LGBTQ+ Education Avoidance: The New Anti-Vaxxing

LGBTQ+ issues are hot button issues. Anti-Vaxxing discussions will end a playdate before the first cheerio hits the floor. So when I combine these two issues to create an analogy, I expect that a volcano will erupt, but I like to live on the wild side, so here goes. Refusing to educate your kids on LGBTQ+ basics is to suicide rates, what anti-vaxxing is to infection rates. It is harmful to epidemic proportions.

Just as a parent refusing to get a child vaccinated endangers other children in their community, parents who refuse to educate their children on LGBTQ+ basics, (pronouns, slurs to stay away from, and the value and dignity present in every human being,) they run the risk of causing harm to LGBTQ+ students they encounter.

Fact: vaccines are not 100% effective, 1–5% percent of the population will not become immune and hence can still catch the disease from unvaccinated people.

Let me first say that I do believe that every parent has the right to do what they think is best for their child on the micro level. We Americans love to remind each other that, “It’s a free country,” even as we fail to realize it’s freer for some groups than others. But on the macro level, when that “freedom” of one person, starts to endanger others, the government and policymakers get involved. Now, I would like us all to accept for a second, that both these things can be true; a parent’s fear for their child from vaccinations or exposure to LGBTQ+ folks can be real to them and failure to get vaccinations and an LGBTQ+ education has really damaging large scale consequences. Those two things can both be true, but it is important to recognize that parents look at the micro good for their child while community leaders have to focus on the macro good of the community as a whole.

Today, for a child to attend public school, their parents have to show proof of vaccination because the government simply can’t risk another polio outbreak, that would be a bad look for the supposed leaders of the free world. While every state will allow medical exemptions to this rule, only 15 states allow religions exceptions. Similarly, states have begun to realize that they need to take action to curb the LGBTQ+ health epidemic that is illuminated by the astronomical self-harm and suicide rates in LGBTQ+ youth. Illinois passed a law in August 2019, mandating that LGBTQ+ history be taught in all curriculum in an effort to raise the visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals who contributed to the country, foster discussion around gay issues, provide role models for LGBTQIA youth and to reduce harassment and bullying around this issue. That’s a tall order for a couple of history lessons, but it’s a start.

In 2015, a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey of 9–12 graders found that 34% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students were being bullied at school vs. 19% of their heterosexual peers. For online bullying of the same students, that ratio was double the heterosexual rates at 28% to 14%.

Similarly, GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey found 83.7% of trans and 69.9% of gender non-binary (GNB) students experience bullying at school.

In light of these elevated bullying rates, it is unsurprising that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth. Similarly, transgender youth reported radically significantly higher rates of depression, suicidality, and victimization compared to their cis-gender counterparts. The Treavor Project reported in February 2019 that 35% of transgender youth reported attempting suicide, and 31% reported being a victim of sexual violence. Let those numbers sink in, relative to 7% attempting suicide, and 10% reported being victims of sexual abuse in their cisgender peers.

This past month as LGBTQIA Equity Week in my kids’ school district was announced, and the parent population erupted! The unwritten rules of “no taboo subjects” in online local parenting forums were tossed aside, and the gloves were put on. The religious liberties camp squared off against the LGBTQ+ rights are human rights camp, and horns locked BIGGLY.

“We have freedom of religion, and this has no place in the classroom.” was countered with, “Hello, separation of church and state reminder, it’s public school and it’s about to be the law in Illinois!”

“There are only two genders. PERIOD!” was challenged with, “Show me your science degree.”

“My kids are too young to learn all about sex,” was, well, that was just annoying AF, because the entire curriculum was provided to every parent with the day by day instruction for every grade and nowhere the curriculum was there anything about gay sex. Pre-conceived notions of gay people being solely about the sex they have and with whom, for the LOSS!

“I don’t agree with the age they are starting the conversation at. Let kids be kids! Maybe at 10 is okay,” was met with a left hook of, My daughter transitioned from MTF at four, her classmates got an education along with her teachers as she navigated the journey with certainty….never once wavering in her feminine being.”

The losses in this battle weighed heavily on my soul, as it had every single time the topic came up in the parent Facebook pages over the last month and ended in the same carnage. Usually, the party who was “just asking an innocent question,” was left feeling, “bullied” (by science and open minds in my opinion), and the LGBTQ+ parents and parents of LGBTQ+ kids felt betrayed and wondered if to speed dial their realtors.

The racial dynamic was not lost on me either, and as a Black Lesbian Mom, that cut was even more profound. I am a black woman. I am a member of the LGBTQIA community; I don’t get to pick sides. I have to stand strong in my truth, straddling both identities equally.

Just as I believe that no person of color should have to adjust who they are to fit into a white cultural norm, I also don’t believe that an LGBTQ+ person should have to alter the way they show up in this world to appease the sensibilities of straight, Cisgender people.

Just as I think that white people need to go the extra mile to learn and remember names that are not as common as Becky and Jane, and pronounce them correctly or ask for help. So too, I believe that cisgender individuals need to go the extra mile to learn and use the correct pronouns for trans and non-binary folks, and apologize when they mess up.

With the link between bullying rates and suicide rates so clearly illuminated, it should be obvious how one parent’s decision to withhold basic education of LGBTQIA issues no longer just impacts their child. It also then becomes transparent to me that any resistance to their children learning the basic differences between gender non-binary vs. cisgender vs. transgender vs. intersex and understanding how and when to use the singular pronouns they/them/and theirs, as a form of respect and human decency to the individual before them, is simply masked homophobia/transphobia. Because if you cannot put the possibility of endangering the life of another human being before your own discomfort in teaching your kids just enough about LGBTQIA folks that they have the tools to actualize respect in their interactions with people they meet, then it’s simply homophobia/transphobia.

It’s like sending your kid to Paris and wanting them to know just enough French to order a meal, ask for the bathroom and get directions from a stranger. In this case, they need just enough of an understanding of the LGBTQ+ language, pronoun knowledge, and basic vocabulary to be a respectful ally. No one is trying to recruit your kid to become a permanent resident of France. One day they may indeed decide to move there on their own, but that is neither in your control or ours.

When children at a younger age learn about the LGBTQ+ community, there is less unlearning to be done later from informal education sources like the media. It also helps remove the stigma around the issue, which creates a healthier, more comfortable environment for LGBTQ+ kids, which leads to lower rates of self-harm. Don’t we owe it to all the kids in our community to intentionally foster such an environment for them rather than hoping that “respect everybody” covers it all? Because we have decades of evidence that tells us that it simply doesn’t? Isn’t it time we started putting the needs of the most vulnerable in our community in front of our own? Education on this issue is the one shot (get it,)we all need to give our children.

Karla Thomas is an Anti-Racist & Equity Consultant & Trainer, Writer, Activist & Entrepreneur.