* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
From Mongolia to Chile and Nepal, more countries are realizing the value of teaching students to understand and appreciate those with different sexual orientations and gender identities
Manos Antoninis is the director of the Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, an editorially independent annual report published by UNESCO that monitors progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) education targets.
It is alarming how many LGBT+ students are bullied at school. Globally, four out of 10 LGBT+ youth say they have been “ridiculed, teased, insulted or threatened at school” because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, primarily by their peers, according to UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report.
In many Arab countries and also in sub-Saharan Africa, the report found that roughly the same proportion of students also reported feeling rarely or never safe at school. This is likely to have a huge impact on these students’ mental health and learning, and consequently on our societies.
Of course, there are countries that recognise the rights of people with diverse gender identities, mostly in Europe and North America. Outside of these regions, there is also a growing understanding that schools can be difficult places for LGBT+ students and some countries are putting in effort to make their education policies more inclusive.
For example, Chile’s government has introduced school guidelines that specifically address discrimination and violence against transgender students. In Delhi, 27 schools were certified as trans-friendly, making education more accessible to these students. In South Africa, 20 Cape Town schools have also taken steps to become more LGBT-inclusive, by having gender neutral uniforms and allowing their students to use new names.
These positive examples demonstrate that it is possible to have inclusive laws and policies for LGBT+ students that allow them to feel part of the school community.
But that is not enough. It is just as important that curricula do not ignore homosexuality, bisexuality and non-binary gender identities. Or, even worse, treat gender diversity as deviant or abnormal.
Textbooks that are not inclusive of LGBT+ identities compound the discrimination that these students can face in everyday school life.
In the United States, a 2017 report by advocacy group GLSEN found that LGBT+ students feel safer in schools when there are inclusive policies. However, the same research also found that the vast majority of students have never actually been exposed to any type of representation of LGBT+ people in their school curriculum.
Moreover, seven states in the US still have discriminatory curriculum laws. For example, in Texas, sex education classes are obligated to emphasize that homosexuality is not acceptable and is a criminal offence (which has not been the case since a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case ruled such laws were unconstitutional).
Yet discussions of LGBT+ issues at school create a more supportive environment for all students and lead to greater understanding of different identities. Around the world, countries are starting to realize this.
In 2018, Scotland announced it would embed LGBT-inclusive education in the state school curriculum. Teachers in Berlin’s schools discuss sexual diversity by emphasizing the notion of tolerance and acceptance. In Canada’s Ontario province, grade 8 students explore LGBT+ issues by focusing on the concept of respect for everyone irrespective of their differences.
In the US, there are states that are pioneering inclusion in the curriculum. California for example was the first U.S. state to acknowledge LGBT+ people’s contributions in both history and social science lessons. In 2019, Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and Oregon did the same.
Some low- and middle-income countries are also taking steps towards a more inclusive curriculum.
For example, Mongolia’s grade 6 and 9 students learn about sexual behaviour and diversity in their reproductive health classes – although teachers still have the right to decide if they want to cover this topic. In Nepal, students discuss the health and well-being of LGBT+ people, including hijras, a transgender and intersex group recognized in their country as a third gender. In 2019, Thailand introduced new physical and health education courses that, importantly, also cover sexual diversity.
Sixty years ago, UNESCO’s Convention against Discrimination in Education (CADE), the first and only legally binding international treaty dedicated to the right to education, was signed. It was adopted by 104 countries and ratified by about half of them. But it did not include sexual orientation or gender identity. It is time for that to change.