Sep. 18, 2020

By Katherine Goldey
Associate professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience

Last week, the Texas State Board of Education gave preliminary approval to its first revision to sex education standards since 1997. The revised standards take an "abstinence plus" approach with expanded information on contraception. However, the board rejected sets of proposals to: 1) teach middle and high schoolers the definitions of sexual orientation and gender identity, and 2) teach that everyone deserves dignity and respect regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. The SBOE is expected to take a final vote on the standards in November.

The SBOE has missed a vital opportunity to support the well-being of Texas’ youth.

By failing to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity in the curriculum, the SBOE has missed a vital opportunity to support the well-being of Texas' youth. Non-inclusive sex education is associated with negative mental health outcomes, like anxiety and depression, for LGBTQ+ individuals, perhaps because the absence of this information in the curriculum contributes to a school climate that is unsupportive of sexual minority youth. Additionally, cues from the school climate influence whether LGBTQ+ teens feel comfortable coming out, or disclosing their sexual orientation/gender identity to others, versus whether they conceal their identity to avoid ostracism and bullying. Identity concealment is a taxing process associated with a range of negative health and well-being outcomes, including depressive symptoms and low self-esteem. Moreover, research shows that sexual minority and heterosexual youth report better mental health outcomes, including a lower likelihood of suicidal thoughts, in states with LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education, such that inclusive school environments may benefit youth regardless of sexual identity.

SBOE members who voted against the proposals argued that decisions about content related to sexual orientation and gender identity should be left to local school districts. For example, Austin ISD and Fort Worth ISD include content on sexual orientation and gender identity tailored to students' grade levels. But LGBTQ+ students don't just live in Austin and Fort Worth. They live in Amarillo, in Conroe, in Lufkin, in Irving. Sexual and gender minority teens in smaller towns are perhaps most in need of inclusive school sex education, given that these students may have less access to sexual health education outside of school.

In our own recent research, my colleagues and I found that more comprehensive school sex education during adolescence predicted higher sexual satisfaction during young adulthood for heterosexual students but not for LGB+ students. This disparity may occur because even comprehensive sex education methods can fall short at being truly LGB+ inclusive – and indeed, LGB+ students in our study reported that their sex education was less relevant to their sexual experiences than heterosexual students did. But, there was some positive news: Receiving more comprehensive information about sexuality from family members predicted higher satisfaction with sexual communication – regardless of sexual orientation. While sexual satisfaction may seem like a narrow outcome, it is closely linked with overall mental and physical well-being, as well as with avoidance of sexual risk. This underscores the importance of parents talking with their teens about the right for everyone to be treated with dignity, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, especially if this information will be absent from schools.

SBOE's move to leave LGBTQ+ identities out of the revised curriculum standards misses a key opportunity to improve well-being for teens in our state, especially those living outside of major cities. But, if SBOE fails to reconsider the proposals before November, it will be up to local school districts to take action to include information inclusive of LGBTQ+ students in their health curricula. And families have the opportunity to help compensate for omissions in their middle and high schoolers' health education by emphasizing the importance of respect for LGBTQ+ peers at home.

This commentary first appeared in the Austin Chronicle.