Making your RSE inclusive of LGBT students

A school’s relationships and sex education curriculum should be sensitive and appropriate to the needs of LGBT students. Mark Jennett offers advice for tailoring your approach

Author details

Mark Jennett is a trainer, consultant and writer who has produced resources and offers training for schools on LGBT inclusion and challenging gender stereotypes.

The summary report of the Government Equalities Office’s (GEO) ‘National LGBT Survey’, based on the recorded experiences of 108,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, contains the widely reported statistic that more than two thirds of respondents said they avoid holding hands with a partner for fear of a negative reaction. At least two in five had also experienced verbal harassment or physical violence in the 12 months preceding the survey.

The GEO report also notes that ‘homophobic, biphobic and transphobic [HBT] bullying persists in schools’ and that ‘LGBT students do not feel their needs are addressed, particularly in sex and relationships education.’ The situation was particularly difficult for trans pupils, with only 13 per cent of respondents saying that their teachers were ‘very or somewhat understanding of the issues facing trans pupils.’

In 2015, YouGov research revealed that 49 per cent of 18–24 year olds do not consider themselves to be exclusively heterosexual.

Taken together, these statistics illustrate the need for school curriculums to be more inclusive of LGBT identities – not just for the benefit of students who now, or at some point might, identify as LGBT but, if widespread discrimination is to be addressed, for everyone.

What does the law say?

UK law is entirely supportive of the open and positive discussion of LGBT identities. In addition to longstanding duties to prevent bullying and promote wellbeing, the Equality Act 2010 requires schools to ensure that the curriculum is taught inclusively – including of young people who are LGB or undergoing, or intending to undergo, gender reassignment. It also requires that they work to eliminate discrimination and foster good relations between people who identify as LGBT and those who do not.

Understanding and celebrating diversity are also key aspects of both British Values and SMSC. Schools use these duties not just to inform and support their work but, where necessary, to explain and clarify why such inclusion is important.

49 per cent of 18–24 year olds do not consider themselves to be exclusively heterosexual

Relationships and sex education (RSE) is statutory in all academies, maintained and independent schools and the government’ guidance has indicated that schemes of work and RSE lessons need to be LGBT inclusive and that ‘this should be integrated appropriately into the RSE programme, rather than addressed separately or in only one lesson’.

Language and terminology

Thinking about the language we use is the first step to ensuring that lessons, both in the RSE and PSHE curriculum and beyond, are inclusive. Make sure that, when you talk about relationships, you use inclusive language (e.g. talking about ‘partners’ rather than ‘husbands and wives’) and a range of examples including same sex relationships or families with same sex parents or carers.

Teachers are often concerned about using correct terminology and a number of useful glossaries are available – check out this example from Stonewall, or search for others to find one which suits you. You’ll find all the terms referred to in this resource in these links.

One term that many teachers have questions about is cisgender – meaning someone whose gender identity aligns with the (biological) sex they were assigned at birth. It can be very useful to introduce this term early when discussing gender identity in order to avoid falling into the trap of using words like ‘normal’ when talking about non-trans identities.

Make sure you clarify the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity and use resources like the genderbread person to promote discussion about the differences between sex and gender – and romantic and sexual attraction – in ways that are inclusive of all.

You may wish to encourage students to share all the words they are familiar with in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity and use this as an opportunity to clarify meanings and agree on preferred terms. Alternatively, you could ask them to come up with definitions of particular terms and then provide corrections where necessary. Always consider the needs of vulnerable students – including those who are LGBT and those with LGBT family members.

Defining LGBT

There are many identities that do not fit neatly within the traditional definition of LGBT. Facebook currently offers over 70 options for gender identity, and young people tell us that many conditions (such as intersex) and sexual orientations (such as asexuality) are rarely if ever discussed.

Teachers will be familiar with a range of initials being added to the standard LGBT, such as:

  • Q, meaning queer or questioning
  • I, meaning intersex
  • A, meaning asexual and/or ally.

There is always a danger that in using initialisms we will confuse or leave somebody out. For the remainder of this article we will use LGBT, but it might be valuable for you to discuss which other terms feel most useful or relevant to students of different age groups.

