“Class, here is what chlamydia can do to the body,” said my 11th grade health teacher as he moved through a slideshow. “These are genital warts.” Moments later, he said, “If left untreated, gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), causing infertility in women.”
In my head, I said to my 16-year-old self, “Pelvic inflammatory disease? Oh. No. That’s what I have. It must be. It has to be.”
There I was, sitting in health class discussing sexual health for the first time since the puberty talk in sixth grade. Well, it wasn’t so much discussing; our teacher was scrolling through a slideshow of worst-case scenarios of sexually transmitted infections.
A couple days prior, I had my first sexual encounter—with my girlfriend—and now all I could think about was how chlamydia was taking over my fallopian tubes*. And there was nothing in the lesson that day or in the entire unit that offered me any answers.
A little dramatic, huh? But it’s the absolute honest truth.
I came out as queer early on in high school, and I remember yearning to talk about it. On some days, it felt like I alone had discovered an alternative to being heterosexual. My crushing on girls made me feel like I had somehow broken my gender and the expectations that came with it, and I had very few spaces to discuss any of this.
These memories inform my everyday work now as a sexuality educator working to ensure that all young people have factual, age- and stage-appropriate information. I also work to ensure that young people see themselves reflected in their curriculum and are affirmed—their whole selves—including their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
Sex education in the United States, where you can find it, falls flat on its face. According to GLSEN’s most recent National School Climate Survey, less than 5% of LGBT students report that their health classes included positive representations of LGBT topics. Also, sex education typically utilizes fear-based tactics, offers abstinence as the only prevention tool, fails to teach negotiation skills, and rarely is holistic, despite that research shows that comprehensive sex ed is effective and abstinence-only education is not.
Health teachers, sexuality educators, and faculty charged with teaching sex ed at their schools often find themselves stuck between the limitations on what can and cannot be taught, fear of backlash by parents and families, and more than that, an uncertainty about what is truly inclusive sexuality education. Over the last 13 years, working in the field of both sexuality education and LGBTQIA issues, I’ve learned that inclusive sex ed requires a comprehensive, sex-positive, LGBTQI-affirming curriculum that takes into consideration the full cultural contexts of each student.
I encourage educators to follow suit by teaching and advocating for truly inclusive sex ed in their classrooms. Educators can learn more from this call to action, released today by GLSEN and a number of partner organizations dedicated to providing inclusive sex education in schools.
I don’t know exactly how my life path would’ve been different if I had been affirmed in health class that day. What I do know is that I can make every effort now to make sure all of the young people who enter my classroom are able to be their full selves.
*it was probably just gas.
Wazina Zondon is a sexuality educator at the Urban Assembly Institute for Math & Science for Young Women.