Montgomery Mother's Stand On Sex-Ed Begins at Home

By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 19, 2005

Michelle Turner, mother of four public school students in Montgomery County, said it is her job, her responsibility, her life's purpose to shield her sons and daughters from corrupting influences. And the world, in her view, is teeming with them.

Which was why she decided long ago to be a stay-at-home mom; preserving "strong, traditional family values" and raising her children "to be good people" is a full-time undertaking, she said. It demands tireless vigilance.

There are lots of rules for the Turner siblings living in Wheaton, ages 10 to 17 -- rules about TV, movies, books, magazines, music, language, clothing, friends, religion. "This is how my husband and I have chosen to do it," she said, sitting in her kitchen one recent afternoon.

"You don't pop out a baby and expect it to raise itself," she said. "I made the commitment to be their mom, and to be here to teach them things that my husband and I wanted them to learn, to teach them about the church, about God." And to teach them this: "God has given us the ability to procreate, to bring children into a family. . . . And as far as the homosexual issue goes, our bodies are not meant or created to be used in that way."

The Turners' devout beliefs used to hold sway only around the dinner table, where the family gathers nightly for meals. Then Turner, 50, helped organize, and became president of, Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, one of two groups that recently succeeded in derailing, at least temporarily, the Montgomery school board's plan to revise sex education in eighth and 10th grades.

The board wants to foster discussions of homosexuality, portraying same-sex attraction as natural and involuntary for gay people, as something that is common and acceptable. But Turner and other opponents said science has not proved that homosexuality is genetic, that more likely it's a choice. They said that the curriculum ought to present their beliefs, as well, and that students should be taught that it is possible to avoid, or to get out of, the gay lifestyle.

How the revised curriculum deals with sexual identities, abstinence, condom use and other issues appears headed for months of debate by the two sides, including in court, where the sex-ed plan is the subject of a lawsuit by Turner's group and the Virginia-based Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, which has chapters nationwide. While the dispute continues, officials said, the curriculum will stay shelved at least through December.

As for Turner, she said she will not give in. The curriculum's "unbalanced, one-sided" view of homosexuality, she said, is just another "objectionable" influence she will have to fend off in a parenthood dedicated to keeping her children wholesome -- shielding them from what she and her husband, members of the Mormon church, see as cultural pollution in myriad forms.

And no matter what some liberal parents in Montgomery think of her beliefs, her stamina is not in doubt.

In her kitchen the other day, as she held forth on her parenting philosophy and the hard work involved in sticking with it, Turner chuckled. "Oh, my golly! Yeah, this is brutal. Between the music, and the trash on TV, in the movies. . ."

For example, she said, she and her husband, Grant T. Turner Jr., 46, a real estate consultant, prescreen movies for their children and check Web sites that warn about potentially objectionable scenes and language in films.

"We have always had the rule that we do not watch R-rated movies," she said. "And to see a PG-13 movie, you have to be 13 years old. And if my husband or I thought there was a problem with language or anything else that would be offensive, then you wouldn't see it."

She said: "I feel so bad for my 13-year-old son, who waited so long to turn 13 so he could go see PG-13 movies like all his buddies at school. And now with PG-13 movies, you frequently hear the F-word in there. You're getting little flashes of nudity and innuendo." So a lot of PG-13 films are off-limits to him, too.

The couple's oldest son, Grant T. Turner III, a senior at Albert Einstein High School, is headed to Mormon-run Brigham Young University in the fall, to study music. Two older sisters already are at BYU. The Turners' 13-year-old son will start at Northwood High School in September, and their 15-year-old daughter will be an Einstein junior. The two siblings didn't want their names published. The youngest in the family, Madeline, is a fourth-grader.

None has a phone or TV in his or her bedroom. They watch suitable shows in the basement den on a set wired to an $80 device called the TV Guardian -- "a nifty little gizmo," Turner said. The small black box decodes hidden, closed-caption text, searching for any of 150 preprogrammed "offensive words and phrases," then mutes them, flashing substitute text on the screen. "Get the hell out of here," for instance, becomes, "Get out."

"You can set it to take out just the cuss words," she said, "or the cuss words and anything related to taking the Lord's name in vain."

