HISE-ing to the occasion: Meet the UVA students championing LGBTQ+ sex ed
For any queer person in 2019, uncertainty is a part of our identity — but that doesn’t necessarily mean uncertainty as to who we are. Often times, we can be absolutely clear about who we are, who we’ve been, and who we want to be - it’s the rest of the world that needs to catch up. The questions we’re plagued with, however, are, “When will that finally happen?” and “What is it going to take?” This is our reality when it comes to our careers, our relationships, our media representation and our health. University of Virginia’s HISE (Hoos for Inclusive Sexual Education) is working to change that — through both policy action and grassroots education.
Led by President Hunter Wagenaar and Vice President Hannah Justin Lee, the UVA student org is demanding more visibility for the issue of LGBTQ+ inclusive sex ed. And of course: when the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network reports only 6.7 percent of queer youth receive inclusive sex ed on average? There’s clearly a problem that needs to be addressed.
Wagenaar, who is currently a UVA sophomore, came up with the idea for HISE for course assignment on queer black literature. Wagenaar and his classmates had to come up with a project that could benefit the LGBTQ+ community. Growing up gay, Wagenaar recalled his conservative upbringing and how his identity was never discussed in school, especially when it came to sex education. “And to see all the facts and research, it was just staggering. In only nine states they teach LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education,” Wagenaar says. “I was mostly in northern Virginia, which is actually one of the better places. Because they’re improving and they’re starting to do concepts of consent. Now, they’re actually starting to become inclusive. But it’s still lagging behind what I think it should be, you know?”
Currently, Virginia’s sex ed curriculum is built around this concept called “Family Life Education.” The curriculum recommends age-appropriate, sequential units on “family living and community relationships, abstinence education, the value of postponing sexual activity, the benefits of adoption as a positive choice in the event of an unwanted pregnancy, human sexuality and human reproduction.” Given the conservative language of the Virginia Department of Education’s policy, it should come as no surprise that there is no mention of LGBTQ+ identities or same-sex sexual activity. There are regional bodies in Virginia that are also doing the work for LGBTQ+ inclusion. The Virginia Education Association offers an LGBTQ+ toolkit for general K-12 educator queries. Meanwhile, Equality Virginia actively pushes for LGBTQ+ inclusive education. And in 2018, a vote for LGBTQ+ inclusive sex ed passed in Virginia’s Fairfax County. Still, Wagenaar’s own experience was colored by absence. “It wasn’t necessarily homophobic,” he says. “It was just the lack of them talking about the actual intercourse part of sex. I never really heard about anal sex. Or even oral sex.”
So, Wagenaar founded HISE and is looking to start a similar nonprofit once he’s graduated. (Wagenaar is currently a sophomore foreign affairs major and is thinking of enrolling in an accelerated masters’ program for public policy.) Wagenaar laid the bricks for HISE in summer 2018. The organization has a focus on policy advocacy — change the laws on the books and social change will follow. Likewise, HISE advocates for inclusive sex ed in K-12 schools and in turn, helps queer UVA students play catch-up by educating them on campus. It’s a theme that comes up in talking to Wagenaar about HISE’s work: here are all the things you never learned about in school. Here’s what you missed. Sit down, because today, you’re gonna learn! It’s an idea that is central to queerness as it stands today, especially since so much of our history has been muddied and erased. And even now, the sex education we’re receiving in most states is murky at best.
Across the board, American standards for sex ed are inconsistent and fragmented. According to reproductive health center The Guttmacher Institute, only 24 states and Washington, D.C. mandate sex education. And only 22 states and D.C. mandate sex education as well as HIV education. When it comes to sexual orientation, 12 states require discussions of it — but that in itself is a small victory. Nine states require the sexual orientation conversation to be inclusive and three states require only negative information on sexual orientation. Thirty-eight states and D.C. require parents involved in sex education, HIV education or both. Thirty-seven of those states allow parents to yank their children out of sex ed.
It’s for this reason that advocacy through education is HISE’s main platform. “Most individuals are not educated on the neglect that is being carried out in school districts across the country in the lack of provision of inclusive sex ed to adolescents and young adults,” Wagenaar says. “We believe that by educating people on the issue itself, we can create a movement of individuals united to change the content and way in which we go about teaching sexual education. Additionally, we have recently begun to reach out to lawmakers through letter-writing campaigns.”
Wagenaar spent this past fall recruiting and getting HISE on steady ground. It was during last semester’s recruitment that Vice President Hannah Justin Lee came into the picture. “I got involved with HISE when I saw an exec application floating around numerous group chats and thought ‘Hey! That looks like it could be great!’” Lee recounts.
