Everyone has a cringey health class story; LGBTQ+ folks usually have more than one.
I was just Bar Mitzvah-ed, which for you non-Jewish readers happens right around your 13th birthday. The boys in my gym class met in a classroom for a regularly scheduled health class with our teacher, Mr. Kaufman. We got to the part where he was explaining how one goes about putting on a condom, although he did not do a full demonstration.
I would usually keep quiet in these situations to avoid too many stares or snickers; I was already getting my fair share of those. But this time, I felt it necessary to speak up. I asked something along the lines of, “Should we be using condoms for things other than penetrative vaginal sex?”
I could feel eyeballs slowly turning toward me as Mr. Kaufman confidently responded that wearing a condom is always a good move, for penetrative sex or otherwise.
I didn’t consciously realize that such a question might have outed me to the class. I genuinely just wanted to know when and how to use a condom better than how my teacher was describing it. Mr. Kaufman’s omission of any discussion about non-straight sexual experiences didn’t make this any easier.
It didn’t even cross my mind that it would be normal and healthy to engage in sexual experiences with a same-sex partner, let alone penetrative experiences. How could it? No teacher had ever made an active effort to discuss it; in fact, some would have probably preferred it to be something that was actively discouraged.
All sex is stigmatized to begin with. Any talk of sex must revolve around ‘healthy choices’ and ‘genuine relationships.’ Diagrams focus on male and female genitalia and the usually singular way they ought to fit with one another. In my experience, health class curricula are not built around actual experiences — they’re built around prevention and, at best, mitigation.
Teachers may not be actively discouraging sex, but by not acknowledging that it is a normal, healthy, and even positive thing to explore, they end up furthering the stigma that sex is somehow something to be looked down upon, something to be ashamed of.
This is something that hurts all teenagers. They’re impressionable to these messages being fed to them, whether they are explicit or not. Teenagers have no reason to look down on sex until an authority figure gestures them to do so.
These health class antics especially hurt members of the LGBTQ+ community; not only do we develop a stigma toward sex like everyone else, but we also have no way of knowing that there are different ways to have sex that do not involve penetration between cisgender men and cisgender women.
This lack of validation at a young age wreaks havoc on LGBTQ+ kids. We have no role models or educators to whom we feel comfortable asking our questions. Many of us don’t even know what to ask until we are thrust into the first sexual situations that we have no preparation for.
This is dangerous — not just because it makes us feel even more othered than we already do, but because older folks can more easily take advantage of us, which can lead to some uncomfortable experiences, if not something worse.
In my experience, I found that many members of the LGBTQ+ community end up beginning their university careers without significant sexual experiences. Most of our straight, cisgender peers have already been through those uncomfortable first, and even second or third, times. Slowly but surely, those of us who want to catch up do, but at what cost?
Instead of being taught how to safely have anal sex, for example, some members of the community spend years trying to figure it out on our own. First, we have to figure out if it is something that we like, and if so, how to go about it in a safe and pleasurable manner.
Instead of being taught that sex toys are healthy and beneficial for solo activities or to use with a partner, we spend years thinking there’s something wrong with making oneself feel good or have no concept of what it could look like to have a sexual experience without a penis.
LGBTQ+ sex should be celebrated. It should be welcomed with open arms and affirmed at a young age instead of ignored and stigmatized. Educators must do their part to make health class a proactive place of learning, for folks of all gender and sexual identities; members of the LGBTQ+ community shouldn’t feel the need to speak up to see themselves represented in these curricula.
And for all my LGBTQ+ siblings out there: you are valid; your sexual experiences, no matter what they make look like, are valid; and the journey you are on to learn what you like and how you like it, cringey and positive experiences alike, is so damn valid.