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Sex, lies, and
teenagers

Sex, lies, and
teenagers

Abstinence

Abstinence-only sex education erases the existence of GLBT youth and fills kids' heads with untruths. Some parents have had enough

At a town hall meeting about sex education in Maryland public schools last March, Scott Davenport told the crowd he felt scared when he stood up to speak. "It just felt like you were a Jew in Germany in the 1930s," recalls the gay father of an eighth-grader and a 10th-grader in the Montgomery County school district.

A group of conservative religious parents had invited antigay groups like Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays to the meeting in the largely liberal Maryland county. They complained that an updated sex-ed curriculum "normalized" gay men and lesbians by implying that homosexuality is a biological trait. They also argued the program did not do enough to stress sexual abstinence until marriage. Under pressure from the groups, the school board voted in May not only to scrap the homosexuality component but to kill a seven-minute video demonstrating how to use a condom.

Emboldened by recent political advances, far-right Christian organizations are successfully censoring gay-friendly sex-education lessons across the country. Some are replacing pro-gay materials with antigay messages, while others encourage counselors to refer young gays to "ex-gay" programs, which teach that homosexuality can and should be changed. At the same time, the Bush administration is funneling hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into abstinence-until-marriage sex-ed programs that ignore gay youth altogether. "A lot of abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula doesn't address gay and lesbian youth as being something that exists," says Jessie Gilliam, program manager for Advocates for Youth, which promotes inclusive sex education.

"Over the years, some of the more overt [antigay] biases about sexual orientation have been removed," says Martha Kempner, director of public information for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. "But the subtle bias is always there. They're teaching abstinence until marriage, and if you're a young person who knows you're gay, you also know you're not allowed to get married."

Eleven of the 13 most popular abstinence-only programs blur religion and science, teach gender stereotypes, and contain scientific errors, according to a report by U.S. representative Henry Waxman of California. One curriculum falsely tells students that they can catch HIV through sweat and tears. Another wrongly says 50% of gay teens have HIV. "A little minority of religious nuts can change everything," says Jim Kennedy, a straight parent who helped form the group TeachtheFacts.org.

Indeed, parents in the Detroit suburb of Troy have been fighting to get the local high school to take down posters that say gay people are everyday people. In Illinois, 60% of health teachers do not cover sexual orientation, according to a recent study. In Texas, conservative Christians on the board of education approved textbooks only after publishers agreed to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. And in North Carolina, a school board last year removed lessons about sexual orientation and approved a strict abstinence-only curriculum. "The only plan gay youth are being given by the school system to prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases is something that is not really available to them: marriage," says Ian Palmquist, executive director of programs for the gay rights group Equality NC.

Since the late 1960s, conservative Christians have used sex education to agitate parents, raise money, and gain power, says Janice Irvine, author of Talk About Sex: The Battles Over Sex Education in the United States. But some parents, gay and straight, are fighting back. In the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, a group of parents this year questioned why middle schools used a sex-education curriculum that they claimed contained medical and scientific inaccuracies. In response, the DeKalb County school system stopped using the material. And lawmakers in Washington State recently voted for age-appropriate, medically accurate sex education.

But despite the efforts of Davenport and other parents in Maryland, the Christian conservatives are winning there, at least for now. The antigay group Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum and the Virginia-based Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays won a restraining order against the introduction of pro-gay sex-education materials in Montgomery County. But in a settlement reached with the groups on June 27, the school district reserved the right to again include references to homosexuality when it develops a new curriculum in the next school year. In the meantime, the district is using its old policy, which allows teachers to answer questions about homosexuality only if asked and only in a perfunctory manner.

"We always have found ourselves welcomed in Montgomery County," says Davenport, who is raising his two children with his partner of 28 years, Tim Fisher. "For this kind of stuff to rear its head here and win feels frightening."

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Todd Henneman