The Wide Spectrum Of Sex-Ed Courses

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007

In Seattle public schools, sexual orientation is taught in ninth-grade health class, a one-day session that uses vignettes about fictitious teens to illustrate same-sex and opposite-sex attraction. But the topic can arise as early as grade 5, in discussions on the many changes that accompany puberty.

In Salt Lake City, schools do not address sexual orientation, in health class or anywhere else.

By adding 90 minutes of instruction about sexual orientation to eighth- and 10th-grade health classes this year, including contested material on homophobia, transsexuality and the process of "coming out," Montgomery County joins an increasingly polarized debate on how -- if at all -- sex-education classes should discuss sexuality.

"This is probably the last big issue around sexuality education," said Martha Kempner, spokeswoman for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) in New York, a group that advocates comprehensive sex education. "And I think we are seeing that many of the controversies today revolve in some way around sexual orientation."

In most of the country, the trend in sex education is toward "abstinence only," which dictates that sex outside of marriage is wrong and potentially dangerous. Such programs tend to bypass homosexuality, except to characterize gay sex as a public health risk.

At the same time, school systems in politically liberal communities are expanding the lexicon of sex and gender identity in health classes. Homosexuality is one of many topics covered under the umbrella of "comprehensive" sex education, which teaches students how to be comfortable with their sexuality and safe in sexual practice.

Seattle teachers tell ninth-grade health classes, "There are probably some people here who are gay, lesbian and bisexual. . . . Some people here may believe that homosexual behavior is wrong." Students take a sexual-orientation quiz: When do people first realize they are gay? (Answer: usually by their teens.) If one of your parents is gay or lesbian, are the chances greater that you will be, too? (Answer: no.)

Those who monitor sex-education trends say there's no telling how many school systems teach about sexual orientation, but the subject is largely absent from the curriculum across much of the South and in land-locked mountain states. SIECUS counts nine states that require "something negative" if sexual orientation is taught, such as characterizing homosexuality as unacceptable behavior.

The topic is more accepted, although not nearly pervasive, along the West Coast and in the Northeast. Health teachers in Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and throughout Massachusetts consistently teach about homosexuality, according to Judy Chiasson, a Los Angeles educator who wrote a portion of the lessons adopted in Montgomery.

Proponents of abstinence-based sex education say the approach reflects community standards in much of the nation.

A 2004 poll by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government found that 25 percent of Americans deem homosexuality and sexual orientation inappropriate topics for sex education. A separate question yielded a narrow majority of Americans, 52 percent, who think schools should teach what homosexuality is but not whether it is right or wrong.

"I think a big swath of the population is opposed to promoting homosexuality," said Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, an Orlando nonprofit group that advocates religious freedom and the traditional family.

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