Sex Ed Programs Face Anti-LGBTQ Backlash

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; the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; 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.”


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