For years, Arizona has been one of only a handful of states in the country that prohibits educators from discussing homosexuality during sex education classes, but an effort to change that is under way at the Capitol.
Arizona Senator Martin Quezada recently filed a bill to eliminate what he and others say is dangerous and exclusionary language in the state Constitution.
Senate Bill 1019 “strikes out what’s commonly referred to now as a "no promo-homo" statute, which is a law that prohibits school districts from having a sex education curriculum that promotes a "homosexual lifestyle,” Quezada says.
While the specific language of ARS 15-716 states: “No district shall include in its course of study instruction which promotes a homosexual life-style; portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative lifestyle; [or] suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex,” critics of the statute point out that it consistently has been interpreted by school districts to mean teachers shouldn’t even mention homosexuality.
The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network says "these laws foster an unsafe school atmosphere" and found in a national survey "that LGBT students in states with stigmatizing laws are more likely to hear homophobic remarks from school staff, are less likely to report incidents of harassment and assault to school staff, and are less likely to report having support from educators. Moreover, when incidents occur and educators do intervene, they do so less effectively in these states."
“Like it or not, regardless of your views of homosexuality, there are kids in our schools that are homosexual and engaging in homosexuality, and it’s important for educators to teach all students about ways to keep themselves safe,” Quezada says.
“I’m not encouraging districts to make an argument about the ethics of homosexuality because that’s not the point,” he adds. “The point is to say, if this is going to happen, ‘This is how you stay safe.’”
Jodi Liggett of Planned Parenthood Arizona adds that her organization supports and applauds Quezada’s initiative because as it stands, the law “leaves out a whole population of kids who need . . . and deserve medically accurate information.”
Imagine sitting in “sex ed and not hearing anything that has anything to do with you and your life and your relationships,” she says. “If [the material is] completely focused on heterosexual facts, you’re going to check out or maybe not pay attention,” which is dangerous.
“At Planned Parenthood we see patients who are dealing with the fallout of not having adequate, inclusive sex education. And it’s not just putting a condom on; it goes beyond that.”
Students learn “risk-reduction behaviors, about bullying and consent, about dating violence," Liggett says, and what a healthy relationship looks like [during sex education],” which are important lessons for all kids regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity."
Not passing it means Arizona will continue “to put LGBT kids at risk,” she adds, explaining that anytime “you marginalize a population, it opens those kids to being bullied.
“Already we know that the LGBT community has a far higher suicide rate . . . and is at an increased risk for homelessness and bullying and sexual violence, and this [bill] is just one step we can take to turn this situation around . . . and be consistent with the social norms of the time.”
Quezada says this issue was brought to his attention by a local Phoenix school district after it attempted to update its sex education curriculum.
“They wanted a cumulative and comprehensive sex education program [that] talked about all the health concerning and covering all aspects of sexual life,” Quezada explains, “but when they started to update their curriculum, they came across this statute, and their attorneys interpreted it to mean they shouldn’t discuss homosexuality at all in their curriculum or in sex ed classes.”
Even though the bill is new, he’s already received pushback from conservative legislators and citizens.
“A lot of people are misinformed about what this bill means,” he says.
"They believe that by striking out this language it will allow school districts to promote homosexuality as a positive lifestyle,” something he says is just inaccurate.
“No school district promotes any ‘lifestyle.’ This bill is about comprehensive sex education. We want to talk about all the things that could happen and how to keep safe.”
Quezada worries that some of his more conservative colleagues will oppose the bill because “it’s a topic that makes so many people uncomfortable.”
Yet “that’s why it’s so important we get this out there and start talking about it,” he says. “These are the difficult issues that we as elected officials need to be tackling . . . If we don’t, we do our kids a disservice.”
But “this is Arizona,” he adds. Both he and Liggett say they expect groups like the religious-right Arizona Center for Policy to oppose the law with an argument about religious freedom.
The Center for Arizona Policy declined to comment on the bill.
Bottom line, Liggett says, “In the wake of the Supreme Court decision about gay marriage, [the current legislation] is an archaic law. It’s a relic of the past of bigotry, and we need to get rid of it.”