available, they are often there only because of the efforts of supportive teachers. Matt P. told us, "There were one or two books in the English room, not in the library. It wasn't part of the library. I think the English teacher had rescued them from somewhere. Two books. One about a guy who drowned, the other about a kid whose brother has AIDS. . . . Those were the resources. I know, because I was searching."128 Similarly, a Georgia teacher said, "I bring in books from home. When I get caught someday, I will be fired. But this job isn't enough to worry about."129

Some students will never be comfortable using their school library as a source of information about issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity. "I think it's really hard to go to the library and get a book on gay life," said Paul M. "You'd be scared to go up to the counter to check it out."130 "You cannot go to the library to check out books," the Georgia teacher stated. "It's too dangerous. People cansee you, somebody has to check out the book to you, people can see your name on the card and tell you've checked the book out."131

The Internet allays some of these fears, although it presents different concerns. "Having the information available on line helps a lot," Paul M. noted.

"I agree," Steve D. said. "I wouldn't have come out as early to my parents if I hadn't been able to get information on line."132

"If you're under eighteen, it's hard to meet people," Ron P. said. "Unless you have the Internet, then it's easy. The Internet is helpful, but it's also harmful. . . . It starts controlling your life when you're a gay teen, because that's all you have. You can lie so easily. You can become anything you want. A lot of older men have taken advantage of teenagers. Some kids aren't wise to that."133

It is in part for this reason that many schools restrict students' Internet access. It is also common, for example, to prevent youth from having access to pornographic websites. And the Children's Internet Protection Act, signed into law on December 21, 2000, requires public elementary and secondary schools and public libraries to block children's access to "inappropriate matter" and "materials harmful to minors" as a condition of federal funding programs intended to increase students' access to the Internet.134

But many schools that restrict students' Internet access block them from any site that discusses lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues.135 For example, Sabrina L. reported that her school and most others in her school district used filtering software that prevents students from having access to material posted by gay rights groups.136

For those students who are willing to use library resources, schools can make access to such information easier for youth by ensuring that library holdings are catalogued and shelved so that students can find them with a minimum ofdifficulty. For example, cataloguing systems should use contemporary subject headings such as "lesbian" and "gay" rather than relying exclusively on outdated terminology such as "homosexual" or "homophile." Books on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues should be kept in the same manner as other holdings, preferably on open shelves, rather than being kept in the librarian's office and made available only on request.

Outside Youth Groups

Another way that schools can help lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students is by making information available to them about outside youth groups. "When I went there, I could feel safe-a lot less tension," said Manny V. "Students couldn't handle this stuff on their own. It's bigger than they are."137

"I feel much more comfortable here. It's pretty tight; it's really cool," said Leigh S. "It's really tight to be around people who don't care if you're gay. Nobody's going to pass judgment on you. Once you step out of the car and into school, it's a different world."138

93 See ICCPR, art. 19(1). For a fuller analysis of the right to freedom of expression in international law and the restrictions that may be placed on it, see Chapter XII, "Freedom of Expression" section.

94 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.

95 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, February 8, 2000.

96 See American School Health Association (ASHA), "Gay and Lesbian Youth in School" (1990) and "ASHA Supports Quality Sexuality Education" (1994), in Compendium of Resolutions (Kent, Ohio: ASHA, August 1998), (accessed on March 21, 2001).

97 Human Rights Watch interview with Ralph Bowden, attorney, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.

98 Karen M. Jordan, "Substance Abuse Among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Adolescents," School Psychology Review, vol. 29 (2000), p. 203.

99 Human Rights Watch interview with Ralph Bowden, December 14, 1999.

100 S.C. Code Ann. §§ 59-32-30(A)(3), (5) (1999).

101 Clayton County Board of Education, "Board Policy: Instruction, Health and Physical Education," August 12, 1991.

102 The Utah policy instructs that if students ask questions about gay issues, teachers are told to respond, "That's not what we're here to discuss" or "That's something you should talk with your parents about." Diane Urbani, "Classes on Sex Get Clear Limits," Deseret News (Salt Lake City), August 16, 1999.

103 See Cable News Network, "Voter Results in Oregon," (accessed on November 17, 2000).

104 Minn. Stat. § 363.021(2) (1999).

105 See Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a-81r (1999).

106 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.

107 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.

108 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 23, 2000.

109 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, January 19, 2000.

110 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.

111 Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), Resolution on Student Sexual Orientation (Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD, 1990), (accessed on March 21, 2001).

112 Hilda F. Besner and Charlotte J. Spungin, Gay and Lesbian Students: Understanding Their Needs (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Francis, 1995), p. 99.

113 Human Rights Watch interview, Long Beach, California, January 19, 2000.

114 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.

115 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 20, 2000.

116 Amnesty International USA; the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network; and the Human Rights Resource Center at the University of Minnesota have developed a series of classroom exercises that address lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues as human rights issues. See David M. Donahue, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights: A Human Rights Perspective (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Human Rights Resource Center, University of Minnesota, 2000).

117 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.

118 See, for example, Besner and Spungin, pp. 107-109; Virginia Casper and Steven B. Schultz, Gay Parents/Straight Schools: Building Communication and Trust (New York and London: Teachers College Press, 1999), pp. 155-65; Arthur Lipkin, "The Case for a Gay and Lesbian Curriculum," The High School Journal, vol. 77 (1993-94), p. 95; Dan Woog, School's Out: The Impact of Gay and Lesbian Issues on America's Schools (Los Angeles and New York: Alyson Books, 1995), pp. 333-60.

119 Lipkin, "Gay and Lesbian Curriculum," p. 101.

120 Ibid., p. 98.

121 Ibid., p. 105.

122 Universal Decalaration of Human Rights, art. 26(2), G.A. Res. 217A (III), U.N. Doc. A/810, p. 71 (1948).

123 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, February 8, 2000.

124 Human Rights Watch interview, Dallas, Texas, March 27, 2000.

125 Human Rights Watch interview, San Francisco, California, January 27, 2000.

126 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, October 18, 1999.

127 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles, California, October 20, 1999.

128 Human Rights Watch interview, Salem, Massachusetts, May 23, 2000.

129 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.

130 Human Rights Watch interview, Bergen County, New Jersey, October 31, 1999 (group discussion).

131 Human Rights Watch interview, Atlanta, Georgia, December 14, 1999.

132 Human Rights Watch interview, Bergen County, New Jersey, October 31, 1999 (group discussion).

133 Human Rights Watch interview, Lubbock, Texas, March 21, 2000.

134 See Children's Internet Protection Act, H.R. 5666, 106th Cong., 2d sess., §§ 1732, 1711 (2000), incorporated by reference into Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2001, Pub. L. No. 106-554, § 1(a), 114 Stat. 2763 (2000).

135 See John Spear, "How Filtering Software Impacts Our Schools," in Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Access Denied, Version 2.0: The Continuing Threat Against Internet Access and Privacy and Its Impact on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community (New York: GLAAD, December 1999), pp. 16-19.

136 Human Rights Watch interview, Orange County, California, October 21, 1999.

137 Human Rights Watch interview, Los Angeles County, California, October 21, 1999.

138 Human Rights Watch interview, Austin, Texas, March 15, 2000.

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