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.
The group was part of a successful legal challenge in 2005 that forced Montgomery to rework its proposed sex-education curriculum.
"I think it's one thing to talk about homosexuality," Staver said. "It's quite another thing to promote or to glorify homosexuality."
This spring, Maryland lawmakers are considering a bill, unlikely to pass, that would amend the state Constitution with a ban on teaching about same-sex relationships in public schools.
Several organizations, including SIECUS, have noted a sharp rise in recent years in the number of schools and systems whose sex-ed lessons stress abstinence. They point to the role of the federal government, which since the mid-1990s has required a strict abstinence-only approach as a condition for substantial federal funds. Such programs, the government says, should endorse sex only in the confines of marriage, one reason they tend to skirt homosexuality.
"Abstinence-only by definition sort of wrote any gay issues out of the curriculum," said Jean-Marie Navetta, spokeswoman for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. "I mean, gays can't get married. It sounds like a ridiculous premise, but it actually works."
About one-third of all school systems with policies on sex education require that abstinence be taught as the only option for the unmarried, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York sexual-health think tank. A larger group, about half of school systems, stipulates that abstinence be the "preferred option" for teens while allowing instruction in contraception and other topics associated with comprehensive sex-education. Virtually every school system, including Montgomery's, includes abstinence somewhere in its sex-education lessons.
A new condom-demonstration lesson for Montgomery 10th-graders makes 21 references to abstinence, including, "Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease."
Chiasson said "countless" schools and school systems include homosexuality, bisexuality and transsexuality in their curricula. Although few mainstream textbooks devote space to the topic, she said in an e-mail, "good teachers utilize supplemental materials to complement textbooks' limitations."
Los Angeles schools cover sexual orientation over one to three days of the ninth-grade health course. Objectives include defining the terms homosexual, bisexual and transgender, identifying "challenges that young people may face in the process of self discovery" and explaining "why a person would want to come out about his or her sexual orientation."
Washington area school systems range in approach from liberal Montgomery to comparatively conservative enclaves in Northern Virginia, where some schools don't teach about sexual orientation.
Prince William County's sex-ed curriculum mentions homosexuality only during discussion of sexually transmitted diseases. It instructs that teachers "limit discussions to a technical definition . . . and do not explicitly address the acceptability of this lifestyle." Students with further questions are directed to a parent or guardian.
In 2005, the Charles County school board adopted a legislative position supporting laws that would restrict teachers from discussing homosexuality. Teachers there are instructed only to define sexual orientation and to say more only in response to a question from a student.
D.C. policy requires instruction on homosexuality, according to SIECUS.
Fairfax County schools introduce the topic in ninth grade in classes that emphasize respect, dignity and the idea that "people have different and strongly held beliefs" on the subject, said spokesman Paul Regnier.
In the past two years, SIECUS has tabulated about a dozen well-publicized controversies over homosexuality at schools across the nation. The most famous involved a parent in Lexington, Mass., who objected to a fairy tale about two princes called "King and King." None quite resembled the fracas in Montgomery.
Disputes over sex-education seldom reach federal court, Staver said, because matters of curriculum are mostly left to local school boards. Many states, including Virginia and Maryland, explicitly permit parents to opt out if they don't like the lessons. Or, they can simply withdraw from the school.