Earlier this fall, shortly after the Department of Health and Human Services released a proposal to define gender as an immutable biological trait that is determined at birth, parents of public school students in New Paltz, New York, received a letter confirming the District’s continued support for the trans community. “The New Paltz Central School District’s commitment to the whole child demands that we honor each student on their terms and in the context of the rich plurality of our community,” the dispatch says. It goes on to assert that the Board of Education “affirms its commitment to equal justice through our unwavering support and insurance of dignity for the transgender members of our District and the wider community.”
Predictably, New Paltz, a small college town 83 miles north of Manhattan, provides students with comprehensive, LGBTQI-inclusive sex ed in middle and high school.
But 122 miles away, in Northport, New York, students report that sex ed classes are quite different, taught as short units that are integrated into the sixth and eighth grade health curricula. Trans issues are not mentioned, and when safe sex is discussed, the focus is exclusively on heterosexual intercourse. “There is no discussion as to practicing safe gay sex,” a 12th-grade student who asked not to be identified told me. On the other hand, he continued, National Coming Out Day is celebrated school-wide, by faculty, staff and students, with decorations and banners in the Student Commons.
Wide Variation in Curricula
According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, the country is presently a patchwork, with only the District of Columbia and four states — California, Colorado, Iowa and Washington — mandating that sex ed be LGBTQI-inclusive and affirming of different sexual orientations and gender identities.
Thirty-one states continue to stress abstinence before (hetero) marriage and seven — Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas — ban the teaching of anything that might be construed as queer acceptance or inclusivity.
In Alabama, for instance, teachers are mandated to be overt in their condemnation, telling students that “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public.” They are also required to inform their classes that “homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”
These homophobic provisions, called “No Promo Homo laws” by opponents, have for nearly 40 years been pushed by a coalition of right-wing evangelical groups including Activist Mommy, Alliance Defending Freedom, the Capitol Resource Institute, the Family Research Council and the Liberty Counsel, all of which have lobbed continuous assaults at public schools’ efforts to teach students about healthy relationships, including consent and how to be sexually intimate while protecting against sexually transmitted infections regardless of sexual orientation, sexual identity or gender identity.
These groups have clustered their arguments under the rubric of religious freedom and parental rights, something that pro-sex ed activists — including the ACLU; SIECUS [Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US]; Planned Parenthood; Political Research Associates; GLSEN; the Human Rights Campaign; Guttmacher Institute; Advocates for Youth; the Southern Poverty Law Center; and the American Medical Association — believe is not only disingenuous and hyperbolic, but potentially harmful to youth because it sidesteps honest discussion of how best to avoid sexually risky activities and has led to violence — including murder — against members of the queer community.
A few examples of the right’s gay and trans panic — taken from their newsletters — will illustrate:
- A headline from a Family Research Council brochure warns that “Fairfax County Votes to Tell Boys They Might be Girls;
- A Capitol Resource Institute missive rants that “in today’s anything goes culture, youth are encouraged to pursue pleasure without purpose.”
- Activist Mommy and the Liberty Counsel, coordinators of the Sex Ed Sit Out that took place on April 23, 2018, encouraged parents to opt their children out of all sex ed instruction, decrying “the graphic nature of current sex ed resources,” and demanding that parents get an explanation of why “children are being taught how to have anal and oral sex, masturbate one another, and question their gender…. Why are our tax dollars going to pay for curricula and resources that teach dangerous and promiscuous behaviors?”
Obsessions of the Right
“The Liberty Counsel lawyers seem to have an unnatural obsession with the nature and appearance of other people’s genitals and what they do with them,” David Dinielli, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), told Truthout. “These campaigns have everything to do with that obsession and nothing to do with any actual concern for the wellbeing of children or families.”
Dinielli and the SPLC have paid particular attention to the Liberty Counsel’s efforts in states with strong parental rights laws. Furthermore, they’re monitoring the ways these provisions are being used to kickstart local campaigns to give parents or guardians information about every book or video with even a sliver of sexual content that students might see in class, from Bill Nye’s “The Sexual Spectrum” to Buzzfeed’s “9 Questions Gay People Have About Straight People.”
“The Liberty Counsel has sent letters to school districts threatening a lawsuit if parents are not informed about course materials involving sexual behavior,” Dinielli continues. “They are also demanding to know if their children identify as LGBT and are arguing that their children have the right to avoid changing room and restroom sharing with trans students. Lastly, they want to give teachers the right to refuse to use pronouns with which they disagree. At least one threatened school district, East Penn in Pennsylvania, has capitulated and given the Liberty Counsel links to the videos they’ve shown in classes.”
Heron Greenesmith, senior research analyst for LGBTQI Justice at Political Research Associates, calls the right’s obsession “an amorphous fear of queer.” Greenesmith further stresses that the language used to limit the reach of sex ed programs has changed over the years, from a once-exclusive focus on the now-discredited promotion of abstinence before marriage — an effort that cost US taxpayers approximately $2 billion between 1982 and 2010 — to the ostensibly more scientific-sounding “sexual risk avoidance” or SRA combined with scaremongering about trans people.
