Editorial: Teaching about Homosexuality in Public High Schools
In November 2004, a controversy erupted in upscale
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
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
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,”
Ben Feller, “Education Feller Condemns PBS Show,” AP Staff
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
Maria Glod, “Schools Official
Assails ‘Gay Lifestyle’, Fairfax Letter Urges Revisions to Teaching,” The Washington Post,
I will provide here what The Citizens’ Advisory Committee on
Family Life and Human Development,
In May 2005,
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,
In April 2006
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.
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
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.
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