Pictured above: Tanya Turner at a Sexy Sex Ed meeting.
Growing up in a rural coal town in Eastern Kentucky, the only sex education Tanya Turner remembers is an old video of a woman giving birth. When she graduated from high school in 2004, her class of 125 students included six pregnant women and several others who’d already had children.
“Almost everyone that I’ve encountered in Appalachia received some scale of abstinence-only [sex education],” Turner tells NewNowNext. “All fear and shame-based—really bizarre metaphors, using candy or colored water to show you how dirty you can get by having multiple partners. Just some very scary tales of fear, shame, and misinformation.”
Eight years ago, the self-described “queer auntie” looked around her community and realized that young people living across the Appalachian region, particularly those who identify as LGBTQ, had been severely underserved by the public education system when it came to understanding sexual health. Virtually all LGBTQ people she knew lacked access to inclusive sex education that spoke to their needs and identities.
Most of these early conversations about sex education took place during Turner’s involvement with The Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project (STAY), a network of young people aged 14-30 who collectively commit to making Appalachia a place where young, progressive individuals want to live. Shortly after STAY’s founding in 2008, Turner began offering ad-hock LGBTQ-inclusive sex-ed workshops at STAY gatherings through a program she coined “Sexy Sex Ed.” Over the years, the program developed and evolved, and today Sexy Sex Ed involves a large-scale network of LGBTQ-inclusive sex educators operating throughout the entire Appalachian region.
According to Turner, the limited scope of sex education young people receive in public schools tends to have both religious overtones and focus exclusively on straight, cisgender, heterosexual people—leaving young queer and trans youth without any accessible education about developing healthy safe-sex practices. While this lack of comprehensive sex education isn’t unique to Appalachia, youth living along the Appalachian Mountains are often isolated and experience colossal barriers to accessing information and resources, compounded by the region’s stark generational poverty. As a result, seeking out educational environments that speak to LGBTQ sexual health can be a challenge.
“My sister, partner and several friends didn’t have pap smears, a cornerstone of health care for people with vaginas, until their late 20s or early 30s,” Turner says. “Doctors either told them they were ‘technically still virgins’ because of who they were having sex with, or made them so uncomfortable that they didn’t go back. One of them had untreated polycystic ovary syndrome for a decade, and weeks after her first pap smear had to have four blood transfusions and two emergency surgeries, including a hysterectomy. Terrifying.”
“Dominant narratives of this region paint us as white and old and hetero and conservative, and it perpetuates isolation for young, queer people, and youth of color,” Turner continues. “What sex ed is available erases queerness, at best, or condemns it in front of your peers.”
After about four years of this work, President Donald Trump won the 2016 election. At that moment, Turner’s role as a sex educator and the way she viewed her work took a turn.
“All I could see at that moment was how much our reproductive health was going to be restricted—how they were just gonna, like, pull the rug out from under us and things were about to get so, so dangerous,” Turner says. “Because in many ways they already were. And I was right. They’ve been rolling back the laws across the South since then. It’s been horrifying.”
Turner points to specific laws targeting abortion rights throughout Appalachia and the South, including Georgia and Alabama. According to Planned Parenthood, states have adopted 37 new restrictions on abortion rights and access since the beginning of 2019 alone.
Turner began taking her work even more seriously after the 2016 election, reaching out to a wide variety of organizations that might benefit from her services, and teaching “just about anywhere that I could get in,” she says, including churches, community colleges, youth drop-in centers, and basements. She’s reached out to private foster agencies in an effort to provide inclusive sex education to foster families and regularly cold-called community spaces that seemed potentially amenable to hosting Sexy Sex Ed.
According to Turner, after 2016, the majority of people who showed up to her trainings were queer kids. At a recent workshop at a youth clinic, for instance, she says that over half of the kids in the room identified as trans. Now—almost 10 years into running Sexy Sex Ed and having aged out of STAY—Turner is expanding Sexy Sex Ed in an attempt to make LGBTQ-inclusive sex education accessible to queer youth living all throughout Appalachia.
Last month, she trained 20 new sex educators who will take Sexy Sex Ed programming to folks living all across Appalachia and the South, a massive expansion from running the trainings previously on her own. This cohort of trainers will exponentially expand the reach of Sexy Sex Ed, providing young, LGBTQ people living in remote areas of Appalachia with the ability to both access information and cultivate community.
“Appalachia covers many states and miles of curvy roads to small towns that feel isolated from one another,” Turner says. “We have a lot in common culturally and economically, but we live in unique places with diverse people. It felt important to have educators in many states to cover more ground, but it’s also important that educators know the people and places they’re bringing Sexy Sex Ed to. The educators create a safe and inspiring space, and elevate conversation. That works best when you know the community you’re in.”
In conjunction with the organization’s expansion, Tuner and her team launched a new website with an interactive map of health care providers all throughout rural Appalachia. According to Tuner, the majority of resources about reproductive justice leave Appalachia mostly bare, focusing on cities and not covering rural areas. This interactive map—and the strategy of these 20 organizers working across the region—seek to fill those gaps and reach the LGBTQ youth living in the most remote corners of Appalachia.
“These are life and death conversations,” Turner says. “Sexy Sex Ed is a small step in the direction of righting wrongs and connecting people to one another and resources, rather than further isolating them.”
Learn more about Sexy Sex Ed.