Taking the sex out of sex ed

State Board of Education places politics before education

On November 5, the Texas State Board of Education voted to approve four new health textbooks, all of which contain - to the dismay of many, including some of its own members - the last-minute addition of language that defines marriage as "a lifelong union between a husband and wife." And, despite the best efforts of hundreds of concerned parents and teens who lobbied this summer for more comprehensive sex education, the textbooks provide nary a reference to barrier contraception, promoting instead an abstinence-only approach.

The books have been criticized, mourned, and lampooned by onlookers, but considering the political tone of the country, is the board's action that surprising?

"I'll be honest with you, the outcome of the election does have an impact on the tone that is set throughout the textbook debate," said Jennifer Bilbrey director of government affairs at Planned Parenthood. "That's why you saw it happen on the third day after the election. And I think we may see this continue to happen."

This is not my beautiful family

The SBOE's attack on same-sex marriage was the brainchild of Republican board member Terri Leo of Spring, who ran unopposed for re-election this year. She will serve another four-year term, beginning in January. Although Leo did not respond to repeat phone calls from the Current, she has been quoted as saying that the changes were based on her objection to "asexual stealth phrases" like "individuals who marry."

Leo asked for two other changes that were rejected by the publishers: "Opinions vary on why homosexuals, lesbians, and bisexuals as a group are more prone to self-destructive behaviors like depression, illegal drug use, and suicide"

"If you discuss homosexuality in class, be aware that Texas law rejects homosexual 'marriage.' Students can therefore maintain that heterosexuality and homosexuality are not moral equivalents, without being charged with 'hate speech.'"

Board member Mary Helen Berlanga, a Democrat from Corpus Christi, says the books' heterosexual messages were clear before the changes. "I looked through the book and all I could find was a picture of a husband, a wife and two kids," she says. "There was one with three girls standing near three boys. Do they think the girls are not with their dates? Do they think they are three lesbians?"

Although she expressed her incredulity and concern to fellow board members, she was vastly out-numbered as the board voted 10-4 against approving the books without the changes. Siding with Berlanga were Democrats Mavis Knight of Dallas, Joe Bernal of San Antonio, and Renee Nunez of El Paso.

Due to successful efforts by State Board of Education member Terri Leo, health textbooks in Texas schools exclude any acknowledgement that gay or lesbian relationships exist, or even that the books' readers could be gay or lesbian themselves. (The handwriting on the page is by a textbook representative.)

What seems to concern Berlanga most is that by entertaining Leo's demands, the board stepped outside its authority: The Texas Legislature doesn't allow the board to decide content. "We are only supposed to require changes if the text is not in line with Texas Essential Knowledge Standards, if the book bindings are falling apart, or if there are factual errors. We are not supposed to be rewriting the book according to our own whims or political agenda."

The only check on that authority would come from the citizens - who, due to the last-minute nature of the changes did not get to weigh in - or from the publishers who, while refusing to make two of the other changes demanded by Leo, did not find the addition of a marriage definition unreasonable.

"Texas law doesn't recognize marriage between persons of the same sex," says April Hatori vice president of communications at Glencoe/McGraw Hill. "So, in response to concerns expressed by the board, Glencoe agreed to make a very small number of changes in reference to marriage." Glencoe, publisher of two of the approved books, has not determined if it will include the changes in its national editions. Hatori says its author and editorial teams will make that decision. Rick Blake, a spokesman for Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, the other publisher, says it will not include the changes in the national editions of its books.

Texas amendment could ban gay marriage

Should same-sex couples enjoy the benefits of marriage?

If Representative Warren Chisum (R-Pampa) has his way, the people of Texas will answer that question with a vote next November.

Last week, Chisum pre-filed a joint resolution, named HJR 6, proposing a constitutional amendment "providing that marriage in this state consists only of the union of one man and one woman." Coincidence or Part Two of the November attack on Texas' gay citizens? If the amendment were to pass, it would effectively bar Texas' same-sex couples from enjoying the benefits and responsibilities of marriage, such as hospital visitation rights, making medical decisions for a spouse, family leave, inheritance rights, veteran's benefits, and Social Security survivor benefits.

