Massachusetts can lead in supporting LGBTQ+ youth
Comprehensive sexuality education will reduce harassment, help all students
RECENT LEGISLATIVE ACTION in Texas and Florida reminds us that LGBTQ+ youth continue to be targeted and criminalized for expressing their gender identity. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law prohibits instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade, while requiring that such instruction be “age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate” in later grades.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has drafted legislation that calls on licensed professionals and members of the public to report the parents of transgender minors to state authorities if it appears the minors are receiving gender-affirming medical care. Texas and Florida are not alone in targeting LGBTQ+ youth. A recent analysis by Education Week revealed that at least 15 states are considering bills that would affect ways of discussing, addressing, or interacting with LGBTQ+ youth in schools.
Criminalizing gender expression is a form of oppression, and oppression is a driving factor in violence, including sexual violence. Studies show that one in two transgender people will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. The punitive actions taking place across the country will certainly result in transgender youth facing substantially higher rates of mental health issues, violence, and suicides.
However, there is hope on the horizon. The Massachusetts Legislature can lead the nation in a different direction by supporting the Healthy Youth Act which would provide medically-accurate, age-appropriate, and LGBTQ+ inclusive sexual education to youth across the state.
Research suggests that the Healthy Youth Act may also be a first step towards addressing the culture of homophobia and transphobia that make our schools unsafe environments for many LGBTQ+ youth. Even in Massachusetts, one in five LGBTQ+ students has experienced bullying that has escalated to physical harassment at school; roughly one in six LGBTQ+ students reports skipping school in the last month alone due to feeling unsafe.
LGBTQ+ students cannot access safe, equal educational opportunities when they are afraid to show up to class or when their schools’ toxic climates are contributing to the mental health challenges. Those mental health struggles have led a quarter of LGBTQ+ students to attempt suicide annually.
If the Healthy Youth Act is passed, all Massachusetts students would be able to learn about gender identity and expression thanks to an inclusive curriculum. When equipped with knowledge about their bodies, transgender youth are more likely to have better mental health outcomes.
Passing the Healthy Youth Act is a key step to addressing the worrying rates of dating and sexual violence we see among teens – especially in the LGBTQ+ community. It’s no coincidence that groups that prioritize ending the horrors of sexual violence have endorsed the bill, from Jane Doe Inc. to Mass Equality to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. Learning about affirmative and voluntary consent and about recognizing and preventing dating violence is critical for all students, but it is especially important for LGBTQ+ students, who experience some of the highest rates of violence and assault.
To prevent sexual violence, coercion, and assault, young people need access to sex education that includes lessons about consent and healthy relationships, starting well before college and well before they become sexually active. By passing the Healthy Youth Act, the Legislature would ensure that our young people are taught the importance of healthy relationships and consent, which are pivotal to preventing sexual violence in our communities.Duane de Four currently serves as the interim executive director at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. He is an educator with more than 25 years of experience in addressing the intersecting social justice issues of gender violence prevention, anti-racism, and sexual health.