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1.2. CISHETERONORMATIVE SEX EDUCATION

Estimated reading: 15 minutes

This post is also available in: Čeština (Czech) Eesti (Estonian) Română (Romanian) Español (Spanish)

  • There is a lack of inclusive sex education in schools.
  • Where sexuality education does take place, it is very often Cisheteronormative, thereby excluding LGBTQ+ youth.
  • Due to the workings of stigma and minority stress, the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth is significantly more at risk than that of their cisgender and heterosexual peers. Therefore, it is important to create a safe space and inclusive environment for everyone.
  • The school plays a valuable role in providing a safe environment for the education of all pupils.

1.2.1. INTRODUCTION

Formal sex education in general reaches children too late and insufficiently. Teachers are often not trained to deliver respectful and inclusive sex education. In most cases, they had not gone through any sex education themselves. The support and training sex educators usually receive is centred on a      Cisheteronormative perspective and does often not include diversity in terms of sexuality and gender identities. Therefore, there is a need for inclusive tools and training programs.

When taking a critical look at the available sex education and prevention of homophobia, transphobia and other types of discrimination, there are a few reasons that could help us see the bigger image and some of the reasons for the status quo:

  • Teachers are not sufficiently educated on the LGBTQ+
  • School counsellors and psychologist often lack time or resources to introduce these topics into education.
  • Some school curriculums choose to prioritise other subjects more than education for preventing discrimination.
  • For various purposes, such as cultural or religious reasons, some parents do not want their or even other children to receive sex education at schools.
  • Adults may be embarrassed to talk about sex themselves, they may feel unsure or unprepared to teach about topics such as consent, gender identity and sexual diversity since they receive no or very little training on these topics and no or very little up to date information.
  • Schools may prefer to invite external lecturers, but they might not be sure how to check the quality of the programs beforehand to have truly knowledgeable and professional lecturers.
  • In some contexts, there may be no official methodological documents that include prevention of discrimination when it comes to gender, sex and relationship diversity.
  • Excluding of LGBTQ+ experience from education curriculum does not mean neutral attitude towards LGBTQ+ topics, but it validates cisheteronormative stereotypes, which leads to increase of minority stress towards LGBTQ+ youth.

When you notice signs of homo- /bi- / trans- negativity (“-phobia”) among the students, you should treat it like any other form of prejudice or xenophobia (e.g., racism). You should contact the school counselling centre and develop an individual plan to work with the student. Never let homonegative or transnegative remarks or attacks go unnoticed. The first thing you can do when you notice something inappropriate is to say that such things should not be said in school, because school is a place for everyone without distinction. You can also say that you personally find such things inappropriate and don’t like to hear them in the classroom. If you can, discuss later (when there are maybe bit less emotions involved) with students why they say such things and what do they mean.

You can start by addressing homo- / bi- / trans- negative language both among teachers and students:

  • “That’s so gay”, “faggot”
  • “Bisexual people just can’t make their mind up”
  • Referring to trans person as “tranny”, or claiming they’re not “a real girl/boy”
  • Misgendering deliberately trans or nonbinary people

Then as mentioning above, you can use your curriculum to involve information about LGBTQ+ people, else you can change your school policy accordingly and promote information together with this change to raise awareness. More useful tips can be found in Stonewall Handbook.

1.2.2. DEVELOPMENT OF THE TOPIC

1.2.2.1. Cisheteronormative is harmful for everyone

Cisheteronormativity refers to a normative system within which the heterosexuality and/or cisgender identity (the condition under which gender assigned at birth is consistent with the gender self-identification of that person) are considered by society to be the only normal outcomes of adolescence, socialisation and the development of life relationships, and are therefore automatically assumed/expected of all (Pitoňák, 2017). As a result of cisheteronormativity, the range of other diverse forms of sexuality and gender identities are of unequal value. In this way, Cisheteronormativity determines stigmatization, discrimination and exclusion of LGBTQ+ people.

