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July 05, 2022 HUMAN RIGHTS

LGBTQ-Inclusive Curriculum as a Path to Better Public Health

by Bobbi M. Bittker

In recent years, a movement has emphasized the need for inclusive public education to provide positive role models for students who previously lacked such opportunities. It also aims to facilitate an understanding of the challenges faced by some groups throughout our history and create a safer, more accepting school environment.

In 2011, California became the first state to require that the social studies curriculum include the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) figures and their roles in contemporary society. Similar legislation was passed eight years later in Colorado and New Jersey.

Similar to the absence of diverse role models in academic subjects is the dearth of inclusive sexual health education relevant to LGBTQ students in public education. According to a Williams Institute survey conducted in September 2020, 9.54 percent of American youth ages 13–17 identify as LGBTQ. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) State Profile, updated in May 2020, states that, although sex education is required in 29 of the 50 states, only 11 states ensure that the curriculum includes information affirming LGBTQ identities or relevant to LGBTQ students; transgender students are often completely overlooked. In fact, eight states mandate either negative portrayals or no mention of LGBTQ people when teaching health education. Avoiding proper sexual education for as much as 10 percent of the youth population is a dangerous public health proposition and exacerbates the already serious physical and mental health risks faced by LGBTQ youth.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the potential for risky sexual behavior by LGBTQ youth can be addressed by providing appropriate sexual health education. LGBTQ mental health is also improved by affirmative LGBTQ sexual health education, which aims to remove stigma and lower the likelihood of victimization. 

Similar to the absence of diverse role models in academic subjects is the dearth of inclusive sexual health education relevant to LGBTQ students.

Similar to the absence of diverse role models in academic subjects is the dearth of inclusive sexual health education relevant to LGBTQ students.


Why an LGBTQ-Inclusive Curriculum?

Adolescence is a critical period in a young person’s cognitive, emotional, and identity development. Research shows that a young person’s experiences in school can have a particularly important influence on their academic and social-emotional growth, physical health, and mental well-being. Providing students with a quality education includes facilitating a positive school climate and implementing social and emotional supports that foster healthy developmental outcomes. For LGBTQ youth, these supports can be particularly important to make certain that they achieve their full potential. Lack of such support can adversely affect their academic motivation and can lead to sadness, feelings of disconnectedness, and even suicidal ideation. When LGBTQ students perceived their schools to be as safe as did straight cisgender students, the disparities in outcomes were reduced, though not eliminated. Although these relationships are correlational and not necessarily causal, they do suggest that improved feelings of safety at school would improve outcomes for LGBTQ students. Several studies report that an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum promotes a positive school environment and student well-being. For example, students in California who learned about LGBTQ issues at school reported less teasing and bullying of LGBTQ students.

One way schools can help address stigma and discrimination and reduce risky sexual behavior among LGBTQ youth is to ensure that they have the same access to relevant sexual health education as their straight, cisgender peers—for example, by including LGBTQ-relevant information as a part of education about HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy prevention. Research has also shown that forming Gay-Straight Alliances and instituting anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies can create a more positive school environment. But those initiatives, however helpful, cannot erase the risks faced by LGBTQ students. LGBTQ-inclusive academics, accessible to all youth, can compensate for some of the void left by other interventions.

According to studies, students perceived the school environment as being safer when provided with LGBTQ-inclusive information in both academic subjects and health education. They also reported less victimization based on their sexual orientation in schools that teach an LGBTQ-inclusive academic curriculum. The Trevor Project, a national organization focused on LGBTQ suicide prevention, found that a positive school environment made a larger impact on students’ lives than similarly positive environments at home, work, or elsewhere in the community. By contrast, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that, where state laws restricted the content educators shared in their classrooms, they were discouraged from providing other support for LGBTQ students. Students from these states reported that their schools had less supportive anti-bullying policies and provided less access to Gay-Straight Alliances and relevant health sources.

Adopted Laws

California passed legislation requiring that the curriculum include information about the contributions and roles of LGBTQ Americans “. . . to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.” Known as the FAIR (Fair Accurate Inclusive and Respectful) Education Act, it was the first such legislation adopted in the United States, in 2011.

According to Equality California and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, the purpose of the FAIR Education Act was to end the exclusion of LGBTQ history in education and to promote school safety. In addition to adding instruction in the social sciences, the bill prohibited teachers from “instructing, or a school district from sponsoring, any activity that promotes discriminatory bias on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, or sexual orientation.” A California Safe Schools Coalition study showed that inclusion of LGBTQ people in instructional materials is linked to greater student safety at school for both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ students and lower rates of bullying. Where the contributions of the LGBTQ community were included in educational instruction, bullying declined by over half, and LGBTQ students were more likely to feel they have an opportunity to make positive contributions at school.

