When The Conversation Doesn't Include You: LGBTQ+ Sex Ed In A Small Town
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Here on the program, we're bringing you a series about a topic you don't hear a lot about on public radio, sex - how it shapes our identities, our culture. And because we're going to be talking about sex, the next 12 minutes might not be suitable for all listeners.
Today's story is about sex ed, specifically sex ed for LGBTQ teens. Communities around the country are debating whether to teach sex ed that includes gender and sexual minorities. And one of the places that's having a big fight about this is a small town in Michigan called Allendale. It's a quiet place just right outside Grand Rapids. When you drive off the main road, you hit farms within minutes. My producer Alyssa Edes and I went there together.
ALYSSA EDES, BYLINE: It's where we met Quinn Robinson...
QUINN ROBINSON: All right, now I'm grabbing him...
EDES: ...Who spends hours every day in her bedroom...
ROBINSON: ...Putting him on the back of my horse.
EDES: ...Kidnapping people.
ROBINSON: And now I'm kidnapping...
EDES: How does he stay on the butt of the horse?
ROBINSON: You don't...
CHANG: There is a reason Quinn holes herself up in here all day. When she's online playing with other gamers, she can be anyone she wants.
ROBINSON: I think being behind the screen, when people don't see my face, it's way easier to talk to people. So I can just be this westerner who's running around. And no one cares. Like, that's just me now.
EDES: Quinn's a senior in high school. She came out as transgender her sophomore year. And in the year since, that's made for some painful moments in Allendale.
ROBINSON: There's been kids that have approached me and be like, hey, you should burn in hell.
CHANG: People have said that to your face.
ROBINSON: People have said that to my face.
CHANG: It's always been this way, this feeling of never fitting in, even though she grew up here in west Michigan.
ROBINSON: It's, like, this weird sect of Michigan that's conservative. And, like, especially in the school, it's, like, really Christiany (ph) for some reason. Like, it's not a Christian school. But people are Christian there.
CHANG: It makes you uncomfortable?
ROBINSON: It does, yeah because everyone's so conservative. And they're like, you must be this way. But I don't want to be that way.
CHANG: That way, that way that Allendale is, Quinn says, is why this town erupted over sex ed.
EDES: A bunch of parents banded together and demanded that the school district ban any mention of LGBTQ issues in sex ed - or in any class, for that matter. And they called on the superintendent to get rid of any language about queer and trans kids in the school district's anti-bullying campaign.
CHANG: What really set them off was when they found out one teacher had explained sexual and gender identity in her class. Tiffany Harp teaches an elective called Family and Relationships.
TIFFANY HARP: I would explain to them how gender identity is your internal sense of what it means to be male or female. And then for some people, their gender identity sometimes doesn't align with their biological sex. And kids, when they asked those questions, they were like, oh. Like, it made sense to them.
EDES: It did not make sense to a lot of other people. Outraged parents started showing up at public hearings. On some nights, there was standing room only. They accused the school district of indoctrinating students with, quote, "radical sexual ideology."
(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC HEARING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: When you fundamentally discredit the very nature of God's creation of our youth as a male or female, you are seeking to discredit God.
CHANG: They said these ideas didn't match the values of the vast majority of the town.
(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC HEARING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Our family moved to Allendale 19 years ago, partly because it's a conservative community.
EDES: They said discussing sexual or gender identity with kids could put ideas in their heads.
(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC HEARING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This tends to generate self-diagnosis of sorts with kids.
CHANG: And they insisted that families - not schools - should be having these conversations. Still, they said, this was not about hate.
(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC HEARING)
KIM VANDERHELM: I love all kids - red and yellow, black and white, gay, straight, confused. I want them to know they're loved.
EDES: We wanted to understand where these intense emotions were coming from. So we sat down with that last woman you heard from.
EDES: Hi, Kim.
EDES: Her name is Kim Vanderhelm.
VANDERHELM: Do you want to come in?
EDES: Thank you. Yeah, I appreciate it.
CHANG: She and her husband, Steve, invited us into their home one evening, where they have a very lively dog.
EDES: I have a shitzu. Is he a shitzu?
VANDERHELM: He's got shitzu in him.
EDES: Oh, he's so cute. What's his name? Oh, watch out.
VANDERHELM: His name is Chewy. It's Chewbacca.
EDES: Hi, Chewy. Kim and Steve's kids graduated from Allendale public schools a few years ago. But they still care a lot about what the school district's teaching. Kim says for them, this conversation is shaped by their faith.
VANDERHELM: I come from a biblical worldview. We were just - as you guys pulled up, we were reading the Bible together as devotions. So we do not believe God created people to have these desires.
CHANG: So you - you do think homosexuality is a sin.
STEVE: Oh, we're - yes. I do.
CHANG: Do you think being someone who's transgender is a sin?
STEVE: Mmm hmm.
VANDERHELM: It's against - it's against the way that God created us, yes.
CHANG: Why should public school curriculum reflect the values in your faith?
VANDERHELM: I'm not saying that. I mean, we know the Bible is not allowed in the school rooms. It's not about that. It's about what should be taught in the schools.
STEVE: Because is it going to be taught that it's OK?
CHANG: But that's where the values of your faith are coming in.
VANDERHELM: Well, OK, so why should it be taught...
