Discussing Homosexuality in Schools In Massachusetts, parents and educators grapple over a portrayal of contemporary families which includes same-sex parents.
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Discussing Homosexuality in Schools

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Discussing Homosexuality in Schools

Discussing Homosexuality in Schools

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In the 2004 elections gay marriage was a major battleground in America's culture war. In some parts of the country the fight has moved from city hall to the classroom. In public school districts around the country, the debate now is how and whether to discuss homosexuality and gay sex in class.

Recently the Massachusetts state legislature held hearings on a bill that would raise the prominence of the health curriculum, which includes sex ed classes where homosexuality is explained and discussed in elementary school. Some parents and teachers adamantly object.

Last spring in Montgomery County, Maryland, a parents group sued the local school board over its curriculum, which taught that sexual orientation is not a choice but a natural response. Today we'll hear from the front lines in this debate, and we want to hear from you. Is this an issue in your school district? How's it playing out? We'd also like to hear from those of you who teach sex ed. Does homosexuality get talked about in your classroom? Our number 800-989- 8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Later in the program, Haiti elects a new president amid claims of voter fraud. But first homosexuality, the classroom and the culture war. To start off we begin with State Representative Alice Wolf, a Democrat in the Massachusetts Assembly. She's the sponsor of legislation that would make health class and sex ed a priority in Massachusetts classrooms. She joins us now by phone from Lower Waterford, Vermont. And nice of you to be with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

State Representative ALICE WOLF (Democrat, Massachusetts): Hello, Neal. Glad to be with you.

CONAN: As I understand it, your bill would recommend that schools in your state explain human sexuality and homosexuality to students by fifth grade. Why, in your mind, is it important for this to be taught to 10-year-olds?

Representative WOLF: Well, you know, this is, I'll just say this. This is part of a comprehensive health curriculum. And I know you want to focus on this particular area, and I will, but it also includes mental health, nutrition, substance abuse and so forth.

And it's part of helping children and young people to make healthy choices, and so when we get to the issue of reproduction and sexuality, which is one of 14 subjects in this curriculum, we know that this is an area where children and young people are getting all kinds of messages from billboards and movies and everywhere else, and I think that, and many other people think that it is very important that they get good basic information.

CONAN: And obviously, as you know, many people say this is information that they should be getting from their parents or maybe at church, but not necessarily from school.

Representative WOLF: Well, uh, you know, it is certainly true they should be getting it from their parents, and I think their parents should be involved in the development of these curricula. But it is also important that all of the kids get a balanced view, that they get facts, because ultimately they're going to be all together in their classrooms and on their school grounds and they're gonna to be working together. And so really it has a huge impact on every day in their community.

CONAN: Under your bill, would there be a provision that would allow parents to opt out?

Representative WOLF: Yes, that is the presently the law, and that law continues.

CONAN: In Lexington, Massachusetts, a parent took issue with a book his kindergartner received at school. It was a book called Who's in a Family, which depicts same-sex parents. Do you know how widespread books like that would be in schools in your state? Is it, are these...

Representative WOLF: Well, I mean those books have been around for a while. This is not new. That particular parent responded to that, and I would just make the point that for young children having a book about different kinds of families, I mean they are not thinking about sex. They're thinking about their classmates and what their families are like. This one's, you know, this has one, maybe some families have a single parent, some have two mommies, and believe me, five-year-olds are not going to sex in this.

You know, and I would say, let me tell you, I had a school volunteer who was working with a first-grader for reading, tell me that the child mentioned, oh, you know, there's a kid in my class who has two mommies. This comes up and this is part of knowing that this is the way it is.

CONAN: And it should be pointed out that, of course, in Massachusetts gay marriage is legal.

Representative WOLF: Yeah, it's true. Gay marriage is legal. And of course, you know, some of this opposition that we're talking about has come about because there has been, you know, the issue of gay rights, demanding gay rights or equal rights is very controversial with some people. And so they are, that's really the reason that many people, not all people, but many people are very concerned about this, and this is why they're fighting it. And I would say that as that fight goes on, you know, you have to think about what kind of a message that sends out.

That has, again, a huge impact on the classroom and the schoolyards. Do you want a perfectly great kid who happens to have two mothers to be beaten up on their way to school? So you know, this has ramifications that are very broad.

CONAN: And where does the bill stand now?

Representative WOLF: The bill right now is in the Education Committee, which is where it was heard two weeks ago, and we don't know yet exactly what will happen to it. I'm hoping it will be reported out of the committee favorably. But as you say, there's been a lot of controversy around it. And we'll see.

