A Tolerant, Scientific Approach

By Jim Kennedy
Thursday, August 25, 2005

Last year, at the request of teachers and staff members, the Montgomery County Board of Education unanimously approved an updated sex education curriculum for eighth and 10th grades that revised two 45-minute class lesson plans. For the first time, teachers were going to be able to answer students' questions about sexual orientation. The Montgomery County public schools also produced a video about condom use to replace one that was seriously outdated.

These simple updates quickly turned into a political battlefield when some individuals announced that they wanted to recall the whole school board over them. As they began organizing, others realized that people in our community needed to stand up for common sense. We call ourselves TeachTheFacts.org.

In May -- just days before the curriculum revisions were to be pilot-tested -- the recall group sued and won a temporary restraining order in federal court that stopped the revisions. Negotiations led to a settlement, and the school district is now developing another curriculum.

Maryland law requires schools to teach about "sexual variations." All mainstream professional mental health and medical organizations, from the American Medical Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics to the American Psychological Association, agree that homosexuality is not a choice or a disease, meaning there's nothing to cure. This is an important point. These groups establish such policies on the basis of clinical experience and peer-reviewed research, not politics.

The opposition wants to teach that homosexuality is a choice and that "reparative" or "conversion" therapy, sometimes offered by religious ministries, can make gays straight. The code word for this is "ex-gays," and their goal is to include it in our curriculum, even though, for example, the AMA opposes it.

We are not slaves to our passions. We all control our emotions; it's part of being a civilized human being. Gay people can pretend they're straight, and some can even marry someone of the opposite sex and have kids. It's called being "in the closet."

But why is this better? If all the scientific organizations agree that there is nothing wrong with being gay, then why don't we just accept it? Gay people are people, too, and it does not seem kind or morally superior to discriminate against them.

There is going to be a big fight over this, I expect. There is no scientific support for "conversion therapies," no evidence that people can change their sexual orientation. Indeed, the terrible results of such therapies -- depression and suicide, for example -- are what led the medical and mental health professionals a generation ago to conclude that efforts to "change" people's sexual orientation were unnecessary and dangerous.

It also will be important to have a good, clear video that shows how to use a condom properly, because we know that correctly used condoms significantly diminish the occurrence of unwanted pregnancy and the spread of many diseases. The problem is that most people don't know how to use them properly. A few minutes of instruction can save lives and prevent misery, and we will work to see that the district will either implement the video or produce another one.

The recall group has argued that teaching students to use condoms will encourage them to experiment with sex, but there is no evidence that this is true. About half of American teens lose their virginity before they graduate from high school. We all hope that our own kids abstain from sex, but we know that some won't. Teaching them how to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease is vital. Even if they abstain from sex until they are older, the knowledge will be important.

In America we are free to worship as we choose, but our public schools need to teach scientific views. Most Montgomery County residents agree that tolerance is more important than imposing their religious values on other people. We have a wide variety of people here -- of every religion and nationality and color and everything else -- and we do a great job of putting up with one another, and even, when we are fortunate, appreciating the diversity. We are not afraid of people who are different from ourselves, and we want our children to be educated with facts.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company