As American University students, Emmett Patterson and Lex Loro were heavily engaged in LGBTQ advocacy. Now, two years after graduation, they remain fully committed to the cause. Even while based in different parts of the country-Patterson in DC, Loro in Richmond, Virginia-they continue to work together.
Patterson and Loro run a capacity building organization called Not Your Average Sex Talk. It's a peer-to-peer program dedicated to sex education for LGBTQ youth and individuals with disabilities.
"We have a really good working relationship. We both come from really different backgrounds. And we both hold different types of queer identities, but I think that fuels our connection," says Patterson. "I'm able to talk specifically about trans issues because that's something I've experienced. And Lex is really able to bring in her identity and talk about issues that affect femme queer people."
A Wake-Up Call
Loro and Patterson were already passionate about LGBTQ rights, but an unexpected mishap altered their focus. As sophomores in AU Queers and Allies, they hosted a campus event with a guest speaker from a queer health organization. The speaker never showed up.
Yet Loro and Patterson held the event anyway, as a peer roundtable discussion. When they probed the audience's knowledge of sexual health, they were shocked by what they heard.
"It was just a massive wake-up call. I was sitting in a room with a bunch of people I already knew and cared about who were asking me the most basic questions about understanding their own bodies," Loro recalls. "All of these people who are already 18, 19, 20, 21-even older-had never been taught anything that's relevant to them about their bodies or their sexual health needs. So much sex education programming is never, ever focused on queer people."
This is an ongoing problem, Loro and Patterson say, because public schools and faith communities rarely address the sex ed concerns of LGBTQ young people.
"Young queer people are growing up watching people like Laverne Cox on TV, and people like Janet Mock put out books about their life experiences. We're seeing some amazing progress," says Loro. "It's easy for people who are not directly touched by these issues to think, 'We've made it.' But a lot of things are slipping through the cracks. A lot of people are still struggling, and a lot of people are under-supported and underrepresented. And sex ed is one of the areas where we see this the most."
In fact, many states have laws prohibiting discussions of queerness in the classroom, Loro adds.
So, what are LGBTQ people supposed to do? Teach sex ed to themselves? Frequently, Patterson says, that's exactly what happens.
"I think that every queer and trans person deserves an honorary medical degree for all of the research that we have to do on our own bodies. There's no research, especially in sexual and reproductive health, for queer and trans people," Patterson says. "I want to see queer representation in medicine, and in politics, because those are the things that are really impacting our physical, mental, and emotional well-being."
Virtual Platforms and Empowerment
To address these shortcomings, Patterson and Loro began building curriculums, attending conferences and partaking in workshops. Through their group, Not Your Average Sex Talk, they use virtual platforms and e-chats to extend their reach all over the country. Since there is no one-size-fits-all sex education program, their work is tailored to each person's needs.
"I supported a transgender person who said, 'I'm a trans man, and I have a disability. And I want to have a sex talk that's just other trans people with disabilities,'" Patterson remembers. "So we had articles, research, and fact sheets about, 'What are some of those key issues around that intersection?'"
Patterson and Loro do answer specific sex questions. Yet their work also seeks to empower other people to start important conversations about sexual health. "This is not really about what we do. It's about how we can make everybody else-people who are like us-feel like they can do good for their own communities," says Loro.
And now they're increasing their visibility. They just presented, for the first time, at the National Sex Ed Conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They're also set to appear for the fourth time at Creating Change, the national conference on LGBTQ equality. They'd eventually like to turn Not Your Average Sex Talk into a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit.
Connections and Communities
Loro and Patterson both graduated from AU in December 2015. Patterson earned his bachelor's degree in public health and women's, gender, and sexuality studies. Loro got her degree in women's, gender, and sexuality studies, and journalism.
Patterson grew up in Washington, Pennsylvania, a conservative community near Pittsburgh. An interest in health care stems from his parents-his mom is a longtime ER nurse and his dad works as a paramedic. Through their church, they were part of an organization that helped people living with HIV.
Coming out as transgender was extraordinarily difficult and isolating, he says. "I was the first out queer person, and the first out trans person, really, in my community. And that was just a lot of exposure and visibility that I don't think any young person should have to go through unless they want that, and I didn't really want that at the time," he explains.
He was helped by a mentor, sex educator Mary Jo Podgurski, who put him in charge of a queer teen center in the area. They've stayed in touch, and Podgurski watched him present at the National Sex Ed Conference last month.
Loro was a military brat, spending most of her formative years in the Deep South. In Texas, she helped found her high school's gay-straight alliance, but she hadn't quite come to terms with her own identity.
"I didn't realize that queerness was a possibility for me. I had come from a conservative background. My family was Catholic, and I grew up on military bases during 'don't ask don't tell,'" she notes. "When I went to college, I found it very comfortable and easy to come out in the community that AU has-because there were just so many awesome, wonderful, kind, queer people there."
With Not Your Average Sex Talk, they're now expanding these kinds of communities outward. And, as Loro emphasizes, these issues have life and death implications.
"All of our sex ed work is rooted in the fact that we want to keep these young people alive. We do not want them to get HIV. We don't want them to never get tested," she says. "We do this work because we care, and we want everyone else to as well."