"We don't disagree that the issue of access to marriage for gays and lesbians is controversial," says Chuck Smith, a spokesman for the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. "We welcome further debate, but it should be debated among the citizens and resolved through legislation, not by amending the state's constitution. The Constitution is there to protect the citizens of Texas, it should not be used to single out and take away the rights of any class of Texas citizens."

Texas legislators will convene in mid-January. As a constitutional amendment, HJR 6 is required to pass by two-thirds of the Texas House and Senate. Should that occur, then it will go to a ballot measure before the voters of Texas in November.

In the meantime, Smith says, LGRLT will focus on education: "We hope to convince people that there is no rational reason why committed gay and lesbian couples should be denied access to this institution that would enable them to legally protect, not only their relationships, but their families."

Where does the country stand on same sex marriage?

Thirty-eight states have enacted anti-gay marriage laws.

On November 2, 11 states voted to enact constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, bringing the total to 15.

Massachusetts is the only state that currently allows gay couples to marry, while Vermont allows civil unions, meaning same-sex couples are eligible for the 300-plus benefits that married couples are eligible for in Vermont. Six cities have passed domestic partner laws obliging businesses to provide the same benefits for same-sex couples as they do for married couples: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland, New York City, Seattle, and Tumwater.

Eight states allow bereavement rights for domestic partners.

Contact your state senator and representative about the proposed amendment. Visit www.saveourconstitution.org "Fax Your Representative" for talking points. To see phone numbers for local legislators, go to "Yak at your rep" here at the online Current.
According to Berlanga, some of the board's Republicans were just as concerned as she was about the timing and tone of the changes, but voted for them out of political fear. "They felt like if they voted against it, it was like voting against motherhood and apple pie," she says. "They knew it was wrong, but they were worried about the next election."

Be that as it may, the danger now is that Texas has set a precedent for other states with similarly conservative agendas who could follow suit in setting politics and ideology above science, and ultimately, the health of their children: "It will have an impact, because there will be some places that will want it exactly the way that Texas has it. So that's the downside you know," Berlanga says.

The other downside is that Texas' teens are now stuck with a textbook that focuses so much on excluding various sexual orientations that it provides only the narrowest definition of family. "What's disappointing to me is not just that a definition that will demean or discourage gay teens is in the books," explains Bilbrey. "But that it also demeans all kinds of other Texans who parent in different ways. We have kids in school who are the products of single moms and all kinds of different family relationships, who will look at that definition and think - that's not where I come from."

Stone Age sex ed

In regards to sex education, Berlanga says that she felt "pretty satisfied with the books" because contraceptive charts - including failure rates and STD protection stats for various forms of birth control - are included in the teacher editions and supplemental materials, available with the books at no extra charge.

While that means that instructors can teach it, and school districts can provide students with the supplemental materials, it also means they can choose not to. Do you have a teacher that uses the supplementary materials or not? Are you in a school district that uses the abstinence-only Worth the Wait program, or are you in one that has a health advisory council with parents who want more comprehensive sex education in their school? In other words, it might come down to the discretion of an individual, "which is scary because once again it leaves it up to the most vocal in the community," says Bilbrey.

Like many, she expresses sadness and outrage "that Texas teens will be subjected to books that are incomplete," but also disappointment. "So often, we hear from the other side during the legislative session. This summer it felt good because so many people spoke out for comprehensive sex education. But the board just completely ignored them."

Texas leads the nation in teen birthrates, the percentage of children without health insurance, and ranks 43rd in percentage of teens dropping out of high school. "It feels to me like we can do better than this," says Bilbrey.

You and your school district

It will be another 10 years before Texas reevaluates health textbooks. However, it is not too late to write and tell the publishers that the controversy over same-sex marriage doesn't belong in children's health classes. It could persuade them not to adding Leo's definition of marriage to the national editions of their books.

Both Bilbrey and Berlanga encourage parents to lobby the school district and their teen's school to make sure the comprehensive sex education portion of the teacher's edition is being taught, and that supplementary materials are being distributed.

In addition, Bilbrey says, every school district is required by law to have a school health advisory council, appointed by the Department of State Health Services, whose charge includes recommending course materials related to human sexuality, including STDs, HIV, and human reproduction. The council is made up of physicians from both the community and the schools; parents; school administers; and members of children's health organizations. Parents can contact or join the school health advisory council. E-mail [email protected] for more information.

By Susan Pagani


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