In 2019, Colorado, New Jersey, and Oregon all passed similar laws, and Illinois followed. Nevada is the most recent state to pass a law mandating LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum and uniquely requires that age-appropriate, inclusive history be taught beginning in kindergarten.

However, as of May 2020, Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Texas required that when sexual education refers to LGBTQ individuals and relationships, it is negative. Five states and the District of Columbia mandate that education about LGBTQ sexual health and relationships remain neutral. Six states have LGBTQ-inclusive health education curricula that foster positive relationships: California, Colorado, Oregon, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Washington. Laws that require LGBTQ-inclusive sex education curricula vary significantly. In Rhode Island, the curriculum must stress abstinence but also include instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity. Colorado’s Comprehensive Human Sexuality Education law prohibits the exclusion of LGBTQ-inclusive content and also prohibits an abstinence-only course of study. Rhode Island’s approach is “opt-out,” meaning that parents may view the curriculum in advance and remove their child by written request to the principal. New Jersey, a state with legislation requiring LGBTQ-inclusive sexual education and other critical topics like consent, sexting, and sexual abuse and prevention, is likewise an “opt-out” state.

States That Prohibit Positive Discussion of LGBTQ Identity

As of October 2018, Alabama, Arizona, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas followed statewide policy requiring schools to teach information related to homosexuality in a negative light, including harmful stereotypes regarding HIV/AIDS risk and arguments that being gay is unnatural and immoral. This puts LGBTQ youth at greater risk of mental health disparities and victimization by peers, and legislation is needed to provide them respite from the hostile school environment. These laws are especially harmful, for they stigmatize LGBTQ youth by providing false, misleading, or incomplete information to the entire student population.

Over the last 15 years, some states re-evaluated their laws prohibiting positive portrayals of homosexuality, and some laws have been amended, repealed, or overturned by the courts. However, other states are considering introducing them for the first time. In 2006, the North Carolina state legislature amended the state’s legislation to remove the prohibition against discussing homosexuality in health education classes. In October 2016, Equality Utah sued the State Board of Education challenging the state law banning positive speech in schools about LGBTQ people. In response, language preventing positive portrayals of LGBTQ people was stricken from the legislation the next year. In April 2019, the Arizona state legislature repealed the state’s law prohibiting AIDS and HIV-related instruction that portrayed homosexuality in a positive light.

One year later, South Carolina’s law was overturned when the U.S. District Court ruled in GSA v. Spearman that the state’s law “cannot satisfy any level of judicial review under the Equal Protection Clause.”

Opponents of LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum label such instruction “controversial” and request that students be able to opt out, arguing that it denies their freedom to raise their children as they see fit. Tennessee currently has a bill in committee, HB 800, that deems textbooks and instructional materials “that promote, normalize, support, or address controversial social issues, such as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) lifestyles” inappropriate and offensive to Christian values. The Iowa state legislature recently considered but did not adopt a bill that would have allowed parents to opt-out their elementary school students from gender identity instruction.

ABA Resolution 21A515

In 2021, the American Bar Association adopted Resolution 21A515 urging state, local, territorial and tribal legislatures, education officials, and school boards to include information about the historical and social contributions of LGBTQ individuals in curricula of publicly funded elementary and secondary schools, as well as age-appropriate LGBTQ-inclusive sexual health education in the curricula of publicly funded elementary and secondary schools to promote public health best practices and improve youth mental health outcomes. This resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority.


The law has a central role in promoting public health. Ninety percent of American youth attend public schools. A growing body of scientific, psychological, and social-scientific evidence shows that an LGBTQ-inclusive education benefits the health and well-being of all students, not only LGBTQ-identifying youth who represent at least 10 percent of the public school population in the United States (that is, 5 million students). Allowing students to opt out of LGBTQ inclusive education undermines the goal of fostering acceptance, reducing bullying and violence, and improving LGBTQ youth mental health. Laws that prohibit any positive portrayal of LGBTQ individuals foster a hostile culture beset by bullying and physical violence toward LGBTQ students, leading to poor health outcomes for a population already at risk. 

Call To Action

GLSEN, the Human Rights Campaign, and SIECUS, among other organizations, are calling on parents, youth, educators, and policymakers to act by:

  1. Advocating for LGBTQ-inclusive sex education.
  2. Implementing LGBTQ-inclusive sex education in schools, community settings, and online.
  3. Talking to their own youth about sex and sexuality.
  4. Working to remove state-level barriers to LGBTQ-inclusive sex education in schools and require inclusive programs.
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Bobbi M. Bittker

Civil Rights Attorney; Town Councilperson, Bedford, New York; Co-Chair, ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice's Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee

Bobbi M. Bittker is a civil rights attorney and a councilperson in the Town of Bedford, New York. She is chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Committee, an active member of the New York State Bar Association Committee on Civil Rights, and a Health Care Advisory subcommittee member on the Mazzoni Center Board of Directors.