It is often said that our nation’s schools become the battleground for many, if not most, controversial issues surrounding our societal values, ideals and morals. Whether it is a battle over a few words in the pledge of allegiance, a disagreement over parenting styles or the repercussions of an economic downfall, schools generally feel things first. The issue of homosexuality does not evade this inevitable confrontation for the mere fact it has become so prevalent in our social conscious and has of recent been an issue—specifically when it comes to gay marriage— that has dominated our news media. As gay marriage has become legal in several states, the question arises as to whether or not educators should include curriculum pertaining to homosexuality in school sexual education programs. This is to argue that if heterosexuality is commonly taught in schools where does homosexuality fit into the equation, if at all? To this extent, if it is included in our schools sexual education programs, what exactly is included? The issue ushers in a plethora of opinions—many strong and deeply rooted in personal value and tradition. There is no option of skirting the issue. The fact is homosexuality has entered our social conversation in an unprecedented way therefore directing our attention to its treatment in schools. Each side of the argument is framed in a distinctly different way, presenting itself to two audiences with dissimilar backgrounds—one generally conservative in nature, the other more liberal. While it is often counterproductive to dive into a polarized form of argument, the stylized performances of those in support of introducing homosexuality in schools and those not in favor do tend to target a specific demographic with specific beliefs. There are two implied audiences for each side of the argument. While demonstrating itself in our schools, the issue of normalizing and educating individuals about homosexuality in mainstream culture gives rise to a larger societal issue of acceptance and whether or not a higher degree of acceptance should be taught in schools.
The history of sexual education, in particular sexual education that includes mention of homosexuality, dates far back in American history. As early as 1904, Doctor Prince A. Morrow and Psychologist G. Stanley Hall warn against the teachings of homosexuality in a classroom setting. The word itself at the time was a recent invention. Sexual education for much of the early to mid century was devoted to heterosexually normative education. When the Kinsey report came out in 1948, there was a national push to idealize heterosexuality in sexual education programs. In 1988, congress passed the Helms act—a bill that does not provide funding for AIDS education that promotes or encourages homosexuality. More recently in 1992 Oregon voters voted down an initiative that essentially forbid any school to discuss, facilitate or promote any conversations surrounding homosexuality. In 2004, California passed what was described as a “gay-inclusive” law which advocated for medically accurate and age appropriate sexual education.
Sexual education was not advocated for heavily until the 1940's when the U.S. Public Health deemed it an “urgent need.” The progression of sexual health programs has generally been slow in nature and to this day does not exist in every school district. Many programs back then and today refer to themselves as “Family and Life” curriculum rather than “sex ed.” Because homosexuality has been a controversial topic for years, naturally the issue of including it in our schools has been a point of contention.
Generally speaking the debate surrounding sexual education in schools lies along party lines. This is to say that those who identify as more “liberal” in party politics tend to side with those who insist sexual education—level of inclusion not counting—should be included. Contrastingly, many individuals who generally side with a more conservative form of party politics agree that sexual education should not have its primary place in the classroom but rather at home with the family and parents. Religion also often comes into play. Of course, these somewhat polarized viewpoints are not always consistent with reality. The arguments are varied and not always black and white.
Linda P. Harvey, in her article “Schools Should Not Stress Acceptance of Homosexuality” argues that homosexuality should not be taught in schools nor a huge stress put on acceptance of the lifestyle. She describes a “gay agenda” in which schools are imposing moral teachings on students. She states that “Religious freedom and freedom of speech issues are threatened by programs (that encourage acceptance of homosexuality).” What she proposes, instead, are sexual education programs that exclude the mention of homosexuality. Harvey contends that by doing this, the issue is avoided and conversely the heterosexual community is no longer demonized in the process of homosexual representation—a representation, she states, is defined by victimization. She argues that “the vast majority of people in this country are not potentially violence and do not deserve to be unjustly associated with violence toward homosexuals!” Harvey contends that by initiating homosexuality in sexual education and normalizing it puts both the straight and gay community’s at risk. She argues that by singling out a group of individuals, in this case heterosexuals, a pattern of persecution occurs wherein the heterosexual is deemed dangerous and/or negative. She argues that no single group is benefited by teaching a greater acceptance of homosexuality in our schools.
It is important to place Harvey's rhetoric in a specific situation given her personal history and narrative. She is a well-know conservative who discusses issues surrounding women, homosexuality and education. She is a regular contributor to Focus on the Family—a conservative group striving to preserve the traditions of the family. Her initial need in writing this article centers on the squelching of pro-homosexual activists who advocate homosexuality in schools. Furthermore, she has a need to get out her own agenda (or rather conservative agenda). Given this information, Harvey is clear and concise in her rhetorical mission. There is no denying she caters to a distinct audience. This specific article was written in 2002—about the time Massachusetts began the conversation on allowing gay marriage. There were also movements, as well as a piece of legislation in the state, to include homosexuality as a topic of conversation in a comprehensive sexual education curriculum. She is responding to this ongoing conversation and she makes it clear where she stands. Her audience is twofold. On one hand she is addressing a group of people who already agree with her—a largely conservative audience. Additionally, however, Harvey is making an appeal to parents who may be on the fence about homosexuality in schools. She appeals to the “don't let the schools form your child's morality,” an idea that strikes an emotional chord with parents who want to preserve family ideals and values.
