Support for Instruction about Homosexuality in South Carolina Public Schools

Article excerpt

Recognition of sexual orientation is a long process, which often begins during the middle school years.[1-3] However, gay men and lesbians often report that they sensed something "different" about themselves as early as age four or five.[4] As with heterosexual youth, gay and lesbian youth often wonder if the changes their bodies are experiencing and the feelings they have are "normal" compared to other youth their age. Unfortunately, due to the controversy surrounding the issue of homosexuality, gay and lesbian youth rarely have access to information in schools regarding their sexual orientation.[5] In South Carolina, classroom discussion about "alternate sexual lifestyles including, but not limited to homosexual relationships" may occur only "in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted diseases."[6] This rule perpetuates the stereotype of sexually transmitted diseases as the ultimate outcome for individuals with a homosexual orientation.

After recognizing their homosexuality, gay and lesbian youth are placed in the difficult position of deciding whether to keep their identity a secret, pretend they are "straight" (heterosexual), or "come out" and tell others about their sexual orientation.[2] Gay and lesbian youth who decide to "come out" risk rejection and verbal abuse or physical abuse from family members, schoolmates, and others in the community.[7-15] According to Savin-Williams,[8] 20% of gay and lesbian youth reported being verbally abused by their mothers due to their sexual orientation, while 14% reported verbal abuse by their fathers. Among violent incidents reported against gay and lesbian youth, 46% involved family members.[12] Another 26% of gay and lesbian youth are forced to leave home after disclosing their sexual orientation to their families.[10] According to the National Network of Youth and Runaway Services, gay and lesbian youth constitute between 20%-40% of all homeless youth.[14]

Gay and lesbian youth who decide to "come out" at school report experiencing similar difficulties. Studies found between 30%-70% of gay and lesbian students experience verbal or physical assault at school.[8,10] Approximately 28% eventually drop out of school because of harassment based on their sexual orientation.[8] A Seattle Safe Schools Coalition study[9] found gay and lesbian youth were five times more likely than their heterosexual peers to be targets of violence or harassment, nearly three times more likely to be injured in a fight severely enough to need medical attention, and nearly twice as likely to be threatened by someone with a weapon.[9]

When asked what schools could do to make their life at school better, gay and lesbian youth reported that schools should offer support groups for gay and lesbian students, that teachers should not allow gay "put-downs," and that students who are always "cutting gays down" should be punished.[16] Additionally, gay and lesbian youth reported that the topic of homosexuality should be discussed more in class and that teachers should treat the topic with respect.[16] According to a 1995 national survey of secondary school health teachers, the subject of homosexuality/sexual orientation is rarely, if ever, addressed in public schools. Less than one-half (46%) of secondary school health teachers reported formally teaching the topic of homosexuality in the classroom.[17] Of teachers who did discuss the topic in class, 48% reported spending less than one class period discussing homosexuality, and 43% reported spending one to two class periods discussing the topic.[17]

Research has demonstrated that adolescents struggling with issues surrounding their sexual orientation who do not receive appropriate health care services, accurate information, or support from family, school, and community, are in jeopardy of serious emotional, social, and physical difficulties. Gay and lesbian youth often turn to unsafe activities such as alcohol and drug use or high-risk sexual behaviors to cope with their sexual orientation. …