Compared to most high school students, you could say that 16-year-old Danny Sparks is at the top of his class when it comes to civic responsibility and community activism.
Sparks had already been confronted with the lack of access to resources for Cleveland's LGBT population — especially for youths — when he came out at 14. When he took the mandatory health class at Parma Senior High School, in a Cleveland suburb, he was dismayed to find that his school district had a policy of teaching abstinence only and that the class had a traditional marriage focus. Sparks says he remembers thinking, There’s absolutely nothing in this for me — why am I even here?
"They're excluding gay students in the curriculum, but it's also universal in the fact that the information they're providing to their straight students isn't good either," Sparks tells The Advocate.
When a meeting with a school counselor and assistant principal failed to bring action, Sparks sought the support of the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland, which was already working on the issue. He and several others went to the Parma school board, sending out nine letters only to receive one response directing them to the deputy superintendent. Getting a response from her proved difficult — she “lost” a letter and failed to reply to e-mails and phone calls until finally responding, “At this time we’re not changing our curriculum,” blaming budget issues.
When school resumed the following year, so did the frustrating process of being forwarded from one official to another. Finally, the director of academic services agreed to a meeting, but only to repeat the abstinence-only policy of the board.
This time Sparks and friends blasted the board and deputy superintendent with a packet of letters from supportive students. Sparks attended a board meeting to address members regarding both the absence of comprehensive sex education and what he saw as the shocking lack of responsibility. The superintendent again referred the group to the deputy superintendent, who in turn set up yet another meeting at which the board claimed that parents wanted abstinence-only sex education.
“Since no parents are speaking out, they don’t really see it as an issue,” says Sparks, who is now working with others to educate and involve parents in the area.
Sparks feels that at his school, “in general there’s an ignorance, a
stigma around sex in general due to abstinence-only. Even if it’s just
about HIV and condoms, people are really ignorant on the issue so it’s
difficult to gauge the issue.”
He brings up the important point that
people are sexually active and it’s impossible to know if they’re being
This rising activist says he finds it challenging
being an LGBT person when resources are
often lacking in rural and suburban areas. His passion for fighting for equality and empowering people with
information may lead him into a career in public
policy. He says he’s made numerous connections both in Cleveland and
“When people don’t have the information to make a
decision, it’s making it for them rather than empowering them,” he says. “We’re
very capable when given the tools.”