Grace Lilly recently had the opportunity to chat with ‘fun-sized sex educator’ Bianca Palmisano about the importance of inclusive sex education at home and in schools. This is the second installment in a series of interviews with experts and parents of LGBTQ kids. In the coming months, we will be speaking with more parents and experts about their various experiences and perspectives.
You describe yourself as a “fun-sized sex educator.” What do you mean by that?
Bianca: I guess it has a double meaning. For the first part I like to say “fun-sized” because I’m short—I’m 5’2”. So it’s kind of like candy bars where you say you’re fun-sized rather than that you’re very small. But I also use “fun-sized” sort of to reflect the way that I teach sex ed. I think that a lot of sex education deals with these big scary ideas about diseases and pregnancy and all the terrible things that can go wrong. And that’s kind of inaccessible and not something people necessarily want to identify with. I like to break sex ed down into just the little pieces—into the stuff that’s fun and interesting and that feels relevant to people, so that it’s as accessible to people as possible.
You’ve done work for Metro TeenAIDS, SMYAL, and PFLAG. What have you learned from working with these groups?
Bianca: I’ve learned so much. I feel like the big thing though is just that I have a better sense of what youth today are asking about and what they care about. Also how much they know. I feel like the big thing is that we so underestimate the strength and the smarts and everything that goes into how youth are thinking about the world today. And they really have a lot of complex and interesting things to say. So I like being the listener in those conversations as much as I like being the teacher. I think that’s been a really cool part of doing the community presentations that I do.
What motivates you to educate people on sex and sexuality?
Bianca: Oh man—I feel like sex education is so important because we only have one body to live in, and we deserve to treat it with respect and also to just enjoy it and to live in it in a way that feels comfortable. And sex ed gives both the information and also the permission to enjoy your body and to be comfortable with it. And I know that popular culture and our society in general are not good about giving that permission. They tend to make people feel bad and guilty and a little bit confused about what their body is for. So I like being in a place and in a field where I can say, “The things that you want are good and are healthy and are fine and you deserve to be happy and to enjoy your body.”
What problems have you seen in sex education with young adults?
Bianca: There are a lot. I mean the major problem of course is that it’s not happening at all in some places. Even when sex ed is taught, it’s not really taught. It’s abstinence-only education, which I don’t really think helps anybody because even if you’re abstinent, until you graduate high school, until you turn 18, until you get married, eventually everybody is going to be having sex. Or nearly everyone. And so I don’t understand why you wouldn’t start teaching that as early as possible. So that whenever that time is, people are prepared and feel comfortable.
But the second layer is that when sex ed is taught, when it’s not abstinence-only, it’s still really inaccessible to people. I did a presentation at SMYAL, for a group of youth and I thought, “Okay, this is a good icebreaker; we’ll just do some basic anatomy charts as a way to get started and let them be the teachers.” And what I quickly realized was that the students didn’t remember that information or didn’t internalize it, because it didn’t feel relevant to them. So I mean, maybe a health teacher told them, “This is the prostate and this is the uterus” and whatever, but the students didn’t keep that information because it didn’t feel important to them. So I think there’s a real need in sex ed to contextualize that information and say, “Here’s why it’s relevant to you” in ways that you understand right now. Not like, “Oh when I’m 25 or 30 or whatever respectful ages to have a baby, this is what these parts are for.” But here’s what they mean to you right now. So I think that’s a big aspect of it.
And the last thing of course is just that we really like to desexualize sex. And I think kids can smell the bullshit. And they know that as teachers we’re sometimes uncomfortable with the subject and so they tune out. Whenever they hear bullshit they’re like, “Nope, not worth my time.” And I can understand that.
Have you found that there’s an aversion to speaking about LGBTQ sex when it comes to sex education?
Bianca: Absolutely. On the one hand, I sympathize because I know for a lot of people who are teaching sex ed, they haven’t been taught LGBTQ sex ed. They don’t know how to teach it and there aren’t very many resources out there for it. But there’s also definitely a lot of just internalized homophobia and transphobia among teachers and among the educational milieu, I guess. The systems that administrate sex ed are saying it’s only relevant for procreation and therefore why would we even teach queer sex—that doesn’t make sense. So I think it’s a really big sort of gaping hole in terms of what youth are being taught.
So do you think it would be beneficial for schools to teach that in their curriculum?
Bianca: Absolutely, and not only just to have that information out there and to be role models for the kids that are going to grow up to be LGBT. Because that’s super important—if they don’t see themselves in the educational material, that can be really alienating and scary. But moreover, it’s also important to teach it for the kids that need to grow up to be allies. LGBT issues need to be present in schools just in general and especially in sex ed, so that we can all be better informed human beings and advocate for the needs of minorities. It’s important in the same way that we have Black History Month because we recognize that that fight isn’t over yet and that we need to educate ourselves in the history of racism and in what important people are doing in the field. I think this applies for other minority groups and for LGBT people as well. It just needs to be present so that we understand the context of the issues and how we can play our part.
Why do you think it’s so important that people are educated about sex and sexuality? Particularly young adults?
