"AIDS is God's curse." A child, no more than 9 years old, holds the banner high during an antigay rally in Lubbock, Texas. On the other side of the street, gay students protest the school board's denying them the right to organize on a high school campus. Their cause draws legal support, media coverage, and an unlikely ally in Shelby Knox, a conservative Christian teenager and warrior princess for comprehensive--as opposed to abstinence-only--sex education.
Not even she could have dreamed her battle would lead her to this place. "The thing Shelby understood very clearly was how the fight she was waging for comprehensive sex education had to include them," says New York filmmaker Marion Lipschutz, who captured this watershed moment for The Education of Shelby Knox, airing at 10 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday (check local listings) on the PBS documentary series P.O.V. "Not everybody sees the interconnection in sex education and gay rights. Shelby did," says Lipschutz, "and [she] felt it was very important to have that in the film because she understood this film is also getting a message out there."
Originally, Knox wasn't supposed to be at the center of the story. "We started out to do the story about sex education in a town where kids were advocating to get better sex education," says Lipschutz's creative partner, Rose Rosenblatt. "Shelby emerged as the dominant character. As we followed her more and more, it became the story of fighting for sex ed through the point of view of this young girl."
Knox was a high school sophomore in 2001 when she joined the Lubbock Youth Commission, a group of 35 high school students empowered by the mayor to give Lubbock teens a voice in city government. The commission lobbied fervently for comprehensive sex education in schools. Although the area's high schools teach abstinence-only sex education, Lubbock has some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in the country. "I knew people who had STDs. I knew people who had fathered children," says Knox, "and the more I asked about it, they'd say things like, 'We thought you couldn't get pregnant the first time.' It was happening in our very own schools. I thought it was something that I could use my voice to try and change."
Easier said than done. "Five-to-one I get positive letters over negative--I'm having huge success," says Ed Ainsworth, youth pastor for Faith Christian Family Church in Lubbock, an abstinence educator who gives seminars, sans religious doctrine, throughout Texas high schools. "Abstinence will protect your heart, your mind, your emotions, and your body."
As the culture wars were waged on the outside, Shelby's increasingly liberal views--and the stress she was putting on herself--made things contentious at home. "For the first time, it was less important to her what we said or what we felt; she was just so passionate about the issue," says Shelby's mother, Paula Knox, from the family's home in Lubbock.
The Youth Commission was eventually disbanded, with the city's budget shortfall blamed for its demise. "Ultimately it was their advocacy and their action...that led to its demise," says Eric Benson, former Youth Commission adviser who has worked in STD prevention for nearly a decade. He contends that "as a society, we have some serious hang-ups about sex. We're both fascinated with it and afraid of it. We're in an incredible amount of denial. It's obvious that sexual abstinence is not a realistic choice for many of our youth. Shouldn't we be meeting those kids where they're at and helping them to take steps toward safety?"
This year President Bush has earmarked $167 million for abstinence-only education, and his proposed 2006 budget will see an increase of $206 million for such programs. Meanwhile, schools opting for comprehensive sex education have to pay for those programs from their general budget, provided by local and state governments. "There's been a bill presented in the Senate," Knox offers, "called the Responsible Education About Life Act to match funding for comprehensive sex education so school districts can choose abstinence-only or comprehensive and get the same funding."
Now 18, Knox is a sophomore at the University of Texas in Austin. A self-described liberal Democrat and future presidential hopeful, she was raised Southern Baptist but has no current affiliation with any religious denomination. However, she still adheres to a "purity pledge" she took at 15 vowing to abstain from sex until she marries. "The artistic surprise of this film," notes Lipschutz, "was that we started out doing a fight over sex ed and as we were editing we saw that we didn't have that fight as much as we had Shelby's transformation, and specifically a religious, social transformation." Knox maintains the film isn't about her, adding, "It's about an issue that is very important to the United States right now. I'm simply the face of that issue in this film." (Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, via AP)