Editorial: Teaching about Homosexuality in Public High Schools


In November 2004, a controversy erupted in upscale Montgomery County, Maryland (next to Washington, D.C.) about a plan to introduce some material about homosexuality into high school curricula, even when not requested by students or parents.


On the surface, it’s easy to see the controversy from a libertarian perspective. Public monies should not be used to promote “deviant” or harmful lifestyles. On the other hand, public funds should not be used to advance one particular (conservative) religious view of the world, to encourage discrimination or conformism.


But, given that you have public education, students who are nearing adulthood (let’s say 11th and 12th graders, from about age 16 and greater) are certainly entitled to being taught objective and complete information about any socially controversial or divisive topic. Students will find out about such materials from the media (or even my own books and websites) anyway. Students are entitled to learn all of the relevant information about biological and cosmological theories, including evolution, creationism, and intelligent design, in an objective fashion. One cannot be intellectually honest if some topics cannot be spoken about (I am reminded here of a scientist, interviewed in the PBS Nova documentary “Time Travel” who says he now will not speak about time travel!) 


This problem, about presenting sexual information honestly, is one that we should work from the inside out, with a sweet opposite field swing. For example, we can start with basic sex education. I don’t think there is much argument that for minors sexual abstinence is the safest practice. Minors should not be taught “how” to have sexual intercourse “safely” in public schools unless individual parents have consented. However, whatever medical information is presented should be objective and accurate. Non-monogamous sex (with a non-monogamous partner) always presents some STD (including HIV) risk (as well as pregnancy risk for vaginal intercourse). The risk varies greatly according to the protection used and mechanics and histories of the partners, with the greatest medical risk existing with unprotected anal intercourse. That is simple medical fact, and if presented at all, it should be presented correctly. But all of this skims the surface, because the real debate is about cultural values.


The scientific education could then migrate to the controversy over the extent to which homosexuality is biologically determined—in man and in many animals. This is unsettled, as is the philosophical implication of any outcome.


We can approach the values question from the legal angle, particularly for high school students who have taken enough U.S. history and government to understand important legal concepts: separation of powers, suspect classes, due process of law, the right to privacy and to be left alone. The advanced student should understand some of the legal arguments to defeat sodomy laws, and some of the equal protection thought that could support the idea of gay marriage, even if it seems likely not to go far right now. Certainly advanced placement high school students can understand this material.


Some conservative groups and politicians (see the Notes below) have been urging school boards to present the viewpoint that homosexuality is chosen and that homosexuals can “change.”  They sometimes seem really to want the school system to adopt their view, and sometimes use HIV statistics (in the gay male community) as a way to justify their demands that adolescent gays consider “changing.” But their real motives seem cultural, and seem aimed to make homosexuality not an acceptable subject in “normal” public interactions or media (particularly as a subject for movies, television, books, etc.)  That would be particularly disturbing to me, given my intentions.


Further, “information” about homosexuality can be presented as semi-factual instruction, perhaps in ninth or tenth grades in health or biology classes.


This gets us to the real heart of the matter, as to why homosexuality seems so close to tooth pulp for some people. That’s culture, values, and the role of the individual in and outside the nuclear family, which has become weaker culturally in recent decades just as individualism has grown. Many conservatives will see the teaching about homosexuality as an affront to their religious values, but that begs the question why religious values cannot be questioned with intellectual candor in a pluralistic society. In fact, academic training in mathematics (the farther you get into differentiation chain rules and integration by parts the better!—and you have to understand what inductive and deductive reasoning—mathematical proof—means in other areas) forces one to think about any problem with intellectual rigor and, yet, openness—we call this facility critical thinking.  In high school, students vary enormously in their critical thinking skills—which tend to develop as students learn to correlate what they learn in different disciplines (literature, foreign languages, social studies, science, and especially math)—Honors or AP students may understand early in high school how to take controversial “information,” but less mature students may not get it even when they graduate. Left to a cut-and-dried view of things (often with the influence of how religion affects thinking in cultural areas) these same conservatives will see instruction about homosexuality as subversive (or inimical) to their whole psychological investment in the nuclear family, which they see as essential to their sense of self-worth and security. To many people, family responsibility is the way you first earn your place in the world, and family responsibility, when carried out, provides a way not only to raise children but also to take care of dependent adults and honored elders.  Many people depend totally on their place in the family for self-worth and have little sense of personal initiative outside of biologically assigned blood family. To teach about homosexuality would seem to be an invitation to teens to go out and desert your family to do your own thing for your own individual happiness, to follow your own chosen goals.  The ostracism faced by many teenage homosexuals forces them to spend even more energy on their own comfort and drives them even further away from family or from citizenship commitments that society normally supports. Now complaints about the losses to family sounds like whining and an admission of insecurity, but many people see the family as something that doesn’t work unless everyone participates (and that includes taking part in providing children and lineage from your own blood if at all possible). Of course, political science teaches us how the Left looks at the family as a transmitter of unearned wealth and privilege and as an easy cover for personal corruption at the top.


