WASHINGTON — Gay rights advocates, fresh from winning the historic right for same-sex couples to marry, are planning their next fight in America’s culture conflicts, and the battleground will be close to home for many families: the classroom.
Their goal is to make the sex education classes thousands of American adolescents endure less awkward — and potentially life-saving — for gay and lesbian youth, and those questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The fledging movement is already challenging the sensibilities of some political leaders and parents, particularly on the religious right, which is gearing up to prevent teaching about homosexuality in Massachusetts and across the country.
“There is so much difference of opinion in this country about what kids should learn about sexuality that the default position of a lot of schools is just to do the bare minimum to not invite controversy. By doing that we are missing the mark,” said Ellen Kahn, director of the children, youth, and families program for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a gay rights advocacy organization based in Washington.
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation and Planned Parenthood Federation of America will embark on a new push this month to help teachers talk more openly about sexual health issues pertaining to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.
The number of middle and high schools offering any sex education that relates to LGBT students varies dramatically by state, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Massachusetts leads the nation with nearly 44 percent of secondary schools; Georgia comes in last, at 8 percent.
Legislatures in eight states have banned discussing homosexuality in a positive manner as part of a school curriculum. They are Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.
Health statistics show a need for sexuality education for gay and lesbian students. Those students are more likely to engage in risky behaviors that result in pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, federal findings show. Experts say the students, facing pressure to have heterosexual sex, often have multiple partners and forgo protection.
As a result, lesbian and bisexual teens experience twice the risk of unintended pregnancy than their heterosexual peers. And the HIV infection rate is rising rapidly among those between the ages of 13 and 24, particularly among gay youth, according to the CDC; many are unaware that they have been infected and pass on the disease through unprotected anal sex.
“In some cases they are not only silenced but their issues are being talked about disparagingly,” said Dr. Stephanie Zaza, director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the CDC.
Most decisions on what to teach in sex education are made at the local level, by elected school committee members. The federal government has little control except over the programs it funds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is spending $13 million a year on a five-year HIV prevention program in 19 states, including Massachusetts, that will teach gay and transgender youth about relevant protection methods.
Massachusetts’ education guidelines on reproduction and sexuality, which were last revised in 1999, recommend that students be able to define what it means to be gay or lesbian by the time they finish the fifth grade, and identify possible factors affecting sexual orientation by the time they graduate from high school. The 16-year-old guidelines are in the process of being updated.
Some of the lessons now encouraged by Massachusetts — material aimed at middle school students — teach different aspects of sexual identity, such as how biological sex may differ from gender identity and sexual orientation. The term “partner” is used instead of “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” Protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is discussed in terms of specific sexual behavior and body parts.
Some religious groups find the material, developed by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and already taught in more than 200 schools spanning seven states, to be offensive and threatening to their values.
The Massachusetts Family Institute, a conservative Christian organization based in Woburn, opposes any effort to “normalize homosexuality,” including comprehensive human sexuality education in schools, according to its website. Abstinence until marriage is what students should be taught, said Andrew Beckwith, the group’s president.
Beckwith said there is no need to introduce students, especially 12-year-olds, to explicit sexual acts. He pointed to flash cards in what Planned Parenthood describes as a step-by-step guide to condom use, with cards detailing the measures that need to be taken before it is safe to “Have vaginal, oral or anal sex.” Beckwith takes exception to the explicit nature of that wording. Another chart includes using plastic wrap as a way to protect students who have oral sex against sexually transmitted diseases.
“If you’re teaching about the birds and the bees, there’s no need to talk about anal and oral sex. It has nothing to do with reproduction. These would be new concepts certainly for my 12 year old,” Beckwith said. “For an issue as sensitive — and frankly even in Massachusetts, still controversial — as human sexuality, you want to start with parents to make sure schools don’t do anything to undermine their values.”
Thomas Davis, a Human Rights Campaign Foundation “youth ambassador,’’ said more schools across the nation, particularly those in rural, conservative communities like the one he grew up in in Estes Park, Colo., need to teach all students how to protect themselves during sex. His health teacher preached abstinence only, he said, and did not discuss condoms or other disease prevention methods.
Davis, a 23-year-old dancer, said he contracted HIV three years ago after moving to Los Angeles for college. “It’s not right for people to limit the knowledge that students can receive,” Davis said. “When I’m not given information, I’m forced to learn on a trial and error basis, and there are some errors that you really can’t fix.”
The advocates are treading in territory that is emotionally fraught.
Landon Callahan, a 17-year-old senior from North Attleborough, recalled being an anxious fifth-grader facing gender identity confusion when a school nurse whisked the girls in the class off to watch a video about developing breasts and getting their menstrual periods.
An uncertain Callahan was included in the girls’ group, while the boys went with the gym teacher for a separate puberty discussion.
“I felt super uncomfortable and nervous because I did not feel like any of that should be happening to me,” said Callahan, who transitioned to male after battling severe depression his freshman year of high school. If sex education were more inclusive from an early age, he said, “being transgender wouldn’t be as much of this taboo thing.”
Within Massachusetts, even though it leads the nation in this type of education, the quality and type of sex education students receive varies drastically, said Joy Robinson-Lynch, a sex education consultant who until August was the HIV coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The state Legislature is considering a bill that would require any school district that teaches sex education to be inclusive of all students regardless of their sexual orientations.
“Before we had a gay rights movement, people sat in isolation wondering what was wrong with them,” said Robinson-Lynch. “By telling them that who they are attracted to is normal, all of a sudden a child feels they can be in school and be engaged and be OK. When you remove shame, you build a healthy individual.”