Recently Florida passed a controversial bill centering on the teaching of sexual orientation in public schools. Part of the text of the bill (HB 1557) bans classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. Any instruction on these topics cannot occur in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate. This brings up two issues I have with this action. First is the grade band issue and second is the term age appropriate.
The National Sex Education Standards provide the most accurate, and research-based guidelines for this topic. These standards were not constructed or designed based on emotions or political views. They were written with the efforts of child psychologists, research teams for the CDC who analyzed data on sexual behaviors, and other prominent individual researchers from health education, sex education, public health, public policy, health promotion, and advocacy. So what do these guidelines say about gender identity? That information does not appear until grades 3-5. So why did the Florida legislature emphasize this issue when it was already deemed not age-appropriate for earlier grades? Why stir up controversy that didn’t need exposure? If we don’t mention an age level, does that mean teachers will teach these topics whenever they feel it is necessary? And why declare this in negative terms? Much of sexuality has been in the negative- don’t do this, don’t have sex, don’t talk about this. Do we not have a positive view of sexuality?
Have there been instances where sexuality instruction has not been age-appropriate? Most likely. Recently in the state of Washington, in one school district, a first-grade class was given a worksheet to complete involving pronoun identifications and gender identity. I do consider this inappropriate for this age level. In my research on research-based sexuality curricula, I have not seen where this topic should be discussed in first grade. Therefore, that activity was inappropriate and stirred up controversy again. Sexuality education becomes so controversial we don’t need issues such as this that add more fuel to the fire.
Having Florida publicize this action, caused harm to the LGBTQ community. It was far more than don’t say gay. The law sent the message that this group of individuals needs to be kept secret until a later date. That later date can also be controversial. Yes, there is a time and place for this information. Follow the guidelines from research-based curricula but don’t wait until high school to introduce this issue. That is too late. By not talking about sexual orientation, we are denying the mental, social, and emotional needs of this marginalized group. If you had a student who suffered from anxiety or depression would you wait until high school to address these issues and help them find the services they need? Probably not. Keep this in mind when you have any LGBTQ students in your classes- even if they are in elementary school. The sooner we recognize these students, the sooner they can succeed academically, develop strong mental and emotional skills, and mature into sexually healthy adults.
Marcia Berke, Ed D
Northern Illinois University
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Pair this blog post with the following:
What Divides Us, Becomes Us by Michelle Rawcliffe
Life-Affirming for All, Life-Saving for Some by Gender Spectrum
Sex Ed Needs You by Christopher Pepper
In Support of Comprehensive Sexuality Education by Andy Milne