Consequently, growing up in a society that automatically assumes that all its members are cisgender and heterosexual can be difficult for LGBTQ+ youth, but it is important to consider that this mentality is affecting everyone, not only LGBTQ+ people themselves. It is also important to mention that heteronormativity is not equivalent to heterosexuality. Media representation and cultural norms reinforce these expectations on a daily basis through the representation and perpetuation of stereotypes and Cisheteronormative behaviours, images and subliminal messages. This environment can bring uncomfortable feelings of shame and inappropriateness for people who do not identify with this or do not fit in this category. Warner pointed out that no amount of legislation for LGBTQ+ adults can remove this hardship for many children who have been forced by society to belong to roles defined by Cisheteronormativity (Warner, 2000).

As mentioned before, Cisheteronormativity is harmful also for cisgender and heterosexual people. It’s related to harmful patterns such as toxic masculinity, misogyny and even gender stereotypes. Toxic masculinity describes harmful exaggerated masculine norms which promote toxic behaviour such as violence, sexism, and dominance over women, and they among others negatively also affects men themselves, for example in the form of higher prevalence of mental health problems (Waling, 2019).

These Cisheteronormative norms about how “ideal” family should look like, how “ideal” gender expression should look like, how “ideal” sexuality of a person should look like etc. are enforced through promise of safety and belonging but also through exclusion and pathologizing of other variants (McNeill, 2013). It also leads to gender pay gap or even to gender-based, sexual, and domestic violence.

1.2.2.2. Do not trivialize existence of LGBTQ+ youth

It is also extremely harmful if a part of society trivializes the queer experience and labels it as a trendy lifestyle. LGBTQ+ people are losing their freedom of expression to live their authentic lives and have to always consider what part of their true selves is appropriate for society and what is “too much” and they should hide it.

In The Invention of Heterosexuality Jonathan Ned Katz deconstructs the idea that people have always been heterosexual and that LGBTQ+ people are something “new” in society. He explains that sexuality is a complex axis of difference that takes many forms in different cultures – historically and geographically. He points out that heterosexuality as we know it today took shape in the last couple of centuries. The dichotomy of heterosexual and homosexual is a concept created mainly in the 20th century (Katz, 2007). Many cultures in which gender diverse and gender nonconforming persons were visible were diminished by westernization, colonialism, and systemic inequity (APA, 2015).

1.2.2.3. What is normal?

Normality is a social construct, it may have power to affect everything that does not fit into it related norms, to be perceived weird or dismissed. Many people are conforming to the norms without even thinking about them. For example, a person might unthinkingly ask a person perceived as a woman about her boyfriend, assuming both her gender identity and sexual/romantic orientation. This is an example of naturalization of cisheteronormativity. Questioning the norms and realizing how they affect our values and everyday lives can be beneficial (Norm Critism Toolkit).

It could also be harmful to compare the amount of visibility of LGBTQ+ people throughout various historical periods. LGBTQ+ terminology is relatively new. But so is the concept of romantic love as we know it today. Therefore, it is not possible to compare and quantify the forms of sexuality across history. But even we don’t know exactly how many non-heterosexual and transgender people lived in the past, it is certain that such people always existed, and they were, are and will be a part of society (Rupp, 2001).

1.2.2.4. Are schools a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth?

“Even in societies where sexual diversity seems to be generally accepted, schools in particular are still identified as one of the most homophobic (i. e. homonegative) social spaces. Homophobic language is commonplace in many schools and in many countries the term ‘gay’ is used by students (in both primary and secondary school settings) as an insult. For example, a UK study reported that 95% of secondary school teachers and three-quarters of primary school teachers had heard the phrases ‘that’s so gay’ or ‘you’re so gay’ used in this derogatory way. The same study also reported that 90% of secondary teachers and more than 40% of primary school teachers described homophobic bullying, name-calling or harassment in their schools, irrespective of their sexual orientation, and secondary school teachers identified homophobic bullying as the second most frequent form of bullying (after abuse relating to weight) (Dankmeije 2012, p. 6).

