Three weeks ago I registered my son for his first year in our public school system. It was one of life's strange coincidences that news also broke that week about my very own state representative, House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, who filed a bill to require parental notification and approval before students could take part in any "curriculum, or a school sanctioned program or activity, which involves human sexual education, human sexuality issues, or sexual orientation issues." The bill changes the existing law from opt-out to opt-in, adds "school sanctioned program or activity" to "curriculum," and adds "sexual orientation issues."
When I first heard this, I had the sudden vision of my son being sent back to his seat before he could share a picture of himself and his two moms for Show And Tell. I imagined him wondering what was so wrong with his family that other students needed parental permission to learn about it. I thought about his classmates who would also wonder, and how that would affect the way they treated my son in the future. Suddenly LGBT-friendly Massachusetts, where my spouse and I had wed, seemed a whole lot colder than even the February weather would warrant.
Jones asserted in last week's Bay Windows that his bill would not restrict discussion of LGBT families in the lower grades. The fact that he is lumping sexual orientation with "human sexuality issues" as things that require parental permission, however, means he is still conflating sexual orientation and sexual activity in the time-honored way of many conservative thinkers. The fact is, "human sexuality issues" should cover everything related to sexual activity, whether with the same or opposite sex. There is no need to specify "sexual orientation," which will muddy the waters when non-sexual issues related to LGBT people crop up.
Regardless of Jones' interpretation, Kris Mineau, president of the anti-LGBT Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI), told Bay Windows he thought the bill would cover classroom discussion of LGBT parents. This indicates it is an open question at best. At this point, it is unclear how a judge would rule on the matter.
In any case, the bill's broad wording would make it very hard for teachers on the front lines to know what is permitted and what is not. "Sexual orientation issues" is vague enough that when Billy wants to talk about baking cookies with his two moms, or when Jane wants to share pictures of herself and her two uncles going to the circus, teachers might quash the conversations, afraid of violating the law. What message does that send to the children? How does it impact their confidence about themselves and their families?
For older students, especially ones who are LGBT themselves, the impact is worse. By including "school-sanctioned programs and activities" to the curriculum matters covered by current law, the bill would require LGBT students to come out to their parents before joining gay-straight alliances. For students who fear parental rejection, this could present an insurmountable hurdle. The very students who most need support will shy away from joining GSA's and getting access to the help and resources they need.
LGB youth in Massachusetts were four times more likely than their straight peers to have made a suicide attempt in the past year, according to the 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. These are the students who could benefit the most from participation in GSA's or in classroom discussions about sexual orientation, but also the students who are more likely to come from unsupportive families who would deny them permission. (An article in the January issue of the respected medical journal Pediatrics showed a clear link between parents' rejecting behaviors and suicide risk for LGB youth.) Does Rep. Jones really think he has the best interests of children in mind?
There is much more that is troubling about Jones' bill, including a clause that would allow teachers and administrators to refuse to participate in "any such curriculum program and activities which primarily involves human sexual education, human sexuality issues, or sexual orientation issues that violate his or her religious beliefs." I say if you're going to teach in the public school system, then you need to be prepared to teach the public school curriculum, or work through proper channels to change it. Otherwise, you should find a private school that accords more with your faith. Letting teachers pick and choose will strain an already overburdened system as schools scramble to find other teachers to fill in the gaps.
As one of Rep. Jones' constituents, with a child about to enter the public school system in his district, I am greatly angered by his introduction of this bill. Does it stand a chance of success? Given that he has previously introduced similar bills to no avail, I would say it seems unlikely. Still, after the Prop 8 debacle in California, I have learned never to take anything for granted.
We need to get the word out now, to our representatives across the state, and ask them to stop this bill cold.
MFI's Mineau has said, "We believe it is a parents' rights issue first and foremost, and we believe parents should have the say on whether their child participates in that part of the course or not."
This is not, however, a matter of parents' rights. It is not even primarily about LGBT rights. It is a matter of the best interests of the children.
(Originally published in Bay Windows, Thursday Feb 19, 2009.)