STEVE: Well, so then - so then - so then your values of saying it's OK is going to be taught. Right?
VANDERHELM: I want you guys to know that our belief does not mean that we hate these young kids.
STEVE: Oh, absolutely not.
VANDERHELM: But love does not always mean that we accept certain things also. Like, we all sin.
STEVE: Whether it be homosexuality, lying, overeating, lust - it's no different than me, in my younger days, looking at pornography. That's a sin.
EDES: I hear where you're coming from. And at the same time, looking at porn, it's a choice. So can those two things really be compared?
STEVE: But it was - yeah - oh, absolutely. It was a desire of me to look at porn. And I'm assuming for a homosexual, it's a desire for them to look at the same gender. So I try to live my best to God's word. But then somebody that doesn't believe, do they look at me as a bigot? Do they look at me as a hater when I'm not being a hater - (laughter) - I don't think. I don't think I am.
EDES: These are the kind of complicated conversations people are having all over Allendale.
CHANG: But the sex ed curriculum here actually has a very simple message. The program's called Willing to Wait. And as Michigan law requires, Willing to Wait emphasizes the quote, "benefits of abstaining from sex until marriage."
EDES: The superintendent, Garth Cooper, says that principle should always remain central to the sex ed curriculum in Allendale.
CHANG: If a kid were gay or trans or bi, what do you think that student would get out of the Willing to Wait curriculum?
GARTH COOPER: They should get the exact same thing out of that curriculum 'cause it doesn't matter what your sexual orientation is. The bottom line is that abstinence is the best and only proven way to keep yourself from getting a sexually transmitted infection or from getting pregnant. And so whether you're straight or trans or bi, the message is the same.
CHANG: Well, Quinn Robinson, that trans teen we met earlier, she took Willing to Wait in eighth grade. And she remembers the program was completely tone deaf.
ROBINSON: So the weird thing about the sex ed program, like, everyone knew that it was sex ed, but no one wanted to say the sex word.
CHANG: Now, the class does talk about contraceptives. But Quinn says all the discussion was focused on heterosexual relationships.
ROBINSON: I knew of my own friends who were lesbians. Like, this wasn't going to help them at all. There's no way, like, you can help a lesbian prevent STDs in this kind of format.
EDES: Beyond that, Quinn says what Willing to Wait never comes close to addressing is how gender dysphoria can make sex really complicated, whether you're married or not.
ROBINSON: The idea of having sex as a trans person is weird because your brain is disconnected from your physical body. So when you look at your body, you don't want this, you know? So the idea of having sex in this body is hard because maybe I'll just look down and see this disgusting body of mine and cry or something, you know.
CHANG: This is the kind of thing Quinn wishes her sex ed program had talked about. Half an hour away, though, people are having these conversations.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Let's talk about sex.
EDES: We drove down Lake Michigan Drive to the Grand Rapids Pride Center, where teens gather every week to talk about sex, gender, relationships. They have a rotating cast of adults called facilitators who pull questions out of a hot pink box.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Is gender a social construct...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: For any of our facilitators with dysphoria, how does that affect your sex life...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: How does being sexually active affect you emotionally?
CHANG: For most of these teens, the Pride Center is the only place where they can ask these kinds of questions.
SIONA WILSON: Me and Everett, we met here.
EVERETT MABRY: Hi.
SIONA: And, like, we're - like, this is my best friend.
EVERETT: Oh, yeah, we're, like, besties now.
CHANG: This is Siona Wilson and Everett Mabry. Siona's a high school freshman and says sexuality-wise, they're questioning. And gender-wise, they're non-binary. Everett's a sophomore who's gay and cisgender. And the sex ed that they've gotten here has made them realize they were clueless about some of the most basic things.
SIONA: There's this whole myth of, like, oh, if you're a lesbian, honestly just, like, go for it because you can't get pregnant, LOL. But it's not true. There's, like, risks and stuff to go into that. And I know that from going here. And there's, like - lesbians wear condoms when they're having sex. They - people should, like - people should know that. Lesbians should know that.
EDES: Everett says he didn't even know about PrEP, an HIV prevention pill.
EVERETT: I didn't know that HIV was technically preventable 'cause of, like, PrEP. Like, it was possible to have HIV but not be able to transmit it. So when I first found out, I was like, are you joking? And I found out at the Pride Center.
EDES: He says that makes him ashamed of the public school system. And he and Siona are far from outliers. In fact, in a recent national survey, fewer than 1 in 10 LGBTQ students said they got sex ed that was inclusive of their identities.
CHANG: In Allendale, the school district has now removed any mention of gender and sexual identity in school materials. It's removed mention of LGBTQ students in the anti-bullying campaign. And it has no plans to include queer and trans issues in a new sex ed program that it's working on now.
EDES: Quinn Robinson cannot wait to leave Allendale. She's headed to Chicago for college, where she hopes to finally find a community who will accept her for who she is.
ROBINSON: I just want them to understand that I'm a normal person. I want to be treated just the same as everyone else. I want to get some job and be looked at as just the register lady or something. You know what I'm saying?
ROBINSON: It's - I don't want to be looked at as, oh, the trans girl. I want to just be me.
CHANG: That's all, Quinn says, she knows how to be. From Allendale, Mich., I'm Ailsa Chang.
EDES: And I'm Alyssa Edes.
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