The pre-med math major came from a similar background as Wagenaar — Lee is from Gainesville, which is also in northern Virginia — as far as LGBTQ+ sex ed goes. “My own experience,” Lee says. “Was that I didn’t have an experience. My school glossed over gay relationships, and wasn’t allowed to talk about trans or other queer identities.” She got interested in the policy side of things in college, when she would have late-night discussions with her friends about everything that was wrong about the system in place.
Fall brought HISE to 21 members total, according to Wagenaar. “So far, we’ve brought together a group of people interested in the topic,” Lee says. “And have brainstormed ideas on how to progress our efforts.” Now, building on the ideological foundation of policy research and community outreach, HISE has a some fresh ideas on deck for round two of the academic year. HISE will be attending UVA’s Student Advocacy Showcase (Mar. 27 from 6 p.m. - 8 p.m.), which, in Wagenaar’s words “will allow for minority rights advocacy organizations to collectively advocate for issues they are passionate about and further our efforts to contact legislators.”
“We have some other things in the works, like creating videos documenting other people’s sex ed experiences and more,” Lee says.
Wagenaar describes an interactive event where students can go room-to-room in UVA’s iconic Rotunda and learn about different aspects of LGBTQ+ inclusive sex ed. “And we’re going to have sex-themed snacks,” Wagenaar says. “That’s going to be a really fun time.” The goal will be to give students an incentive to brush up on what they know about their sexuality. Not only will they soak up the concepts they missed out in high school, but “then, they realize that is something that they really should have learned about.” It’s this a-ha moment that is key to HISE’s work. It’s about illumination in darkness.
“One of our biggest overarching principles is: we really want to advocate through education,” Wagenaar says. “So, we want to teach more people about the topic, so they can have voice and advocate for it.” Keep giving back to the community and let the cycle continue. “I really hope that our organization enacts real change on Grounds and, if things go right, the U.S.,” Lee says. “Inclusive sexual education should be available to all people, not just the privileged and progressive.” One avenue of increasing access to LGBTQ+ sex ed that HISE is considering is starting up chapters at other school, Wagenaar says.
While HISE eyes other campuses in the area, back at home, there isn’t much they can do as far as their school policy policy goes. Wagenaar emphasizes that HISE stands in solidarity with UVA’s LGBTQ Center — fun fact: UVA was named best best Virginia college for LGBTQ+ students — and its initiatives. Wagenaar points to the LGBTQ Center championing gender-inclusive housing. But “there’s not a lot we can do about sexual education at UVA for now” Wagenaar says, as far as HISE and UVA policy change goes.
The reason is two-fold, Wagenaar explains. First is the fact that, due to the environment of UVA, many students have jam-packed schedules when it comes to extracurriculars. “A second barrier to change is the nature of our organization. To my knowledge, there are no other student organizations advocating specifically for inclusive sexual education,” Wagenaar says. “As the first to do this, and in advocating for a somewhat controversial issue, we face an uphill battle — one that would be faced not just at UVA but at almost any university.”
Wagenaar hopes to make it a little easier for both UVA students as well as people outside of the college sphere who need access to LGBTQ+ sex education. “Not only within the club, but also the non-profit I’m starting — we want universities to pick up the slack,” Wagenaar says. He wants there to be a benchmark of what UVA students need to know, as far as sex ed goes.
Wagenaar cites STDs spreading rampantly on college campuses as the reason it’s so important for there to be a university-wide benchmark. But the concern Wagenaar has, of course, goes further than general public safety. He points to how LGBTQ+ communities have higher rates of STIs. One prime example is how men who have sex with men (the Center for Disease Control’s catch-all group for gay, bisexual and sexually fluid men) tend to contract syphilis and gonorrhea at higher rates than men who have sex with women. Likewise, the CDC says that it has little data on STDs among women who have sex with women. Still, they “might be at increased risk for STDs and HIV based on reported risk behaviors.”
Reflecting on how stigma permeated his understanding of LGBTQ+ identity growing up, Wagenaar says, “I think that comes from the lack of education that we receive. It’s not necessarily we are [consciously] being sexually unsafe. We’re just not given the tools to be safe with our intercourse.” And it’s not just the fact that there is, then, a health disparity based on sexuality. The harms of heteronormative sex ed cut deeper, which Wagenaar can attest to. “It affected my construction of my identity,” he says. “When your identity is not being talked about in your education, it makes you feel like you’re not good enough to be talked about.”
For Wagenaar and many in the LGBTQ+ community, inclusive sex ed is more than just checking a box or simply saying, “Oh, yes, the gays have a seat at the table.” To reach the goal of LGBTQ+ inclusive sex ed being taught in our schools is to secure confirmation for queer youth that yes, you, too, deserve to be a priority. You, too, are a force to be reckoned with and you, too, deserve to have your needs met.
We also got to talk to Lee and Wagenaar about their lives outside of their work with HISE — particularly their fashion and self-expression through it.
