Teaching Sexuality

Teaching Sexuality

Efforts to suppress the sex ed curriculum in Maryland are working.


Students taking sex education in Maryland’s Montgomery County public schools this fall won’t be discussing homosexuality, not unless a student raises a hand to ask about it–and even then, the teacher will have to keep it brief. Nor will students be watching a new video called Protect Yourself!, which uses a cucumber to demonstrate how to put on a condom. (Copies of the video now gather dust in administrative offices in Rockville, Maryland.)

In fact, students taking sex ed in Montgomery County will not see any of the new material from a curriculum unveiled last fall that might have been an alternative educational model to others, developed in this age of abstinence-only funding and national legislation to ban gay marriage. According to the new curriculum, not only was homosexuality something you could talk about, being gay could be a legitimate sexual identity. Thus, adolescent experimentation (“sex play”) with members of the same sex was “not uncommon.” And if you were the son or daughter of a gay couple, that was OK, too: The curriculum included same-sex-parent households as one of nine on a list of “types of family.” The permission-only curriculum–developed for eighth and tenth graders over three years by a twenty-seven-member Citizen’s Advisory Committee that included people from Planned Parenthood, the Daughters of the American Revolution and numerous religious groups–might not have introduced groundbreaking ideas about sex and gender, but it was a leap forward for a county whose aging curriculum combined an emphasis on abstinence with an implicit “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to homosexuality.

On November 9, 2004, the Board of Education gave its unanimous approval, scheduling the curriculum to launch in six “pilot” schools the following spring. A final version would be implemented in the fall of 2005.

The curriculum never reached the pilot stage however. No sooner had the school board given the green light than an assembly of right-wing activists formed to block it, mobilizing under the banner Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum and launching a sensationalistic campaign that accused the curriculum of having a “pro-gay agenda.” Claiming it encouraged students to “self-identify as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual,” and citing what it deemed were inaccurate statistics about STDs, CRC quickly caught the attention of the right-wing Washington Times, eventually being covered by everyone from the Washington Post to Bill O’Reilly.

By spring, the county was mired in controversy. In late April it decided to remove some of the more controversial aspects of the curriculum, including the language about same-sex “sex play.” But it wasn’t enough. Days before the new curriculum was to enter classrooms, the CRC, joined by a Virginia-based group called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX), sued the school board. The central charge: “endorsing a homosexual lifestyle.”

In a stunning ruling on May 5 (the day before classes were to begin), a federal judge sided with the plaintiffs, invoking their First Amendment rights and writing, “The Revised Curriculum presents only one view on the subject–that homosexuality is a natural and morally correct lifestyle–to the exclusion of other perspectives.” A restraining order was placed on the curriculum. The Florida-based religious nonprofit–and Jerry Falwell brainchild–Liberty Council, which provided pro bono legal representation for the lawsuit, called the ruling “the most significant curriculum decision ever rendered.”

From there things quickly unraveled. Within weeks the county superintendent dissolved the Citizen’s Advisory Committee and scrapped the curriculum. For students and sex-ed teachers, it was as if it had never existed.

In many ways, Montgomery County is an unlikely setting for these events. Located just north of DC, it has a reputation as a liberal enclave–a “Kerry-supporting, nuclear-free, recycling county,” in the words of conservative pundit Mona Charen–that would appear to make it fertile ground for a progressive approach to sex ed. Its public schools are considered some of the best in the nation: Five MCPS high schools made the top 100 in the country in Newsweek‘s 2005 “Best 100 High Schools” issue. And residents of Montgomery County, the state’s largest and wealthiest jurisdiction, donated more money to political campaigns in 2004 than all the rest of the counties in the state combined. Donations to Democrats exceeded those to Republicans by a margin of 2 to 1.

Anyone wondering who could be so opposed to teaching about homosexuality in such a solidly “blue” county would find only partial clues in the local press, which repeatedly referred to CRC and PFOX as a pair of local groups made up of “parents and community members.” No thoughtful analysis was provided on the groups’ origins or broader political aims. Moreover, the judge’s ruling in the lawsuit cast the controversy as a fight between concerned parents and an ideologically driven school board, cloaking CRC and its allies in the hallowed robes of the First Amendment and obscuring its underlying agenda.

Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum was founded by Michelle Turner, a born-again Christian and mother of six–as well as a former member of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee who voted against the final version of the curriculum, largely because of its take on homosexuality. (“Our bodies are not meant or created to be used in that way,” she recently told the Washington Post.) In December Turner organized a local meeting unsubtly titled “Recall Montgomery Schoolboard.” The strident right-wing atmosphere surprised Christine Grewell, a local mother and now leader of an opposition group called Teach the Facts. “We came out of there thinking, ‘Here come Dobson and Falwell,'” she recalls, “and damned if we weren’t right.”

Soon thereafter, Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum was born. The group scheduled meetings, started a petition and launched a website. CRC’s innocuous name and catchy tag line, “Safe Schools, Safe Students,” helps obscure the group’s ideology. Not only does it blast the curriculum’s “forceful advocating [of a] pro-gay agenda”; a blog, written by multiple authors, includes everything from potshots at Hillary Clinton to references to Massachusetts’s “diversity police state.” A prominently displayed question: “What is wrong with the new Curriculum?” appears on the homepage. The number-one grievance: It “normalizes homosexuality and presents it as natural and a morally correct lifestyle.”

Steve Fisher, spokesman for CRC, is quick to deny that the group has a problem with gays. Their main concern, he says, is the well-being of MCPS students. “If you’re going to discuss homosexual lifestyles,” he says, “students need to know the pros and cons.”

The people CRC invites to speak on its behalf are happy to provide the cons. Among them: Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council and Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute and co-drafter of the 2001 Defense of Marriage Act. Both were featured at a “town hall” meeting held in March, along with Tres Kerns, of the group Take Back Maryland (whose goal is “to return the state of Maryland and the United States of America back to the Biblical foundations that made Her great and free”), and notoriously anti-gay Anne Arundel County delegate Don Dwyer, whose scorching speech called for a “return to a moral culture.” The “homosexual agenda,” he declared, is “a cultural predator going after the minds that are the most vulnerable…our children.”

The handful of medical experts ostensibly lending credence to CRC’s claims that the curriculum is not only morally bankrupt but “scientifically flawed” are also devoted members of the Christian right. A fifty-one-page critique was provided by Dr. Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor and director of counseling at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Throckmorton’s most recent project is a documentary called I Do Exist, which details “how a transition to a new heterosexual life is possible.” (As for the condom video: “It could be shown to engaged students…as an aspect of pre-marital counseling.”) Meanwhile, Ruth Jacobs, an internist based in Montgomery County, has repeatedly warned of the condom video’s “dangerously misleading message,” citing the many risks of “sexually active lifestyles.” What has not been widely circulated is her preference for a “chastity” message over one that favors “abstinence.” The former, she explains, carries the connotation of “purity and reaching towards God.”

Finally, there is the dubiously titled group Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, the co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Originally called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, PFOX was founded in 1996 by the Family Research Council. In fact, the same Robert Knight who spoke at the CRC’s “town hall” meeting held the press conference to announce the group, nine years ago. Homosexual behavior, he said then, is “unhealthy, immoral and, in many cases, even fatal.” Today, having tacked on “and Gays” to its title, PFOX preaches, “People can and do make the decision every day to seek help in overcoming unwanted same-sex attractions.”

That the opposition to this curriculum has been spearheaded by the religious right is not only a disfigurement of Montgomery County’s widely progressive values; it has also meant that a genuinely relevant question–over what to teach at home versus what to teach at school–has been hijacked for purely political purposes. This has not only wasted Montgomery County’s time and money but has played out at the expense of the education of students the groups claim to defend–students who, it bears noting, are likely no strangers to homosexuality.

With the demise of the curriculum and plans to create a new one from scratch, PFOX and CRC’s lawsuit is basically moot. Still, the ruling remains significant. Much like the current debate over “intelligent design,” wherein creationists have won the right to present an “alternate viewpoint” on evolution, the successful lobbying for a right to bring an “alternative perspective” on homosexuality sets a dangerous precedent. It is bigotry sanctioned as a different point of view. “These kids should not feel that they are sick,” says David Fishback, former chair of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee. Most of Montgomery County, he says, would agree with him. “This [curriculum] didn’t get derailed because of the people of Montgomery County. This got derailed because of an extremist group that is trying to impose its beliefs on the rest of the county.”

Scenarios similar to what happened in Montgomery County will likely play out across the country. US News & World Report has labeled CRC and PFOX’s efforts a “model of how dissenters in other communities should act.” Liberty Council lawyer Erik Stanley has called the conflict a microcosm of the country’s ongoing culture wars. And while Fishback resents the CRC’s coercive strategies, he doesn’t consider their broader efforts much of a threat: “The idea that they may have a broader political agenda? That’s America.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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