CONAN: Alice Wolf, thanks very much.

State Representative WOLF: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Alice Wolf, State Representative from Massachusetts, a Democrat. She joined us by phone from Lower Waterford in Vermont. As we mentioned earlier, Montgomery County, Maryland was home to a recent controversy about sex ed curriculum in which eighth-graders would be allowed to speak freely about homosexuality in the classroom.

The group Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum fought that pilot program, and it was suspended before the new curriculum was implemented. John Garza is vice president for Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum. He joins us today here in studio 3A. Thanks for coming down to join us on the show.

Mr. JOHN GARZA (Vice President, Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum): Thank you very much for having me, Neal.

CONAN: What about this curriculum concerned you?

Mr. GARZA: Well, having listened to the State Senator in Massachusetts, I couldn't agree with every, I agree with everything she said.

I'm 100 percent in favor of a healthy education system that provides good information to our children along the lines of sex education. What happened in Montgomery County was, is that it was not balanced as the State Senator suggested we should have.

What we had in Montgomery County was, for example, a condom video that had a Madison Avenue gloss to it with a very attractive young lady in a very tight shirt advocating the use of condoms, not only for vaginal sex but oral sex and also anal sex. We pointed out to the Board of Education that the condom manufacturers themselves would tell you that it's not safe to use a condom for anal sex. It's on the box.

They ignored all 4,000 of our petitions that we brought to the Board of Education. In addition to that, we thought that advocating that being gay is something that you're stuck with for the entire, or being heterosexual is something you're stuck with, is the wrong message to an eighth grader. We think that eighth graders should be allowed to choose their sexual identity over time. In fact, you could go from gay to homosexuality at age 30, 40 or 50.

Why tell someone that they're stuck or labeled at an age of eight, or in eighth grade. There were a lot of other things that we disagreed. For example, the resources provided that if a child came to a teacher who said, I think I may be gay and my priest would tell me that that's a sin. What should I do?

They were directed to send them to quote "sensitive clergy" in other denominations. We felt that was highly inappropriate for the school system. What we asked the school to do is provide a balanced program that tells all the facts about homosexuality, sex. We feel that sex at any age in high school is bad.

And homosexual sex, especially anal sex amongst men, is highly dangerous. When I came in here I saw a sign that said NPR is a smoke-free environment.

Anal sex is actually much more dangerous than smoking for your health.

CONAN: Well, let's not get into that today, right now.

MR. GARZA: Okay.

CONAN: But I wonder, when, obviously you're trying to fight City Hall, or the school board, I guess, in this context.

MR. GARZA: Right.

CONAN: Did you go, did you get help from outside?

MR. GARZA: We searched out law firms that specialize in Constitutional law.

MR. GARZA: We approached about five or six law firms and the one that came back to us, the first was a firm called Liberty Counsel. And they also agreed to represent us at no charge. So we chose them.

CONAN: Hmm mm. That no charge part.

MR. GARZA: That was very helpful.

CONAN: Very convincing.

MR. GARZA: We have very little money. We are not backed by any national organizations. It's all simply about 4,000 parents in Montgomery County came together and formed this group.

CONAN: And so do you feel like you've been taken up as sort of the poster children of this movement to some degree?

MR. GARZA: Well, I think Montgomery County is looked as a leader in education throughout the country. The leaders at the Board of Education see themselves as the cutting edge on all areas of educational matters.

And I think that because they are the leaders in this area, we ended up becoming the poster child of those who oppose a pro-homosexual agenda in the high schools.

CONAN: And, as you know, this is a big issue I guess in what's broadly called the culture wars, this idea that there's a homosexual agenda that people are at. And would you describe yourself as a soldier in that campaign?

MR. GARZA: Reluctantly so. I'd rather not be a soldier in that campaign. I have three kids of my own. I'd rather be going to soccer games and piano lessons. But in an effort to protect not only my own children but my neighbors' kids, we wanted to inject our feeling about what was happening.

CONAN: And where does all of this stand now?

MR. GARZA: Where it stands now is that the, due to our lawsuit the curriculum was scrapped. A new curriculum is being formed right now by the Board of Education. We understand that that will be rolled out sometime in the spring of this year.

And once we get ahold of that curriculum, we'll examine it and if it's fair and balanced we're going to support it. If it is flawed again, then we will unfortunately have to deal with that.

CONAN: And is this going to be another process of lawsuits or is there now a venue for you and the other parents to be able to discuss this before you have to resort to the law?

