[ April 30, 2015 by Bryan Harris 0 Comments ]

How To Teach About Sexual Orientation

As of 2013, 3.4% of individuals aged 18-64 identified as LGB or ‘other.’[1] These individuals experience  significant health disparities ranging from increased rates of homelessness, mental health issues, and violence to decreased health care utilization. As a result, teaching students  about not only these identities but also about acceptance for them is vital.

The National Sex Education Standards identify the following learning objectives related to sexual orientation:

Middle School

  • Define and differentiate among gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
  • Analyze external influences impact one’s attitudes about gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Identify trusted adults to whom they can ask questions about sexual orientation.
  • Access accurate information about gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.
  • Communicate respectfully with and about people of all gender identities, gender expressions and sexual orientations.
  • Demonstrate ways to treat others with dignity and respect.
  • Develop a plan to promote dignity and respect for all people in the school community.

High School

  • Define and differentiate among biological sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression.
  • Distinguish between sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and sexual identity.
  • Analyze the influence of peers, media, family, society, religion and culture on the expression of gender, sexual orientation and identity.
  • Explain how to promote safety, respect, awareness and acceptance.
  • Advocate for school policies and programs that promote dignity and respect for all.

Most students, regardless of age, will have ideas about sexual orientation. These serve as a useful starting point for your lesson. To tap into students’ pre-existing knowledge and attitudes, Gareth Durrant, MPH a sex educator who teaches workshops for men who come out late in life and who currently works with Marie Stopes International, recommends an activity called an A-Z Race. Split the room into small groups and have them write down words related to sexual orientation next to each letter of the alphabet.

Beyond this ice-breaker, Gareth recommends one of the following three options depending on the age of your students and the amount of time you have with them to discuss sexual orientation.

  1. Keep things simple! Most people need time to wrap their head around identity, attraction, sex, and gender expression. To guide your conversation, the Genderbread Person is hard to beat. If you only have one class period to discuss this topic, Genderbread is the resource to focus on.
  2. Everybody comes out in some way or another. To normalize and celebrate this part of gay culture, have each student share a story about coming to self-acceptance. Provide an example to set the expectation for the type of information shared (e.g. accepting curly hair versus accepting a mental health diagnosis).
  3. Expect questions and pushback. To keep things balanced and productive while challenging assumptions, use one of the following two strategies:
    1. Put the question back out to the group. “What do you think?” allows students to work through issues.
    2. Flip the question around and substitute ‘straight’ for ‘gay.’ For example, counter “Isn’t being gay just a phase?” with “Isn’t being straight just a phase?”

Additional Resources
Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Center
Planned Parenthood’s Sexual Orientation & Gender page
Lesson plans on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Thank you to Gareth Durrant, MPH for his input on this article.


[1] Ward, B. W., Dahlhamer, J. M., Galinksy, A. M., & Joestly, S. S. (2014). Sexual orientation ant and health among US adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2013. National Health Statistics Reports, 77. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr077.pdf

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