Bianca: I feel like especially for youth it’s important because they have the same rights that adults do to pleasure and to being at home in their bodies, like I said earlier. So I think that’s knowledge for them to be able to make informed choices about what they want to do. And that’s everything from, “Here’s the risk factors for certain STD transmissions” to “Here’s how effective different methods of birth control are.” But it should also include, “Here are other constructive ways that you can engage sexually that are going to be pleasurable but aren’t going to have those risks.” So it’s not only telling people, “Here are all the things that can go wrong” but also “Here are some of the activities that you can make informed choices about so you can lessen risk and still enjoy the fact that you’re a sexual being and that’s okay.”
What advice would you give to parents about educating their children about sex?
Bianca: I had a math teacher in 10th grade who used this ridiculous saying that I’ve actually co-opted and turned into an education maxim, and that’s, “There are no stupid questions, only stupid students.” Which most people laugh when I use that as a ground rule in a workshop. The way I see it is that there are no stupid questions. You can ask anything and interrogate the world around you and get the answers that you need. But you’re a stupid student if you sort of let things go. If you don’t take the information you’ve learned and integrate it into your life and follow up and keep moving with that material and keep growing. Because good students are life-long learners. And I think it’s important for parents to recognize that you don’t have to be a finished product. Your kids look to you for guidance, but if you’re doing the best that you can, if you’re still learning, that’s okay. And you can be honest with your kids about that. And I think they’re going to respect you for that, that you’re learning alongside them.
Do you have any recommendations about resources for parents who want to have more authentic conversations with their kids about LGBTQ sex?
Bianca: Absolutely. The big one that I use is Scarleteen, which is an amazing website. It’s written in the voice of teens and for teens, but is still incredibly useful for parents, especially because it helps you learn what youth are asking, which I think is incredibly valuable. It’s scarleteen.com, and they just answer all questions that come in from youth about bodies, gender, sexual orientation, and relationships. They talk a lot about consent and things like that. And it’s just a really good resource for both the sexual health side of things but also the emotional health side. And I like that they package those two together and consider them both relevant. There’s so much more out there. There’s a great blog called The Sex Positive Parent and obviously your local PFLAG chapter is a great resource of support. And you can always get in touch with me! Yay! That’s part of what I really like doing is talking to parents and helping them figure out their own journey with their kids.
Have you found that it’s the norm for parents to talk to their kids about heterosexual sex instead of LGBTQ sex? And do you think parents should talk to their kids about LGBTQ sex?
Bianca: I would say that parents are working with whatever assumptions they have about their kid’s sexuality when they give sex ed advice. And so most parents assume that their kid is straight until they hear otherwise. So I would say the majority of sex ed gets taught that way, which is definitely a bummer because there’s a much more complex picture of sexuality that can get painted, if parents are willing to go out on a limb and say “Hey, I acknowledge that maybe my kid might not grow up to be straight.” And there’s a lot more that they can talk about. And it does serve kids well to have, again, as much information as possible. Even if it’s information they might not ever need. Because it just makes us better people and more well-rounded students. Like a liberal arts education.
Do you have any quick tips for parents to have “the talk” with their children without it being trite or awkward?
Bianca: I feel like that’s every parent’s worst nightmare. They’re like “Ugh, do I have it? How big of a deal do I make about it?” For those of you who can, start early. And I mean earlier than you think early is. It’s not a problem to have conversations about sex at five, six, seven years old. And then you have more time to break all of the information down that you want to convey into bite-sized pieces and to make them accessible to kids to internalize over the long-term. So when you have a six-year-old, you can teach them to ask before they give their friend a hug, or a kiss on the cheek, and make sure that that’s what their friends wants. And you’re modeling and teaching consent to your six-year-old. You’re not necessarily saying, “Here is how you have sex,” but you’re talking about the principles that will apply to them throughout their lives. So the earlier you’re able to start those conversations, the easier it gets. Especially because (if you’re worried about goofing it up) your kid’s probably not going to remember the conversations that you had when you were five or six about how awkward you were. They’re just going to keep the information that accrued over the long term. So better to practice early and they’ll remember the important stuff as they get older, rather than putting all that pressure on yourself to do “the talk,” which in all likelihood by the time you’ve gotten to that conversation, it’s a little late.
Do you have any words of wisdom for parents of LGBTQ youth?
Bianca: I think at the end of the day you just want to be the best loving parent that you can. And if you can get that across to your kids, then things are going to work out. You’re going to be able to build off of that base. So like I said, even if you’re not a finished product, empathize and be the best parent that you feel like you can be to your kid, while you’re growing through that process. I know my parents were not the perfect model of LGBT inclusion and perfect sex ed education but I left with a distinctly good impression of the foundation they gave me, because they were authentic people and they cared about me. And at the end of the day that’s what I remembered. And I think that applies to most parents. If you’re good to your kids, then that’s what they’re going to remember.
Bianca is the Director of Operations for The Garden, a sex education initiative in Washington DC. She has moderated panels, conducted workshops, and lectured on sex-positivity for the past three years, appearing at events like University of Maryland’s Sex Week and offering free sex education programming to DC non-profits. Bianca is also a pole dancer, blues dancer, and self-professed geek. More than anything, she loves creating unity and understanding among different people’s experiences and facilitating important conversations that are also fun, relateable, and infused with movement.
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