The reason why this whole family responsibility thing is so timely now is that it fits into a larger debate about the obligations of citizenship in a world that seems increasingly troubled and threatened, and in which individual freedom must not be taken for granted. A world that faces global warming, oil shocks, terrorism, and worldwide competition for resources may be a world that demands more shared sacrifice in the future than that experienced by recent generations (since the end of Vietnam).  One way to make the world more stable is to make sure that individuals, in expressing their freedoms, show accountability to others and “pay their dues.”  Into this discussion comes concern about falling birthrates, retirement, and how an increasing elderly population can be cared for. Discussions about filial responsibility (derivative of family responsibility) are bound to come back, sometimes in conjunction with proposals about community service and even national service.


The fact is that a free society requires sharing of some responsibilities, in all sorts of ways, ranging from defense (military service and law enforcement), to blood and organ donations, to participation in childcare and giving attention to the disabled and caring for the elderly, as well as careful thought about the personal use of possibly limited resources. The argument can be made that the “gay lifestyle” (particularly for men) inhibits sharing these responsibilities. But then so can the argument made that these constrictions are circular in nature and come from discriminatory laws (the military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy or worse, the refusal in most states to recognize gay marriages or even civil unions, the prohibition in some states against gay adoptions, the strict blood donation policy even for HIV negative gay men). Then the discussion winds down, in annotation, do the cultural importance of connecting sex to procreation, marriage and babies. People (like me) who do not participate in that game are at a distinct disadvantage.


The school systems (as well as campuses) may be the best place for a spirited debate on the “real” citizenship problems.  Some of the material naturally occurs in objective settings in standard high school courses, like biology (where pathogens are presented and STDs can be introduced, and even the scientific concepts underlying retroviruses like HIV can be presented), and social studies, where the gay rights movement can be presented briefly and objectively, at least, as a sequel to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. At a certain point, school systems get caught in the vise between rationalism and religion (as some people experience faith), and this conflict affects other areas such as evolution and the teaching of other topics in history. The underlying philosophical problems tend not to get undressed until college. After all, graduate students still write dissertations on this battle.  In the meantime, the best students in public high schools rightly and cynically suspect that information on critical social and biological science topics is being dumbed down and politicized for the “common good” (particularly overprotection of children) especially in the political climate of “No Child Left Behind.” What students need, of course, is the skills (and the freedom) to get the rest of the information themselves and start connecting the dots. These skills cannot come too early.


One other major point is that students will often be able to find materials about homosexuality or any other controversial subject on their own at home from the Internet. An individual teacher might even have his or her own web domain which a student could find at home through search engines like Google. In that case, the credibility of a school system’s attempt to restrict curricula would come into question, even given that school boards have the legal right to restrict what teachers say in the classroom (and that has been litigated before).




David Crary, AP, provides as story “U.S. Middle Schools to Promote Tolerance,” Jan. 23, 2005. The article points out that conservatives have criticized the initiative as a hidden attempt to condone homosexuality. http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=519&ncid=519&e=12&u=/ap/20050123/ap_on_re_us/no_name_calling


Ben Feller, “Education Feller Condemns PBS Show,” AP Staff Writer, Jan 26, 2005,


complains about spending public money on a cartoon with lesbian characters. The cartoon is “Sugartime” episode “Postcards from Buster” and shows Buster making a trip to Vermont where civil unions are recognized. 


