Could a school-based sexual health education program that effectively reduces the risks of unintended pregnancy and STIs also reduce homophobia and transphobia?
This question prompted a collaborative effort by researchers who conducted a randomized controlled trial of a comprehensive sexual education program—Flash High School. The study assessed not only the impact on the students’ sexual behaviors and related outcomes but also on their homophobic and transphobic beliefs. Specifically, the researchers evaluated HIGH SCHOOL FLASH in 20 schools in two US regions (the Midwest and South). Study findings regarding the curriculum’s impact on homophobic and transphobic beliefs are described in the journal Prevention science.
Young LGBTQ students often endure homophobic and transphobic language in school, and experience victimization and discrimination based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. These students can face negative academic consequences (eg, lower grades, truancy, and disengagement from school communities) as well as mental health consequences, including depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
Schools play a critical role in combating trans-discrimination and violence against LGBTQ students and improving their academics, health and well-being. Along with anti-bullying policies and GSA sponsorship organizations, schools can contribute to safe and affirming environments for all by offering inclusive curricula. Research has shown that LGBTQ students who received comprehensive sexual health approaches experienced lower levels of victimization, an increased sense of safety at school, fewer safety-related school absences, better academic performance, and increased feelings of connection with their peers.
The goal of inclusivity and challenges
Even sexual health approaches that claim to be comprehensive do not always affirm the identities and orientations of all young people. Some of the issues identified by LGBTQ youth as contributing to the lack of positive representation in their health curricula include: silence on the part of the teacher or curriculum on LGBT issues/people, heterosexual framing of information provided, and persistent pathological diagnosis of LGBTQ people or specific sexual practices.
BA Laris, one of the study’s authors, notes that “there is little or no guidance on how to make the curriculum inclusive.” I noticed that quick fixes are not the answer. “People often say ‘just add LGBTQ characters’ or ‘make the names gender-neutral in the scenarios’, but that’s not enough and there are no systematic guidelines on how to do it.”
Enter the FLASH software strategy.
FLASH uses a very systematic process to make the entire curriculum comprehensive. In addition to creating a lesson specifically focused on sexual orientation and gender identity, all FLASH lessons:
- Provide visibility, portraying young people of a variety of sexual orientations and genders and in a variety of contexts (eg, sexually active, abstinent, partnered, single)
- Normalization of a wide range of identities
- Depict LGBTQ youth in a variety of situations, including healthy and fulfilling relationships
- Use a subtle approach to inclusive language, strategically balancing broad implication (for example, using neutral language such as “partner” that allows a single sentence or concept to be relevant to a large group) and highlighting specific identities (using specific language such as “boyfriend” or “boyfriend”). Girlfriend”)
- Make sure your content is appropriate for everyone. For example, a high school FLASH birth control lesson begins with “This lesson is for everyone—people who have vaginal sex now or who will in the future, teens of all sexual orientations and genders. Even if someone wins,” you’ll never need birth control. Learning about it now will help them act as health educators for their friends and family on this important topic. in class discussions, when answering questions, along all domains of identity (eg, sexual orientation, gender, ability, religion, race, ethnicity); b) testing all systemic messages with a diverse group of young people, with LGBT youth intentionally over-representing; c) content modifications according to feedback and re-testing until acceptability is reached; and d) multiple experimental efforts of public school classroom lessons to measure comprehension.
Did you succeed?
In the study, 20 schools from 7 districts in two regions of the South and Midwest were randomly selected to receive FLASH, or a comparison curriculum. A total of 1597 ninth and tenth grade students participated in the baseline survey (831 interventions and 766 comparisons), representing 92% of the students who had positive parental consent and were eligible for the primary study. Students completed follow-up surveys 3 and 12 months into the study period.
The researchers examined changes in homophobic beliefs among straight youth versus those who identified as not straight or straight. FLASH’s positive effect on reducing homophobic and transphobic beliefs was statistically significant for both straight and heterosexual youth at both the 3- and 12-month follow-up time points (p < 0.01, n = 1144 and p + 0.05, n + 1078, respectively ). For a full description of the study, see Coyle et al (2021).
As Laris asserts, “What this study showed was that the process was effective because all of the students (both LGBTQ participants and straight, connected participants) reduced their homophobic beliefs.” This has different and important implications for each group. A decrease in homophobic and transphobic beliefs among LGBTQ students indicates an improvement in one’s feeling about oneself (a decrease in internalized homophobia and transphobia).
The decrease in homophobic and transphobic beliefs among straight and transgender students reflects an improvement in how one perceives one’s LGBTQ peers, which may lead to reduced harassment and an improvement in the school climate.
Approach cheerleader here? FLASH is the first evidence-based teen contraception program to date to report on results showing it reduces prejudice against LGBT people.
Carrie Kessler et al., The Flash Curriculum for High School Sexual Health Education: LGBTQ Inclusion Strategies Reduce Homophobia and Transphobia, Available here. Prevention science (2023). DOI: 10.1007/s11121-023-01517-1
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