“In a US study, 57% of respondents reported that homophobic comments were made by school staff. […] More than half of a sample of transgender young people reported being physically attacked, 74% reported sexual harassment at school and 90% said they felt unsafe at school because of their gender. These findings are reflected in similar studies in other countries, including Australia and the United Kingdom” (Dankmeije, 2012, p. 7).

Similarly results of a recent study conducted in Czechia show that on average only five out of 10 boys and eight out of 10 girls would be okay with having a gay classmate (Pitoňák & Spilková 2016). However, it is important to consider that this study only present part of the problem as it is using the gender binary and considering only sexuality and not gender or relationship diversity.

Schools can play an active role in promoting respect, diversity and inclusion and therefore creating an atmosphere where everyone feels accepted, everyone can focus and learn new stuff. Teachers can mention gender identity and sexual orientation diversity in their classes and make LGBTQ+ children feel seen. Teachers can also discuss topics of gender stereotypes, personal boundaries, communication, and respect for each other. They also play important role model – by the way they speak, and they behave and take stance to LGBTQ+ rights and people, then they set positive example for others. The same goes for reactions to homophobic jokes and remarks.

– 1.2.3. SITUATIONS OF DISCRIMINATION RELATED TO THE TOPIC –

Lack of acceptance and affirmation from the site of school stuff and ignorance or undervaluing of the intentions and motivations of LGBTQ+ students may have serious consequences especially for trans students. Example of this situation may be a circumstance in which a trans student reaches out to their teacher or other school staff (e.g., school psychologist) and inform them about their self-identification and pronouns, The school does not acknowledge them and rather continues misgendering the student, through following their parents’ wishes rather than their own. This situation may be particularly traumatizing for the trans student because their identity is being dismissed and it can also set a precedent for how other trans students might be treated in the school, which could lead to a lot of negative outcomes (mental health of LGBTQ+ youth, block coming out, fear o to ask for help when needed, isolation and dismissal of sexuality/gender/relationship diversity etc.).

Similarly, a coming out of a queer student within a classroom environment may incite discrimination from the site of classmates. School staff is responsible for making the classroom environment a safe space for all students, including LGBTQ+ students.

Everyday microaggressions taking the form of seemingly inoffensive jokes or statements are, in fact, deepening the cisheteronormative perspective and perpetuating specific social norms, behaviours and attitudes. This environment fosters discrimination and discrimination constitutes the backbone for the further and deeper normalization of the cisheteronormativity

Another example of cisheteronormative sex education if when LGBTQ+ issues or more often only issues discussed with obsolete terminology such as “homosexuality” o if LGBTQ+ issues are contextualized only in context of the risk of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) transmission, specifically human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Teachers and parents should avoid conflating the topics.

All students would benefit from learning about safer sex practices that go beyond the Cisheteronormative information or condom use. Teachers or other school staff should for example offer information about topics such as anal hygiene or the use of PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis: medicine people at risk for HIV can take to prevent the transmission), or PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis: medicine that may be used to prevent HIV infection within 72 hours after exposure) when asked about and avoid stigmatizing these practices.

Parents tend to ask their children about their potential partners: “Hey, son, when will you finally find a girlfriend?” We should not assume that everyone 1) is cisgender and heterosexual or 2) want to be a relationship at all. This kind of comment is one of the microaggressions that LGBTQ+ people face every day and that contributes to the maintaining of a cisheteronormative perspective.

For more examples, follow this link to sexual diversity topic.