MR. GARZA: Well, we have begged the Board of Education to meet with us and they have refused to ever talk to us or meet with us. I would ask them to please sit down, I'll buy lunch at the restaurant of their choice, and let me at least talk to them face to face as friends. And not as litigants.

CONAN: John Garza, thanks for very much for being with us.

MR. GARZA: I appreciate you having me here.

CONAN: And we appreciate your time today.

John Garza, vice president for Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum in Montgomery County, Maryland. And he joined us here in studio 3A.

We're going to take a short break. We're talking about schools and how they teach or do not teach about homosexuality and about homosexual sex.

Tell us what's happening in your community, in your classroom, even in your own home.

Our number is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. You can also send us e-mail,

I'm Neal Conan, this is TALK OF THE NATION. Back after the break.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about one of the focal points in today's culture wars. What should children learn about homosexuality and when and where?

To get a better sense of how public opinion divides on this issue we turn now to Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. He is with us by phone from his office in Chicago.

Thanks very much for being with us today.

MR. TOM W. SMITH, (Director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center): Yes, good afternoon.

CONAN: Is there good data on what public attitudes are about teaching sex ed, particularly about homosexuality in schools?

MR. SMITH: Yes, there is. Questions on this topic have been asked on good national samples a couple dozens times over the last ten years.

The most recent I've seen was a poll done just about two years ago. And it asked whether the topic of, in sex education programs, what were appropriate topics, and the one was homosexuality and sexual orientation. That is, being gay, lesbian or bisexual.

And that topic as part of sex education was supported by 73 percent of the public for high school classes. And by 68 percent of the public for middle school classes.

And so a substantial majority believe that this topic is an appropriate one for sex education.

CONAN: And obviously people will say that people respond to questions like that depending on how they're phrased. And some people, like John Garza, obviously you didn't ask people about his situation in Montgomery County, Maryland.

But if the question was posed, did you want the gay lifestyle to be promulgated in school, people might react differently.

MR. SMITH: Yes, what we find is, you know by kind of looking over the series of different questions, you find about 25 percent of people who just don't want this topic touched. And then another about a third of the public who say, yeah we could touch it but what you should basically tell people is it's wrong and it's immoral. Okay.

Then you have at the other end, you have 25 percent that say include it and include it as saying this is one of the many lifestyles, one of the many practices in sexual life. So this is, you know, a very open tolerant liberal approach to it.

And then you have a little group in between that makes up the balance who, again, want something taught but don't want to go as far. They certainly don't want to teach the lesson that it's immoral. But they don't want to go quite as far as saying it's simply an equal and alternative lifestyle.

So you really do have the public, you know, this is one in which there is no consensus.

CONAN: And is there...

MR. SMITH: You have the public all over the map in terms of ignore it, teach it as an equal part of sexuality, and various positions in between.

CONAN: And speaking of all over the map, are there differences by region, by gender, by age?

MR. SMITH: Well, of course what you would tend to find, first of all regionally you would find parents in large metropolitan areas, in New England, the Mid- Atlantic and the West Coast would tend to be most open to teaching about this topic. And also more open to teaching it in a more open and progressive manner.

Rural areas, areas of the South and particular areas with a strong representation of the evangelical faith, would be the least supportive of this.

Younger parents, there's been a big shift in terms of openness towards homosexuality over generations. And so younger parents as opposed to older adults would take and be more open to this being part of the curriculum.

Better educated. If you're college educated or particularly if you have a graduate school education, you're more open to this as a topic and then also would take, tend to take the more alternative lifestyle approach as what should be taught about it.

CONAN: If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255, talk@npr.org.

Let's go to Melissa. Melissa calling us from Charlottesville, Virginia.

MELISSA (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MELISSA: My comment is, I'm a human health and sexuality educator at a private elementary school here in Charlottesville, teaching K through five.

CONAN: Hmm mm?

MELISSA: And while we do not address homosexuality and sex, per se, in kindergarten class, what I find interesting is that this is part of some of these children's world.

We have children in that particular class whose grandparents are homosexuals. And this is part of the world that they live in, it's normal, it's healthy, it's caring.

And if we negate that in terms of the way that we teach these children, then were negating the family that they know and love. And I'm not sure, well it's not that I'm not sure, I know that that's not a healthy way to teach children at that age.

CONAN: Melissa, do they ask you questions about it?

MELISSA: They do ask questions. And what I will often do is, bounce back. I had a child say to me, Well, my babysitter said it's not right to have two moms. And so I bounced the question back to them and say, Well, how would we feel then as children, and these are four, five, sometimes six year olds, How would you feel if somebody told you that it wasn't okay to have a mom and a dad?