Maria Glod, “Schools Official Assails ‘Gay Lifestyle’, Fairfax Letter Urges Revisions to Teaching,” The Washington Post, Feb. 3, 2005, p. B1, reports that Fairfax County School Board member Stephen M. Hunt sent letters on private stationery to 24 Fairfax County high school principals, in which he urged the school system to provide speakers with an “ex-gay” perspective to present the view that “homosexuality is a choice and ‘a very destructive lifestyle.’” Hunt’s letter was not reviewed by the other 12 school board members and represents only his own views. Hunt notes that his letter says “that students should respect the rights of gay peers. ‘If a person does choose a gay lifestyle, we should respect their freedom, their safety and their choice.’” According to NBC4 in Washington (Feb. 3 2005), the school district presents (1) sexual orientation as innate (2) sexual behavior as chosen (3) abstinence as the safest behavior for teenagers still in high school. There are grassroots efforts to petition to remove or recall Hunt. There seems to me to be an ethical issue of conflict of interest rules. If Hunt is a public official (or in a position where he can speak for an organization besides himself), he should go through channels in making a controversial proposal, rather than going public on his own in order to create a stir.  Another good way to look at this problem is to ask, what if a school board member wanted to present the view (subjunctive mood!) that Jews and Muslims can’t go to Heaven, under the guise of teaching “World History”? But, then again, school boards need to be able to take up almost any culturally controversial information in an orderly manner in deciding how to present it to students.


I will provide here what The Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development, Montgomery County. MD, repeats from the CDC: “…according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ‘Among young men 13-24 years, 49 percent of all AIDS cases reported in 2000 were among men who have sex with men’ and ‘9 percent were among young men infected heterosexually.’”  Among infected males, this statistic actually shows a slow but inevitable increase in heterosexual transmission (relative to homosexual transmission) in the United States (as compared to Africa) over the years. This was reported in a Letter to the Editor, “Risky Business,” The Washington Times. February 8. 2005, p. A16. This letter seemed to be aimed at the idea of promoting in the public schools the possibility that homosexuals can choose to “change.”  Of course, however, many individuals manage lifestyles with increased risks well on their own; what happens to those who can’t?


On Feb 9, 2005 NBC4 reported that a high school (Stone Bridge in Ashburn)  in Loudoun County, VA had performed a play by Sabrina Audrey Jess, Offsides in which two male football characters (allegedly) nearly kiss and may experience homosexual attraction; apparently this has caused a controversy among some parents and politicians. Michael Lewis and Karen Brulliard provide an account, “Gay Themed High School Play Sparks Va. Protests” on Feb. 9, 2005 in The Washington Post. According to the story, “Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) e-mailed his supporters claiming that, in the play, ‘two male students engaged in a homosexual kiss onstage’ and that public schools were ‘being used to promote a homosexual lifestyle.’ His son-in-law, Loudoun County Supervisor Mick Staton Jr. (R-Sugarland Run), followed up with a missive of his own, warning of the play's disturbing "indoctrination." On Sunday, activists blanketed Loudoun churches with fliers decrying the production.” However, more accurate accounts of the 20-minute play say that the lights dim before the kiss, which is not seen explicitly.


In May 2005, Montgomery County, MD announced that it would implement a voluntary health education program in selected middle and high schools (and next school year in all schools) that explains condoms and presents homosexual orientation in an objective matter. Some “conservative” parents (the two groups are Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, and Parents and Friends of Ex-gays and Gays) have filed suit on First Amendment grounds, claiming that kids who opt out (and who support religious-based ex-gay views) would stand out and be stigmatized as “religious,” or “irrational,” or “intolerant.” Jon Ward, “Parents file suit to stop sex-ed: Call new class indoctrination,” The Washington Times, May 4, 2005 (and on May 5, a front-page headline, “Sex-ed program pulled from year’s curriculum”). U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams put the program on hold, and the school system agreed to take it back and review it. Here is a website with updates on the Maryland situation: http://www.teachthefacts.org/index2.html


