a sexplanation

Alex Liu on why straight people need to calm down and “saying gay” should be a part of sex ed

Alex Liu (left), Screenshot: A Sexplanation, Herra Productions (right)

In the wake of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the long-standing debate over the role of sex education in schools has reached a fever pitch. Thankfully, the documentary A Sexplanation—from filmmaker, journalist, and former Queerty columnist Alex Liu—could not have come at a better time.

Years in the making, Liu initially set out to craft a film he envisioned as “the sexiest episode of Nova,” one that dives into the nature of American sex education: Where is it happening, how is it happening, and—if it is indeed happening—how come so many of us grow up with such fear and shame around sex?

Along the way, he realized just how universal his own experience (or lack thereof) with sex ed was. Like so many of us, what he learned in school health classes was only scratching the surface, and the education he was presumably meant to receive at home from his family never happened. Not that he can blame his parents—they never learned how to talk about sex either—but he began to see it as an endless cycle, one which has made it almost impossible for our society to shake negative stigma around sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex in general.

In an effort to combat that stigma, Liu’s journey of discovery forms the arc of A Sexplanation, inviting audiences to follow the filmmaker as he ventures from “neuroscience labs to church pews” to his own childhood home in search of answers, speaking with experts from a wide variety of fields (and, yes, his own parents) to figure out how we can make way for a “happier, healthier, sexier future.”

With the award-winning documentary now available to rent and stream via VOD services everywhere, Queerty jumped at the opportunity to talk with Liu about the film and why it’s so crucial that everyone has access to “comprehensive sex education”—meaning sex ed that’s scientifically accurate, age appropriate, non-judgmental, and prepares students to make informed decisions about their sexual health.

It wasn’t long until our conversation turned to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and the seemingly endless wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation introduced in its wake: Regressive politics that go against the kind of open-hearted, open-minded discussions Liu is hoping to inspire with A Sexplanation. Naturally, Liu has a lot of thoughts about the intersection of queerness and sex ed, so—in the spirit of his former column—we’re publishing his comprehensive, generous, and thought-provoking thoughts on the issue below.

Here’s what Alex Liu has to say about why “saying gay” is such an important part of education and development:

First and foremost—it feels like we do less and less—but hopefully there is still a strong majority of people in the world who value understanding the world as it actually is. And the fact of the matter is: Queer people exist, and we exist in some of the most boring, mundane, normal ways possible. For the most part, we all just want the same thing. We exist, and to ignore that and to hide that, you couldn’t tell me what purpose that serves in any way. I don’t hear an argument. So that’s the meta narrative around [this]: Don’t we want to know the truth? Don’t we want to know the world? Don’t want to know who we are, as a species?”

And then there’s the obvious understanding that, if someone at the age of three, four or five was just told something very casually, like, “Gay people exist.” [These] simple, matter-of-fact things, if you’d said them just like that, that would have saved so much heartache, so much suffering. 

I mean, I know I would have saved 1000s in therapy bills if even one adult in my life had simply said that, right? [Hearing] that from just one trusted adult that I loved, it would have freed so much for me. The silence is really what was so, so devastating. And it’s sad because my parents feel so bad, but they’re not anti-gay in any way—it just never occurred to them that they would need or have to talk about this. Because no one talked about it with them. They feel so guilty, and I feel bad that they feel guilty. And it’s not really their fault, but it kind of is, you know? It’s very difficult to deal with that. So, if someone in the world had just said that to our family, it would have saved so much heartache.

Alex’s Parents. Photo Credit: Herra Productions

But if you’re coming at it from a religious, fundamentalist, extremist view, I have, honestly, nothing to say—it’s just agree to disagree. There’s nothing I can say to change that very deeply held belief, and I don’t find it worth the energy to try. The most I would do is just treat you with kindness and love as much as I can, and hopefully show you that I’m a worthwhile human being and that it’s okay that kids know about it. It’s not like I’m trying to tell you or tell your kids how they should feel about gay people—just, frankly, that we exist.

But the question that I’m grappling with is how you get people to understand that idea, those who [might say]: “Oh, well, my kids are quote-unquote ‘normal,’ they’re not gender non-conforming, so why do they need to know that? They’re too young, we need to keep them innocent, that’s too adult for them!” And I think that is the subtext of a lot of this—that it’s introducing adult topics too early, which somehow would rob them of their innocence. And I cringe because I think we have to be very clear about how we define that: What is actually “adult” about being gay? What is actually so “adult” about being trans?