And they're shocked by that. I mean that would be mortifying to them.

CONAN: Hmm mm.

MELISSA: But we are so willing to kind of set aside this sexual nature of children and not realize that it's part and parcel of the social and cognitive and emotional development of a healthy child.

Now once I hit the fourth and fifth graders we do start talking about homosexuals and that often times it's in flux during adolescence, and that's okay, and that you will unfold as you are meant to be, and we don't know.

I mean we still don't know where, how people, you know, choose or become or are born and we talk about that.

This is what we know, this is what we don't know.

CONAN: And Melissa, just to reemphasize, you're teaching in a private school.

MELISSA: I'm teaching in a private school.

CONAN: Yeah. Okay, thanks very much, appreciate it.

MELISSA: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Bye-bye. This is not the only instance, in terms of Massachusetts and Montgomery County, Maryland, which public schools have become battle grounds in the culture wars.

Alan Wolfe is a professor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. He writes often about the culture wars and he's with us now from the studios of our member station in Boston, WBUR.

Nice to have you on the program again.

Professor ALAN WOLFE (Professor and Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Why are the culture wars so often duked out, do you think in public school?

Professor WOLFE: Well the great Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited us in the 1830s, said that in America all political issues eventually become judicial ones.

What he should have said was that in America all political issues eventually become fights over children.

It just doesn't matter what the issue is. It can be race, it can be prayer, it can be anything. Eventually we will fight about children and now we're doing that with respect to this divisive issue about homosexuality.

CONAN: Now these issues tend to be decided in public schools, very locally. How does that affect how these debates unfold?

Professor WOLFE: It affects it enormously. I mean unlike say in European countries where you've got a big welfare state and big national government, we don't have much of that, but we have the world's most extensive public school system.

And as a result this is our government, this is our kind of public sphere. The schools are the only thing we have. And so that's where the energy gets concentrated. Now, the crucial thing is implied in your question, Neal.

The schools are local. And that means that unlike, say, the issue about gay marriage, which was framed as a Constitutional amendment and which was national by its very nature, and got into the presidential campaigns, these kinds of things can't get into presidential campaigns because they're fought out in local communities like Montgomery County, Maryland and not at the national level. That makes a big difference.

CONAN: Yet you do have national groups on one side or the other that do get involved in local disputes.

Professor WOLFE: Your friend who I listened to, Mr. Garza, said that he had no national groups behind him. And I think that's very significant and very important. I wish Montgomery County the best of luck in resolving this.

One of the things that often happens in local communities is that people do know each other. And while they start out furious and at the barricades, the fact that they're neighbors generally means that they find a consensus eventually.

I was reminded when AIDS first came about. You know, people were talking about this is, you know, punishment for the sin of homosexuality. But as people got to know the first cousins of people who got this disease, the intensity cooled because real people were involved.

And when you, when it's not abstractions but real people, then you're much more likely to find a consensus. It doesn't guarantee they'll find one in Montgomery County. But I hope they do.

CONAN: Let's get another listener on the line. This is Rick, Rick calling us from Montague in Massachusetts.

RICK (Caller): Hi Neal, good topic for this afternoon.

CONAN: Thanks.

RICK: My two kids are in public school and we're two gay parents living in a very small town in Massachusetts. And the thing at the State House kind of got a lot of publicity in statewide papers and it seems to have brought out a lot of the same people who were against the gay marriage things a couple years ago.

And I do take issue that it's not a national issue. And I think that a lot of the people who represented it at the hearings were from national groups. And what they do, they really don't want any sex education period, in a lot of the public schools.

CONAN: Well, there is that opt-out clause, they don't have to send their kids there.

RICK: Right.

CONAN: All right, so let me turn to you, Tom W. Smith. In a sense, you were talking about these big national surveys about public opinion, but as Rick is suggesting and as we're hearing, local school boards decide this on a local basis. And it's not large numbers of people for the most part but small groups of people who are very concerned about the issues in the debate.

Mr. SMITH: Right, well we have an extremely decentralized educational system. And as Tip O'Neill indicated, all politics is local so you put those two things together, and you have these very intense battles in local school districts. You know, the school district in Pennsylvania where intelligent design became the battle ground, and it seems to me to be almost a random process as to just where any particular issue may pop up. Just some kind of brining together of a parent who notices something, someone who's motivated to organize to deal with this, that it just kind of, you know, just pops up in different places.