In May 2005, Walter Jones (R-NC) introduced a bill in the House to withdraw federal education funds from states where school boards don’t establish “parental advisory boards” to review books and other materials published by school libraries. The bill is called the Parental Empowerment Act of 2005 (H.R. 2295). The bill was apparently motivated by the appearance of a novel King & King at a Wilmington, NC school libraries (a fairy tale in which two princes get married). The news story is by Eartha Meltzer, The Washington Blade, May 27, 2005, at http://www.washingtonblade.com/2005/5-27/news/national/bookban.cfm .


On June 9, 2005, Michael Janofsky, “Gay Rights Battlefields Spread to Public Schools,” The New York Times, p A18, maintains that conservative groups have been emboldened by what happened with gay marriage (esp. in Ohio) in the 2004 elections. There is a bill in Alabama to prevent state spending on any materials that promote the homosexual lifestyle, a bill on Oklahoma to require public libraries to restrict access to children to gay materials, and a similar measure proposed in Louisiana. I suppose these measures could eventually affect what publishers will buy. The principal at East Bakersfield High School (CA) declined to allow a series on gay issues to be published out of security concerns (a judge had recommended anonymous publication, which I personally consider unethical).


In April 2006 California considers legislation requiring history and social studies and government textbooks to include materials on gays and lesbians, a proposal that has angered “conservatives.” Jim Christie, “California faces battle over gays in textbooks,” http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20060407/us_nm/rights_gays_textbooks_dc  It’s important to note that kids with Internet access at home will obviously be able to get a more “inclusive” view of history than what is officially taught in any curriculum. In a time when parents are encouraged to limit kids’ Internet use because of predators, it’s important to realize that by high school better students will be able to supplement their learning in any legitimate academic subject (even mathematics) with web research, to find more explanations and sample problems. At the same time teachers have to be vigilant to prevent plagiarism. 


Oct. 2005: It is important to note that there is nothing illegal about minor students having access to materials (books or web content) that would not be part of a formal approved curriculum in public school. This is a somewhat tangential point in considering ongoing litigation regarding the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). Even if COPA were constitutionally acceptable, it would apply to only a small portion of (sexually explicit) materials excluded from most curricula. This point is potentially important because in many states it is illegal for teachers to possess on their persons or in their automobiles any material that is illegal for minors to have while on school grounds. Potentially a restriction like that could affect people who write and are publicly known. 


Oct. 19, 2005  Estabrook Elementary School in Lexington, MA (Dr. Paul Ash is superintendent of schools) presents to kindergarten children the booklet “Who’s In a Family?” (Richard Such and Laura Nienhaus, Ten Speed Press, 1998) and one parent (David Parker) was arrested for trespassing when he refused to leave school grounds when protesting this material being presented to his son. Two other books in the 1990s (Heather has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman, and Michael Willhoite’s Daddy’s Roommate), create a similar stir in the 1990s. The ABC News story “Parent Wages Ideological War after School Gives Son Book About Same-Sex Marriage”, by Jake Tapper and Avery Miller, appears at http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=1230620&page=1


On July 3, 2007 The Maryland State Board of Education approved a sex-education curriculum that includes a somewhat favorable or at least neutral presentation of homosexuality in Montgomery County, MD. The program requires parental approval for a parent’s own child. The ideological disapproval (often based on religion) of the subject matter did not overrule the importance of the material for complete education in health, psychology and biology. The Washington Post (July 4, 2007, p B06, Metro) story by Daniel De Vise is “Maryland State Board Approves County’s Sex-Ed Curriculum,” here.  (registration or purchase may be required).


 Note: This essay was published in 2006 as "Homosexuality Should Be Discussed in High Schools" in "Teenage Sexuality" in the "Opposing Viewpoints" series edited by Ken R. Wells, ISBN 978-0737733624.


©Copyright 2004 by Bill Boushka   Contact page

See companion article and abstinence (with references on abstinence education there); editorial on ex-gay proposals

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