When it comes to personal style, both Lee and Wagenaar places themselves on the preppy spectrum. “I often say I’m ‘hipster preppy.’ That’s not a defined style, set, but I like some J. Crew. I also like some Urban Outfitters. It really depends on the day,” Wagenaar says. He invests a lot emotionally in what he wears because he feels his wardrobe is a reflection of his personality.
Meanwhile, Lee’s style could be described as “tech prep,” which she breaks down as a mix of “outdoorsy, functional clothing” with the usual preppy fair. “Like a Patagonia fleece over a button down?” Lee says. “Baller.”
Lee cites the boys at UVA, L.L. Bean catalogs and her immediate family as fashion inspiration. “I’d say that my older brother and my mom had a good impact on my style. My brother always had the coolest clothes and my mom always had the most luxurious clothes,” Lee says. “So, I think that all kinda came together to make me!” Lee says that if her style was an artist, it would be Dan + Shay, and that Vineyard Vines is a brand that has her full heart.
Meanwhile, although Wagenaar is a J.Crew and Urban Outfitters type of guy, he likes thrifting, too. It gives him access to distinct pieces. Plus, Wagenaar says, “I’m big on style. I won the ‘Fashion Forward’ Senior Superlative. I got stick on that for the rest of my life, you know?” Some of his favorite places are Goodwill, the DMV thrift store chain Unique and B-thrifty in Woodbridge, VA. Apart from giving him access to distinct pieces, Wagenaar says, “I also really value thrifting due to the environmental benefits and cost. Instead of old clothes being thrown away, they are given a new home. And often, I am able to buy a whole closet of new outfits for the cost of one retail-priced sweater or button-down.”
On a recent trip to Berlin, Germany, Wagenaar took a few fashion notes — bright tracksuits, chiefly — and visited European classics like H&M and Topman as well as German department store Kadewe.
As opposed to Lee’s moodboard of country crossover artists and established prep staples, Wagenaar draws inspiration from vlogger Connor Franta and makeup artist James Charles. He credits Charles with getting him into street style. “If you look at my style year-to-year, it changes a lot. I don’t really like keeping my closet static,” Wagenaar says. “I always like to keep updating it.”
When it comes to serving everyday looks, Lee goes for “a quarter-zip, athletic shorts and a sick pair of sneakers.” Going from day to night, Lee opts for a flannel. And her favorite piece? “I have a light blue vineyard vines quarter zip that I would quite literally die for.”
Wagenaar’s favorite piece is a vintage 80s grey, black and beige cropped sweater that he got for $2 at Goodwill. But his most coveted item are a pair of shoes. When he says he wears white Vans a lot, it’s opening up a can of worms. “This is going to sound so obnoxious, but the minute I get a scuff on them, I’ll sell them to someone else to buy a new pair,” Wagenaar says. “I like them always the same: pristinely white.” Wagenaar recounts a tragic incident wherein someone spilled Cheerwine (a raspberry-colored, Southern soda) on a pair. So, Wagenaar keeps a spare, dirty set for going out. “The going-out pair is always in my closet. And the pair that I wear everyday is in a special drawer in my room… It is for real,” Wagenaar explains. When he’s not wearing white Vans, he’s rocking Chelsea boots — black, brown and a maroon, now, from ASOS.
His sister is the main person who has pushed the boundaries Wagenaar’s wardrobe. “Growing up, she was very eclectic in her style,” Wagenaar says. “She would try interesting pant patterns and shoe patterns together. She was someone who really got me into experimenting with my outfits.” Before he got comfortable with experimenting, he was preppy to the extreme: “Everything in my closet was J.Crew and Sperry’s.” Tragic, Wagenaar says. “Before I came out, I really was not experimenting. I like to say, ‘I came out of the closet with my clothes.’”
A prime example of how Wagenaar’s style has changed, post-coming out, is that he’s started painting his nails. “I wanted to be the basic masculine male,” Wagenaar says of his style, prior to coming out. “And didn’t want to experiment, to draw attention to myself. But afterward, I was like, ‘I’m literally gonna wear whatever I want.’ It was very freeing.”
“I feel like for many queer individuals, what you wear represents your personality,” Wagenaar says. “Wearing that is sort of an act of resistance in itself, which I really love.”
By contrast, Lee says, “My experience wasn’t that similar to Hunter’s. I never really officially came out, but I think everyone already knew. I’d wear boys clothes when I was little and when I grew older, I’d wear more masculine clothes. I even wore a suit to prom, taking my guy best friend, who’s straight, as my date!” Lee believes firmly in the importance of self-expression through clothes for queer folks. “It’s the most visible and intimate part of their personalities: wearing something that clashes with societal norms about gender expression and identities, that loudly and boldly is a strong statement,” Lee says. “Once you get over that initial fear, it is so liberating.” 🍒