This blog looks at the way that textbooks can help or hinder the tolerance of sexual diversity. It is part of a series of blogs on this site published to encourage debates around a new GEM Report Policy Paper: Between the Lines, which looks at the content of textbooks and how it reflects some of the key concepts in Target 4.7 in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Textbooks are never neutral; they convey influential messages that help to shape children and young people’s ideas about what is ‘normal’ and legitimate in their society. While textbooks have increasingly called for tolerance of diversity, too often sexual diversity is excluded. The overwhelming majority of textbooks still only show heterosexual couples, relationships, and families.
Our new policy paper shows that the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people appear in only 3% of secondary school social studies textbooks. There has been almost no change in this number since the 1970s, though there is significant regional variation: coverage of LGBTI rights is highest in Latin America and the Caribbean (20%), whereas in sub-Saharan Africa and Northern Africa and Western Asia, less than 5% of textbooks acknowledge LGBTI people.
Why is it important to include positive examples of sexual diversity in textbooks?
Only 25 countries mention issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity/expression in their national or regional curricula, although how effectively this curriculum is implemented varies widely. UNESCO research found that challenging homophobia and transphobia in education is most effective when LGBTI issues are included in teaching and lesson plans, and when LGBTI people are positively portrayed across different instructional materials.
There are three types of textbooks, when it comes to covering sexual diversity: those that cover the issue, with either implicit or explicit positive messages; those that ignore the issue altogether, and those that cover it with negative messages, instilling discriminatory attitudes.
When textbooks feature positive representations of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions, they indicate to all learners that LGBTI people are a legitimate and integral part of society. Textbooks that are affirming convey explicit positive messages about sexual and gender diversity by featuring positive representations of LGBTI people and affirming their equality in dignity and rights.
When textbooks fail to include diverse genders and sexualities – as is most often the case – they convey an implicit message that LGBTI people either do not exist, or are not part of society. Textbooks that are non-inclusive may fail to represent sexual and gender diversity or ignore these aspects when discussing historical figures who were LGBTI. This has the result of rendering LGBTI people ‘invisible’.
Some textbooks, however, convey explicit negative messages about LGBTI people and can contribute to homophobic and transphobic violence. Recent reports suggest that many LGBT students experience homophobic and transphobic violence in schools, ranging from 16% in Nepal to 85% in the United States.
Textbooks that perpetuate negative stereotypes and include inaccurate, stigmatizing and discriminatory information on LGBTI people are harmful and need to be withdrawn. For example, a textbook in Macedonia, which described homosexuality as ‘abnormal’ and homosexual people as ‘highly neurotic and psychotic persons’, was withdrawn in 2010. In Croatia, a textbook that described homosexuality as ‘intrinsically disordered’ and ‘contrary to the natural law’ was withdrawn by the Ministry of Education in 2009, following the European Committee of Social Rights’ conclusion that it was ‘biased, discriminatory and degrading’.
How to create inclusive and affirming textbooks despite resistance
Many countries are making progress in using examples in textbooks that portray LGBTI people. In Sweden, for example, whereas older textbooks depict only heterosexual couples and nuclear families, recent textbooks extend marriage to include same-sex marriage, and family structure to include remarried couples and half and step-siblings. In 2008, Mongolia included sexual behaviour and diversity in its sexual and reproductive health curriculum for Grades 6–9, including lesbian and gay individuals as textbook examples.
Progress in this area is not always smooth-sailing. In some countries, attempts to include issues of gender, sexuality or sexual diversity have been met with opposition from some sectors of society including religious groups, parents’ groups and some politicians. Their argument is often that students, and particularly younger children, should not learn about sexuality in schools. Yet research indicates that personal beliefs and attitudes about sexual orientation and gender identity and expression emerge during the early stages of childhood, which means that early and age-appropriate responses are crucial to prevent negative attitudes and violent behavior. Given this, more countries need to include sexual and gender diversity in primary education as most LGBTI-inclusive materials that exist are currently found in secondary or post-secondary curricula.
According to evidence-based guidance from UNESCO and the World Health Organization, as well as from numerous professional bodies of doctors, psychologists, teachers and parents, it is safe to teach children and young people about gender equality and diverse sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions in an age-appropriate manner. Such evidence is helping turn the tide of change: In 2011, the Ministry of Education in Taiwan announced that courses related to gender equality that had been taught in senior high school since 2004 would be expanded to primary and junior high schools.
Countries should continue to follow this progress, expanding Comprehensive Sexuality Education in the school curriculum, as reflected in one of the thematic indicators for Target 4.7, and using examples in textbooks across all subjects and ages that illustrate diverse families, relationships and LGBTI people. This will help protect their rights, a basic principle rooted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and highlighted in our new global education goal.