1.2.4. BEST PRACTICES

One of the ways to avoid cisheteronormative patterns in your behaviour is to use inclusive or neutral language. What does it mean? (See Table 1)

Instead of:Try:
Ladies and gentlemenEsteemed guests/people/folks
Boys and girlsStudents
Men and womenEveryone
Brothers and sistersSibilings
Table 1. Examples of inclusive or netural language

1.2.4.1. Comprehensive and inclusive sexual education includes (Tolerance, 2018, p.15):

  • Discussion of gender identities and sexual orientation— not just as a special topic, but included throughout the entire coursework. For example, if you are talking about relationships or sexual activities, you can use gender neutral terms as “when two people fall in love” instead of “when man and woman fall in love”.
  • Examples of healthy and diverse relationships, including same-sex/gender relationships.
  • Examples of diverse family constructions, including families with same-sex/gender couples.
  • Information for safe and protected sex practices for people of all gender and sexual identities.
  • Medically accurate, myth-free, and age-appropriate information on sexually transmitted infections and prevention of them, including but not limited to HIV/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
  • Teaching that does not assume students’ sexual/romantic orientations and gender identities, and that covers LGBTQ+ topics whether students in the class are “out” or not.

1.2.4.2. Recommendations:

  • “Conduct a visual audit of your classroom to examine your wall posters and other visible materials. Do they represent individuals with diverse gender expressions? Are there portrayals of “non-traditional families” or families with LGBTQ+ members?
  • Refer to a group of kids as students, scholars, class, friends, or everybody. Avoid the binary term “boys and girls.”
  • Avoid separating students according to gender. Dividing students along binary lines only enforces feelings of difference. When dividing students into teams, for partner work or to form a line, use rows, table groups or sides of the room.
  • In casual conversations with students, avoid making assumptions based on gender such as, “boys will be boys” or “girls love to gossip.” Never tease or joke around with students in a way that presumes cisgender identity or heterosexual orientation.
  • Encourage all students to try different types of activities. Do not ask for a group of “strong boys” to help carry furniture or “artistic girls” to decorate a bulletin board. Include everyone in a wide range of classroom activities and offer equitable opportunity for participation.” Learning for justice (2021): Teaching Tolerance (a project of the Southern Poverty Law Centre).

You can partner up with organizations, that work towards the inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community and can offer resources, and tools.  You can also get familiar with most common myths about the LGBTQ+ community and with arguments against comprehensive and inclusive sex education and learn how you can deconstruct them when teaching about the value of inclusion. It is important to firstly acknowledge and learn how to deconstruct what we learned throughout our lives for us to comprehend why our behaviours and attitudes may be biased and perpetuating harmful misinformation. A valuable resource is this guide.

1.2.5. REFERENCES

APA (2015). Guidelines for psychological practice with transgender and gender nonconforming people. American psychologist, 70(9), 832-864.

Dankmeije, P. (2012) Advocate for Sexual Diversity Education: A Guide to Advocate for Enhanced Quality of Education Dealing with Sexual Diversity. GALE (The Global Alliance for LGBT Education). Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Deliver, I. P. P. F. (2017). enable toolkit: scaling-up comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). London (UK): International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Katz, J. (2007). The invention of heterosexuality. University of Chicago Press.

Learning for Justice. (2021) Best practices for serving LGBTQ students: A Teaching Tolerance guide. Southern Poverty Law Cente, Alabama, USA.

McNeill, T. (2013). Sex education and the promotion of heteronormativity. Sexualities, 16(7), 826–846. doi:10.1177/1363460713497216

Norm criticism Toolkit (2016). Available at: https://www.iglyo.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Norm-Criticism-Toolkit.pdf

Pitoňák, M., & Spilková, J. (2016). Homophobic Prejudice in Czech Youth: a Sociodemographic Analysis of Young People’s Opinions on Homosexuality. Sex Res Soc Policy 13, 215–229. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-015-0215-8

Pitoňák, M. (2017). Differences in mental health between non-heterosexuals and heterosexuals : a review study. In Czechoslovak psychology (Vol. 61, pp. 575-592).

Rupp, L. (2001). Vytoužená minulost: Dějiny lásky a sexuality od příchodu Evropanů po současnost. Praha: OWP,

Warner, M. (2000). The trouble with normal: Sex, politics, and the ethics of queer life. Harvard University Press.

Waling, A. (2019). Problematising ‘toxic’ and ‘healthy’ masculinity for addressing gender inequalities. Australian Feminist Studies, 34(101), 362-375.

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