An LGBT-inclusive curriculum

Ensuring that LGBT identities are included across the RSE curriculum and beyond is key to ensuring that LGBT young people receive the information they need in order to form healthy relationships and feel positive about their own identities. The Sex Education Forum offer training on inclusive RSE which is supported by an eLearning programme available to all staff from participating schools. Many organisations offer classroom resources and lesson plans including Stonewall, Schools Out and the TES.

Simple checks should enable you to tweak many current resources to make them more inclusive. Many lesson plans only include cisgendered bodies so think about what opportunities there are to talk about other identities. Ask yourself how relevant a particular lesson would be to a trans or intersex student, a bisexual student or one with same-sex parents and ensure that you qualify information to include these options.

For example, when talking about bodies, avoid saying things like ‘all boys have a penis’ or ‘all women menstruate’ so as not to exclude trans, intersex and other students for whom this is not the case. Allsorts and Gendered Intelligence offer support and advice around working with trans students and the former has useful tips for discussing puberty.

Avoid saying things like ‘all boys have a penis’ or ‘all women menstruate’

Remembering to talk about ‘many’ or ‘most’ – and linking this to discussion of how gender identity and biological sex are not the same thing – can be a useful way of making discussion of difference a normal part of classroom discourse.

For example, you could talk about how most girls are born with a vulva, vagina and clitoris – and that there are also people born with vaginas who are boys. Others may feel they are neither a boy nor a girl – or that they are both – regardless of how their bodies look. Remind students that all bodies are unique and that the changes we go through at puberty affect everyone differently.

Creating a comfortable environment

Always be mindful of young people in your class with LGBT identities. Some may be very confident to join in with conversations whereas others may not. If working in single sex groups, allow young trans people to join the group that feels most comfortable for them. Or allow them to withdraw from a lesson where they may feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

Remember that there may be other students whose identity is unknown to you, so keep language and discussions inclusive and challenge any stereotypical or discriminatory comments.

Ask yourself how relevant a particular lesson would be to a trans or intersex student, a bisexual student or one with same-sex parents

Teaching – in RSE and other areas – should always be fact-based and use reliable sources of information. When discussing LGBT identities, teachers may be tempted to engage in debate about different attitudes to sexual and gender minorities.

It is important to remember that it would be inappropriate to permit discussion about whether, for example, LGBT identities are acceptable. This could potentially distress LGBT and other students and has no place in a society where LGBT people enjoy equality under the law and are protected by hate crime legislation.

Always be clear that all sexual and gender identities are equally valid and consider using some of the ideas below in order to contextualise discussion of prejudice and discrimination.

What else can help?

Where possible, discussions should be led by students in order to bring their interests and concerns to the fore. Ask students what they would like to learn and feed this information back to colleagues across the school to ensure that issues are addressed across all subject areas. Stonewall offer guidance on establishing an LGBT inclusive curriculum and Schools Out a students’ toolkit which gives advice on setting up a gay/straight alliance.

Ensure that positive messages are endorsed across the school – though displays and assemblies, for example – and make the links with other work on celebrating a range of identities and tackling bullying.

Gay Pride, LGBT History Month, IDAHOTB and Holocaust Memorial Day all provide opportunities to discuss equal rights, prejudice and discrimination within a broad context of civil rights. Consider using key but often less familiar figures from the arts or activism (such as Bayard Rustin, Audre Lord or Frida Kahlo) or more contemporary figures as a starting point for considering how their work and identities have impacted on society.

The It Gets Better project and True Tube both feature many videos of LGBT people talking positively about their lives and experiences.

Stereotypical assumptions about what is ‘appropriate’ for one gender or another not only underpin a lot of HBT bullying but inhibit a lot of young people from fully exploring their identities and aspirations. A number of resources are available to help challenge gender stereotyping including those from NSPCC Cymru, The Institute of Physics and Cambridgeshire PSHE Team. Your students may also be engaged in discussions about heteronormativity and its impact on all of us.

In addition to teaching resources, make sure that plenty of LGBT fiction and films are available within the school library. Letterbox Library is an excellent source of inclusive books. Of the many movies that address LGBT themes, The Laramie Project may be of particular interest. The film, which looks at the impact of a homophobic crime on a small town, was based on a play that encourages audiences to consider the wider causes and consequences of homophobia. The play script itself can be used as part of drama lessons.

Finally, make sure you know where to signpost for further information (use the links in this resource as a starting point). Teachers do not need to know all the answers (no one does!) but there are many places where they can go for help and support.

Last Updated: 
18 Aug 2021