“The rhetoric is changing to accommodate the fact that trans youth are more comfortable being out as themselves,” Greenesmith said. “Evangelical and Christian Right supremacy depend on stifling autonomy, agency and freedom from misogyny, and reducing access to comprehensive sex ed achieves this end.”
Nonetheless, the Evangelical Christian Right’s goal — reducing women and queer people’s independence — has not changed over the four decades that they have been mobilized, Greenesmith explains, but rather than using terms like “abstinence-only,” they now rely on more scientific-sounding terms, such as “sexual risk avoidance” and “gender ideology.” Greenesmith says that these terms have become “scary catch phrases” for opponents of feminism and LGBTQ equality and inclusion. What’s more, thanks to well-connected friends like vocal abstinence-only supporter Valerie Huber, now chief of staff to the assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, the religious right has been given a warm reception in Washington and has made headway — currently stalled by lawsuits — in reducing funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs.
California and Oregon Pass Model Bills
Despite Huber and the Trump administration’s hostility to LGBTQ-inclusive sex ed, recent legislative victories in California and Oregon have boosted the morale of sex ed proponents.
The California Healthy Youth Act, for example, took effect in January 2016 and requires both charter and public middle and high schools to offer comprehensive, LGBTQI-inclusive sex education to all students. A similar bill passed the Oregon statehouse in December 2016 but covers only public schools. Parents can opt out of enrollment in both states.
Advocates of age-appropriate, evidence-based instruction see these bills as models that other states can replicate.
Jennifer Driver, state policy director at SIECUS, reports that comprehensive sex ed bills have also been introduced in Kentucky, Mississippi and in several Pennsylvania school districts.
But where progress exists, so does backlash.
Jennifer Chou, reproductive justice and gender equity attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, reports that the Healthy Youth Act did not get a lot of pushback when it was first introduced or when it first went into effect. In fact, she says that the opposition didn’t become intense until the end of 2017. “People now seem emboldened to articulate their homophobic and transphobic ideas, sometimes quite blatantly,” Chou says. “When the Healthy Youth Act was being extended to charter schools, Republican State Senator Joel Anderson actually said that the law forces students into LGBTQ sex training. At the same time, I’ve seen growing support for giving students information they need to navigate relationships.”
This, Chou concludes, means that “despite deep pockets of opposition up and down the state,” the overall implementation of comprehensive sex education in the state’s public and charter schools is moving forward.
That said, some of these pockets are facing virulent right-wing resistance. Orange County, in the southern part of the state, is a case in point. According to Laura Kanter, director of policy, advocacy and youth programs at the LGBT Center of Orange County, opponents of the Healthy Youth Act, organized by the Capitol Research Institute, are mobilizing against “forcing” a teacher or student to use someone’s chosen pronoun, maintaining that this violates their religious belief in a God-ordained, birth-dictated social order. They’re further suggesting that sex ed will “turn students gay,” as if mere instruction in the reality of trans lives will somehow “push kids who are confused about who they are to think they’re trans, have surgery, and ruin their lives.” Kanter says that several parents of LGBT kids have attended meetings to challenge these ideas, and have been appalled by the misinformation and ignorance on display, including people expressing fears that their children will be taught bestiality and be “sexually groomed.”
A pro–Youth Act coalition called Youth First OC is continuing to fight for sex ed in the county.
The stakes are enormous. Ashley Kuykendall, a sexual health program coordinator at a private university in Missouri, knows what it means for students to lack concrete information about their bodies. “I’m astounded by how little many students know at the time they enroll in college,” she told Truthout. “I do health promotion work around sexuality and sexual health, provide one-on-one counseling, and run programs on campus. There is genuine fear and confusion about sexuality. Many students have questions about terminology as well as behavior; in general, they want to understand and be respectful to their peers.”
Kuykendall also reports that she is frequently asked about the best ways to protect oneself from STIs [sexually transmitted infections] and unwanted pregnancy, adding that female 20-somethings often mistakenly believe that they cannot get an IUD [intrauterine device] until they’re older. Students also lack knowledge about STIs, not understanding that they can get infected from anal or oral sex as well as from intercourse.
“Students ask how they can tell if they have an STI and need information on where to go to be tested,” Kuykendall says. “They also want information on how to talk to a partner about sex and how to tell their parents and friends that they’re gay. Lesbians frequently ask me about safe sex. Unfortunately, when sex ed classes talk about condoms, it’s typically only about heteronormative encounters. Another question I get asked all the time is how they can get contraceptives without their parents finding out.”
Children and young adults, she continues, need solid, medically accurate judgment-free information. What’s more, she and other advocates note that when it is not available in school, they’ll look elsewhere, typically turning to random internet sites to fill the gap.
“Inclusive sex ed talks about bodies and the relationships that exist in the world. These bodies need age-appropriate, accurate materials to make smart decisions,” Becca Mui, education manager at GLSEN, explains. “Our most recent national school climate survey of 23,000 students, released in October 2018, found that just 6.7 percent of LGBTQ students reported receiving inclusive sex education. Students can’t make healthy decisions without information that is relevant to them.”