Arizona Capitol

Sex Ed Debate Brings Anti-LGBTQ Voices to the Arizona Capitol

State Senator Sylvia Allen rallies supporters on January 14, 2020.
Steven Hsieh
State Senator Sylvia Allen rallies supporters on January 14, 2020.

Republican State Senator Sylvia Allen, wearing a brooch resembling a snowflake (her hometown's namesake) and a pin distributed by an anti-LGBTQ group, stood before a podium on the Arizona Capitol lawn Tuesday to rally her supporters against comprehensive sexuality education.

Her bill limiting sex ed in Arizona public schools to grades seven and up already had come under fire from LGBTQ media, her Democratic colleagues, and all five co-hosts of The View, leading Allen to scrap her legislation hours before its first scheduled hearing in the Senate Education Committee.

During Allen's rally, which was planned before she pulled her bill, the state senator criticized the media for focusing on a section of her bill (SB 1082) that could have effectively removed "homosexuality" from sex ed lessons. She claimed reporters misinterpreted that provision and stressed that she had no "anti-gay" intentions. She then vowed to reintroduce legislation to limit sex education.

"Why was the bill held? Because it is tainted. It has a label on it now and people are backing away," Allen said, suggesting some lawmakers pulled their support from the bill after the media attention. "But ladies and gentlemen, there can be more bills that can be introduced. And there will be."

Minutes later, Sharon Slater, the president of the anti-LGBTQ Family Watch International, spoke at the same podium. Slater, who repeatedly has invoked the myth of a "homosexual agenda" and has cast gay sex as "inherently destructive" behavior, defended Allen's bill.

"I just want to do a call-out to the LGBTQ community," Slater told Allen's supporters. "There's a lot of bridge areas where we can come together."

Slater, who lives in Gilbert, also directed her audience to a worksheet her organization developed to analyze sex ed materials without mentioning that it counts as "harmful" any curriculum that "promotes acceptance of and/or exploration of diverse sexual orientations."

click to enlarge Sharon Slater, president of Family Watch International - STEVEN HSIEH
Sharon Slater, president of Family Watch International
Steven Hsieh
Asked about Family Watch International's sex ed analysis tool after her speech, Slater denied that her worksheet deems as "harmful" the acceptance of LGBTQ orientations. She falsely accused Phoenix New Times of taking the relevant passage out of context and said it referred to "sexual acts," not "sexual orientation."

Remarkably, in a state dealing with dire issues like looming drought and a prison staffing crisis, sex ed has become the first hot button issue of the 2020 Arizona legislative session. In addition to Allen's jettisoned bill, Democrats are pushing legislation (SB 1120) that would widen topics covered by sex ed in Arizona public schools adding explicit discussion of consent, contraception, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

The dueling proposals — promoted during separate press events on Tuesday — are the product of a months-long culture war that has played out at school-board meetings across the state.

Allen's bill — which would have prohibited schools from teaching sex ed to students before seventh grade and allowed parents to sue schools for violating sex ed rules, among other provisions — already appeared doomed before it attracted national attention. Governor Doug Ducey has not made sex ed a priority, and moderate Republican state senators, including Kate Brophy McGee and Heather Carter, have a tendency to buck the party line on fringe issues.

Despite having no clear legislative path this year, sex ed restrictions have proved a politically potent issue for Allen, a hard-line Republican from Legislative District 6, which comprises a wide swath of Arizona, including Sedona and Flagstaff.

Her crowd of supporters on Tuesday included members of Purple for Parents, a reactionary movement that formed in response to the Red for Ed teacher walkouts of 2018, and the Protect Arizona Children Coalition, a far-right group aligned with Family Watch International that has espoused unfounded conspiracy theories about sex ed.

Allen's rally on Tuesday was a long time coming.

The current campaign against comprehensive sex ed in Arizona traces back to last year, when the Legislature repealed an antiquated law that prohibited schools from promoting a "homosexual lifestyle" while teaching about AIDS.

Following the repeal, Democratic State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman asked the State Board of Education to consider updating its guidelines for sex ed to remove a prohibition on teaching about "abnormal, deviate, or unusual sexual acts and practices" and to add a provision that curriculum should be scientifically and medically accurate.

Purple for Parents mobilized against Hoffman's effort in summer 2019, and legislators like Allen and Republican State Representative Kelly Townsend joined the opposition, the Arizona Republic reported at the time. After hours of public comment, the state board decided not to take up Hoffman's proposed changes. Supporters of the movement against sex ed then took to the district level, showing up en masse to school board meetings in Tucson, Chandler, and Tempe to speak out against progressive curriculum changes.

In September, Allen, along with House Speaker Rusty Bowers, appeared at an event sponsored by Family Watch International, where Slater gave a presentation on sex ed that was similar to one she gave to the Senate Education Committee yesterday.

Bowers drew headlines for comments he made during the event espousing a conspiracy theory that Planned Parenthood pushes sex ed to encourage promiscuity among children, exposing them to greater risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, thus prompting them to seek services, including abortions, from the nonprofit health provider. During the event, which was held at a Gilbert charter school, Bowers called State Superintendent Hoffman a "radical" for her failed attempt to modify state sex ed guidelines to promote scientifically accurate instruction.