To me, the loss of innocence in youth is when you discover, at a certain point, that the adults in your life cannot be trusted, or the adults in your life [can be] harmful, or scary, and that you have to protect yourself—that the world is a harmful, scary place. And, if your mind goes to the idea that gay and trans people represent that harm, that’s something that is so difficult to tease apart. And I do have a lot of empathy for people that think that way, because that’s the culture they grew up in—I might have that same feeling if I had grown up 100 years ago, 50 years ago.

Photo Credit: Herra Productions

I get why people think, when they think about being gay, they go straight to—in many ways—the sex part, they go straight to the intercourse, or they go straight to the more extreme parts. But, to me, so much of this movie has been trying to show people: No, when we say “sex,” we’re talking about a whole person—we’re talking about a person’s humanity. It’s how we show up in the world, it’s how we actually express the very little things that you probably don’t even realize you do about expressing your sexuality—that’s what gay people want. And I don’t know how to convince someone that we’re worthwhile, or that we’re worthy of respect and human dignity, but hopefully the movie shows you that.

If you’re a straight person, and you think that somehow you’re keeping your sexuality confined to the bedrooms, so why can’t gay people do the same thing? You’re not! You’re actually, every moment you’re alive and out in the world, expressing your sexuality. And all gay people—all queer people—want is that same basic decent human right. 

Hopefully, we’re able to show straight people that there is also something maybe queer about them, too, you know? The idea that there is something that you probably wish you could come out about—some sort of kink, some sort of desire—even if it’s just seeing a dick in porn that you kind of admire. Whatever it is! We all have that thing.

Photo Credit: Herra Productions

And, yes, queer, gay, trans people might be on one end of the spectrum of having to really come out in a big way, because it’s the only way they can know how to survive. But to say this in the classroom is not to turn your kid gay, it’s not to enforce any values—or it shouldn’t be, at least. I think that that is a valid argument; I think teachers and students and classrooms need to be so crystal clear that they’re just presenting facts, and not values. It’s a difficult, fine-line balance to walk. But that’s the reason why it’s so important that we say these things—not only because it’s just true—but because, if it happens, it could really save lives.

But I don’t know how to get make someone care about gay people or queer people other than just trying my best to be as open and vulnerable with my own story. And hopefully, you can see the humanity, hopefully you can see the real harm a lot of strict boundaries and rigid scripts that [we’re told] we need to follow. Isn’t life better if we see sexuality as it actually is: A wide, diverse tapestry? And, if you’re willing to lean in, it’s an enormously fun playground, in which you can play at all axes and all different parts of yourself and experiment and enjoy, to really connect with yourself, and then—at its best—connect with other people in a way that that’s just transcendent. 

That’s to me the only way we actually move forward. People ask me all the time: “How do I make sex education great in my school?” And my flippant response is just to run for school board—please run for school board in your local town; that’s the only way it’ll happen quickly. But the cultural change that we’re looking for—to get people to care and hear about all these things in an age appropriate way—is a very complicated and nuanced, difficult thing to process. 

The only way we move this forward is if everyone is a little bit brave. But especially straight men. If white, straight men could just talk about how much they love anal play, or how much they love dressing up as a woman, or makeup or all the things that many straight men love to do—but they do it in private and secret—that’s the only way that I think we actually start to improve the lives for those in the generation behind us.

Photo Credit: Herra Productions

There’s just so much ignorance, in terms of how different we all truly are when it comes to our sex lives, in what we like, in what we desire. And now it’s changing quicker than ever before. With every person I meet, I realize we really do all have a unique sexuality and sexual expression. And it makes me kind of sad to think about how many people—especially straight men, to be frank—feel they need to really fit one strict set of rules. 

It took me a long time to get to this place. Being queer can be terrifying and difficult and I’m not saying it’s easier—but it forces you to think really deeply about what would actually make you happy in a sexual sense, in a relationship sense. I think my world would be so much smaller if I [wasn’t] queer. 

That’s what I want: I just want to queer the whole world. Because, ultimately, that’s who we are—that is actually who we are as a species. 

This above has been edited and condensed for clarity.