CONAN: Okay. Rick, is this--you say it was an issue, obviously, in Boston, but not where you live.

RICK (Caller): In--no, our kids both go to quite small schools in the small town we live in, but the, and there are a lot of gay parents out in this area, and I think that a lot of the schools systems are very aware that, you know, they have to be, you know, just polite and really just cover all sorts of so- called lifestyles that, you know, you've brought up.

But the religious right has really been, you know, you may not think they're active locally, but, you know, I'd turn on the local cable TV station, and there's a local TV show produced by, you know, local people, but they have, you know, national people come in and talk about these issues on their local TV program. So, it is kind of motivated by Focus on the Family, and those groups.

CONAN: Alan Wolfe?

Mr. WOLFE: I think those national groups generally, I don't doubt that they're involved. They often keep a low profile, though, because they know how unpopular they are. Focus on the Family, Pat Robertson, all those hard right evangelicals. So, they may be in the background there, and I'm sure they are. You know, but they understand also that these kinds of local things are best fought by local people.

CONAN: Rick, thanks very much for the call.

RICK: Oh, thank you very much.

CONAN: Appreciate it. We're talking today about homosexuality, sex ed, and public schools. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is 800-989- 8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our email address is talk@npr.org. A little bit later in the program, we're going to be getting the latest on the presidential election in Haiti, where a winner has been declared. There are also, however, charges of voter fraud. So, stay tuned for that. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. And we'll turn to Molly. Molly is calling us from Denver, Colorado.

MOLLY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MOLLY: I have a comment and a question. The comment is that I agree with the sex ed in the schools. I agree that kids should be taught about alternative lifestyles and everything, but I would up it one notch, a bit. I would say that I think adults should be included in that more and more, alongside their kids, because I've worked for churches for years and years, and every Sunday, I hear anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-gay marriage, over and over, week after week.

And if the kids are not being educated in school, well, in other words, any education that's in school could be counteracted with all of this preaching on the weekends that the parents and the kids hear. And, I think to make it more balanced, that the parents should be involved in this sex ed also.

CONAN: Mm, Alan Wolfe, I wonder what you think about that.

Mr. WOLFE: Well, I think it sounds like an intriguing idea. It hadn't occurred to me, but it certainly sounds very positive. You know, one of the things that the caller from Denver, that her comment provokes in me is that we may have our disagreements about homosexuality, we may have our disagreements about sex education, but everyone who's a parent has one thing in common, and that is they have children.

And it seems to be that there's that universality. We all know that raising children in this society is enormously difficult. I would hope that, you know, while things focused on local schools can divide people, this recognition that it's hard to find answers, that it's an imperfect world, and we love our children, that that would be something that people across the spectrum, irrespective of their views, could have in common.

CONAN: Molly, thanks very much.

MOLLY: Thank you.

CONAN: And see if we can get one more caller in. Willie, Willie calling us from Naples, Florida.

WILLIE (Caller): Yeah, well, appreciate it, enjoying the show and topic. You know, I by no means put myself in the far right evangelical Christian side, but, you know, I do attend church on Sunday and all, and it seems that there's this perception that if you are against this and being taught in your schools, that you must be far right. And that's just not the case. And, my daughter I don't, you know, those subjects and that level of sexuality, I think is a parent-child conversation.

CONAN: And Tom Smith, Willie is not alone.

WILLIE: And it comes down to, you know, I guess that's the whole opt out side of the program, because, you know, why are we teaching these things in the school that are parenting? You know, why are the schools becoming the parent? There should be so many things that the schools system should be teaching in the basics, rather than teaching parenting.

CONAN: Well, a lot of people think that this is a health issue, as well, in many respects, and that health needs to be taught to kids in school. Anyway...

WILLIE: You separate the two. It's hard, it's difficult, but you can separate the two, I believe.

CONAN: Willie, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. And we'd like to thank our guests today. Tom W. Smith, who is the Director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. Thank very much, Mr. Smith.

Mr. SMITH: My pleasure.

CONAN: And Alan Wolfe, who was kind enough to come into the studios of our member station WBUR in Boston, Massachusetts. Thanks as always.

Mr. WOLFE: As always with me, Neal.

CONAN: Alan Wolfe is a professor and Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. Author of One Nation After All: What Americans Really Think About God, Country, Family, Racism, Welfare, Immigration, Homosexuality, Work, the Right, the Left, and Each Other. Got to love that subtitle. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we're going to be discussing the presidential election in Haiti, and whether that clears the way ahead for the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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