Sex ed debates start gaining traction as state wrestles with reproductive health access

Right-wing attacks on LGBTQ+ issues in schools also ramp up

By: - September 19, 2022 3:13 am

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A decades-old fight is bubbling back up to the surface that could be the next hot-button topic in school board meetings across the state: sex education, following heated debates over COVID-19 health policies, race and LGBTQ+ issues

Taryn Gal, executive director of Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health (MOASH), an organization aimed at supporting youth around topics of sexual health and identities, told the Michigan Advance that “attacks on sex ed are ramping up.”

As established by the Legislature, Michigan’s sex education curriculum mostly focuses on AIDS/HIV, promotes abstinence and doesn’t discuss abortion. 

State law says “family planning,” which is defined by the state as “the use of a range of methods of fertility regulation to help individuals or couples avoid unplanned pregnancies; bring about wanted births; regulate the intervals between pregnancies; and plan the time at which births occur in relation to the age of parents,” is off the table for discussion in a sex ed class. 

The law goes on to say that clinical abortions should not be considered a method of family planning, “nor shall abortion be taught as a method of reproductive health.”

“It really is being made into more of a political or controversial issue than it is. We know that the majority of parents and families want comprehensive sex ed in their schools,” said Gal. “Folks are playing into the fear and the shame and the stigma that comes when we talk about sex and sexuality in our society.”

In Michigan, there have been ongoing conversations about what’s “too much” for a K-12 sex education program and what “isn’t enough.”

Those debates have taken place over the years in districts like Saline Area Schools, which had controversy in 2021 over a sex education curriculum for students with disabilities that parents said was too explicit, and Kalamazoo Public Schools, which introduced a new sex education curriuculum in 2019 that includes education on consent, dating violence, sexting and gender identity.

State Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing)  | Anna Gustafson

Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing), who introduced a bill in 2019 to include affirmative consent in the state’s sex education curriculum, said “we need to change the culture.”

“We do a lot to teach girls about saying no and abstinence, but we don’t do a whole lot about teaching responsibility to boys,” Hertel said. “We need to do better to change our culture. And the way that we change our culture, I believe, is to talk about affirmative consent.”

Over the last few years, Democrats in Michigan have also tried to enact legislation that would expand sex ed in the state’s public schools to include sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, but it hasn’t been able to garner the support of their Republican colleagues who have controlled the Legislature since 2011. 

State law makes whether to offer sex education a local district decision. Hertel agreed that some decisions on sex edcuation in Michigan should be decided by the local school boards and the districts’ sexual education advisory boards. 

Debates around the country 

Michigan isn’t the only state seeing the debate over sex education play out as the 2022-23 school year begins. 

At the start of this school year, public school districts in Washington state began teaching a new curriculum for their sex education course that requires students learn about sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. 

The bill was passed in the Washington Legislature in 2020, but was challenged by a group called Parents for Safe Schools, which argued it went too far. They gathered enough signatures to get a referendum proposal on the ballot in 2020, but a majority of voters affirmed that the move to expand sex ed in Washington was the direction they wanted to see the state move in. 

“I think we really need to raise awareness around the importance of sex ed, and then also around the fact that these attacks are happening, or may start to happen more, so that the majority … can get out there and advocate and show how important they know that that is for their students,” Gal said. 

Part of the reason the conversation around sex ed is ramping up, experts say, could be the political interest in abortion and reproductive health care over the last year. With it being one of the top policy issues this election season recent polling showing that abortion is the top issue for Michigan voters it’s bound to come up in local school districts. 

State law prohibits schools from teaching about abortion and schools can be penalized for doing so. 

“I’m assuming districts are planning to address it the same as they have in the past, in terms of not being able to answer questions about it or share information about it,” Gal said, noting that MOASH believes young people have the right to know abortion is an option for them. 

Hertel said schools in Michigan should also be willing to educate students on emergency contraception, like the Plan B pill, especially while the conversation about abortion is going on in the state.

“In a world where abortion is still legal, I believe it’s appropriate to talk about all forms of contraception,” Hertel said. “But Michigan is an abstinence-plus state, so we still talk about abstinence, but we also allow for talking about contraception and I think that things like the morning after pill should certainly be included.”

It really is being made into more of a political or controversial issue than it is. We know that the majority of parents and families want comprehensive sex ed in their schools. Folks are playing into the fear and the shame and the stigma that comes when we talk about sex and sexuality in our society.

– Taryn Gal, executive director of Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health (MOASH

But Gal says that with schools staying mum on abortion, young people who want access to abortions and aren’t able to get parental consent aren’t educated on their options through the judicial system. 

State law prohibits doctors from performing abortion on minors without first obtaining the written consent of the minor and consent from at least one of their parents or legal guardians. There is a way to waive that requirement by going through the courts, but minors won’t be learning about that route at their public school. 

“I think it’s more difficult for [students] to know that abortion is a right even as minors, and about the judicial bypass and then where and how to access that,” Gal said. “Because not only can you not talk about abortion in schools, but you also can’t make referrals or say where you could go to access abortion services.”

Gal says the few attacks that have been argued against comprehensiveness come from a “loud minority” with a lot of power. 

“The attacks seem to be centered a lot around districts doing really good work to put forward inclusive and affirming sex ed … especially for those who have been historically silenced, or ignored or not represented in those spaces,” Gal said.

Attacks on LGBTQ+ kids

This year, there’s also been a coordinated effort from the right to attack books and discussions of LGBTQ+ issues in schools that has, at times, dovetailed with debates over how to teach sex education.

National far-right activist Christopher Rufo, who helped to lead the critical race theory panic that took over school board meetings around the nation last year, is now taking on gender identity and sexuality for his latest campaign against public schools — specifically targeting transgender children and their mental health. 

Rufo cited a Michigan Department of Education training video from 2020 that was designed to help teachers learn about different identities, refer to students by their preferred pronouns and names and how to report concerns about mental health without outing the students to their families. Rufo claims these trainings are creating a “secret gender-radicalism pipeline” and said parents “will revolt against it.”

This was fodder for GOP gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon who used Rufo’s claims in a press release, although she did not use his name, to attack her Nov. 8 opponent, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Dixon said it’s “unconscionable that they believe this is even appropriate when children are suicidal.”

The Trevor Project survey

A 2022 survey from the Trevor Project, the largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people, found that 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. 

However, the study also found that LGBTQ+ youth who found their school to be LGBTQ-affirming and LGBTQ+  youth who felt high social support from their family reported lower rates of attempting suicide. 

At a Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes event, sponsored last week by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR), Attorney General Dana Nessel said during her speech that a Black, gay high-schooler came up to her in tears at a school event days before and said that he “couldn’t stand the continuous taunting anymore about his race and about his sexual orientation.”

“And that because the kids at his school had heard it from some of the highest leaders in the country and in the state, that the kids at school routinely called him a pedophile. And that he often thought of dropping out of school, and sometimes about killing himself,” Nessel said, appearing to hold back tears.

Nessel, the mother of two children, said it’s up to leaders to “condemn violent rhetoric” and stand up for LGBTQ+ kids and those in other marginalized groups.

Advance reporter Laina G. Stebbins contributed to this story.


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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.