Turner said her children, who occasionally chafe under the rules, are not allowed to visit friends' homes unless a parent is present, and she always calls ahead: "I ask what the plans are. Are you going to be watching videos or anything? . . . And if it's not one that's suitable or appropriate, I'll tell them I prefer that my child not watch that. . . . And I'll tell you, I've never had a negative response."

Rules and more rules. "No two-piece swimsuits on the girls," Turner said. "No bare bellies. . . . Skirts have to be knee-length or longer. My daughters, I really don't let them wear makeup until high school, and then it's minimal."

As for reading, she said: "Well, we don't get any of the teen magazines. Books? My kids are pretty good about selecting ones that are acceptable. Where we run into a problem sometimes is with the schools. . . . I know there were one or two occasions when we've asked a teacher to give them a book other than the one that was assigned."

Grant Turner III, the only sibling willing to be interviewed, is an aspiring song producer who plays piano and guitar. He said his parents' rules are "good tools for bringing up a good family," even though he gets frustrated now and then. CDs with parental advisory labels are forbidden, for example, and his mother has lyrics-approval over all other music he brings home.

"Sometimes I feel it's not fair, other kids getting to do things that seem fun to do, and I don't get to enjoy those things," he said. "But I tell myself it's not going to change, so just get over it. And I do."

He said that he shares his parents' religious belief, and that he didn't want to discuss homosexuality. And he said he has been too busy getting ready for college to focus on the sex-ed debate. In the current curriculum, homosexuality can be discussed only if a student asks a specific question, and the teacher's response must be perfunctory.

The debate "is her thing," he said of his mother's activism. "I haven't paid much attention."

A 1973 high school graduate, Turner was raised in the county by her divorced mother and by grandparents after her mother died.

Hers was not an especially religious upbringing, she said. Her mother explained the facts of life to her when she was a sixth-grader, after two pet mice in the family mated and their babies were born. As for homosexuality, she said, back then "it was just something that you heard about, with your peers. . . . I know that people joked about it, and people would get ridiculed."

In the early 1980s, when her first marriage was falling apart, Turner said, a friend introduced her to the Mormon church, and she was baptized in 1984. Through the church, she met Grant Taylor Jr., a Montgomery native who was born into the faith. They married in 1985.

She said she has volunteered in Montgomery classrooms since her oldest child, from her first marriage, was in kindergarten 20 years ago. In 2003, the school board appointed her to the 27-member citizens committee that oversaw rewriting of the sex-ed curriculum. Turner said she was one of only a few members who argued against teaching students that homosexuality is biologically determined (as many medical experts have concluded) without presenting the opposing view.

The revised curriculum has an opt-out provision, but opponents have said that separating students from their peers in school stigmatizes them.

Turner said the curriculum should "let the kids know that while some individuals choose to live this lifestyle, that is their choice. They have that freedom as a citizen in this country. However, if they feel uncomfortable with the same-sex attraction . . . they don't have to accept it as a given."

She added, "I will admit there could be a possibility" that in rare instances, people are born homosexual -- such as a cousin of hers.

"He's gay, and he's a great guy," she said. "He's a hairdresser. He's very artistic, very good at what he does, men's and women's hair. Fabulous decorator. And I remember playing together when we were young. . . . My brother was always into trucks and guns, knives and swords. . . . Steve was much quieter. He was much happier hanging out with the girls."

After the board adopted the curriculum in November -- intending to use it in six schools this month, then systemwide next year -- Turner organized a meeting of opponents. "I anticipated no more than eight to 10 people coming to my house on a Saturday morning," she said. "We'd have doughnuts and juice and talk about it. . . . We'd write letters, make some calls." But when dozens of people said they planned to attend, she moved the gathering to a community room.

Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum was born at that Dec. 4 meeting, with Turner as president. The lawsuit was instigated by the Virginia-based group, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, represented by a conservative legal foundation based in Florida. Turner said her group joined the case shortly before it was filed.

And in federal court May 5 in Greenbelt, she said, she was "ecstatic, jumping up and down with joy and exuberance" when a judge temporarily enjoined the school board from using the curriculum. Officials then shelved it at least until the end of the calendar year.

"I don't think they're purposely promoting the homosexual agenda," Turner said in her home. "I think they're just very liberal, and this is a liberal area. And they just assumed that this was something everybody wanted to hear about."

She shrugged.

"Maybe they just figured nobody was going to bat an eye at it, and life would go on."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company