Harvey also mentions one of the more widely held beliefs on the side of opposition. She contends that schools do not have the moral agency to provide students with education surrounded on what she describes as essentially a moral issue. Ezola Foster, a Nation writer and common contributor to CNN echoes Harvey's argument in her article “Infiltrating America's Public Schools.” She states that “Courts have repeatedly ruled that parents have the right to control the values taught to their children.” Much like Harvey, Foster focuses on the gay agenda—something she believes is taking over our schools. She uses several warrants in her argument, including what would normally be described as a credible source—Dr. Richard Isay, a psychiatrist, who argues that "homosexuality can and should be changed to heterosexuality by a 'neutral' therapy that uncovers repressed childhood conflict that interferes with 'normal' heterosexual development." This statement, while not pertaining directly to homosexuality in schools exemplifies a common belief along the extremely conservative side of this argument. Often times, the argument for sexual education that includes homosexuality is unarguable because of the fact homosexuality is not something biologically inherent according to people like Foster and Harvey. Foster continues to state that “Certainly, homosexuals deserve sympathy and love. They shouldn't be beaten or humiliated. At the same time, our young children must be allowed to know the truth of the tortured and unhealthy lives of homosexuals.” The argument here is foundational. She believes that homosexuality has severe moral implications and by presenting it to our children, schools are introducing them to a lifestyle deemed “unhealthy.”
While Foster is extreme in her defense against homosexuality in schools, she does represent a rhetorical strategy that addresses a specific audience with success. Because she is writing in The Nation, a largely conservative publication, her audience is more than likely conservative individuals who read along political lines. One can assume not very many far left liberals pick up a copy of The Nation. Language used in the piece is indicative of a certain—and strong—opinion. The fact that the article includes the world “infiltrate,” immediately sets the tone for the article and alludes to the fact that the “gay agenda” is one to be feared. Fear is something Foster plays off on a lot in this article exclaiming at one point, “LAUSD is the second largest school district in America. Your schools don't have it yet? They will soon!” LAUSD refers to the Los Angeles Unified School District. In the late 90's there was push by a homosexual teacher to create a counseling program for gay and lesbian students. Foster immediately describes it as “a program that recruits students for the homosexual cause.” Foster includes a rhetorical strategy that plays directly to the pathos of her viewers. By placing an individual’s children—a precious and important commodity for parents—alongside something that “recruits” and “infiltrates” creates an immediate sense of protectionism. She presents an almost cult-like standard, and what parents wants there students to be recruited and brain-washed? The locus of her argument is that the exclusion of a homosexual education is quantified. This is to say that by excluding such an education, ultimately the maximum good will be achieved for the greatest number of people. Everyone will benefit.
Kevin Jennings, in his article “Schools Should Stress Acceptance of Homosexuality” is fairly straight-forward in arguing why schools should adopt a more inclusive sexual education program which includes the acceptance of homosexuality. Jennings makes the claim that right-wing conservative individuals often against homosexuality taught in schools, insist that homosexuality has nothing to do with education (as demonstrated in Harvey's argument). He provides an example of an experience in Merrimack, New Hampshire where he attended a school board meeting. The board was voting on whether or not homosexuality should be brought up at all. A woman turned to him and simply said, “What does homosexuality have to do with education?” His response: A lot.
Jennings claims that a good education revolves around “learning to think.” He states that “a good teacher is one that takes a subject that matters to his or her students and helps them to think about it in a thoughtful, critical manner.” Addressing the woman's question, he claims that homosexuality has nothing to do with education—just like reading, writing and math don't have anything to do with education. He says instead that discussing the subject of homosexuality in terms of values, ideas and what it means for our world has large capacity to be educational. In order to combat the “gay agenda” response many conservatives label, Jennings claims that there is no agenda other than to combat serious hate.
He uses statistics in his article to site what he calls “verbal gay bashing” in schools. Of these statistics is one which states “88% of 1,000 students interviewed in a 2001 national phone survey conducted by Hamilton College reported having heard classmates use “gay” as a derogatory term.” He warrants that because of these statistics homosexuality needs to be addressed in schools. The fact that he as statistical information provides his argument with a sense of rationale. His main warrant, however, is that parents cannot control everything their children are exposed to. This is assuming that they are not keeping a constant eye on what teachers are instructing. Jennings claims that homosexuality is not what parents should fear. Rather, it is homophobia.
Jennings seems to value an education that relies heavily on exploration and conversation. His truths rest on the fact that children have the capacity to learn by themselves and discover their own truths through a positive education. This is to say that schools should present the topic of homosexuality and then ultimately allow students to decipher it in the way that fits in with their respective values and ideals. Jennings, coming from a bias perspective, obviously values teaching that focuses on the acceptance of homosexuality. However, on a deeper level, he seems to value education as a means of developing critical thinking skills. When it comes to homosexuality he values the acceptance of the homosexual and the consequent normality of the homosexual in our society. What he does not value is homophobia, to which he indicates statistics of derogatory language use. He describes this as a manifestation of cultural homophobia.
Jennings employs two loci specifically in his continuous argument promoting the inclusion of homosexuality in sexual education—person and quantity. His argument centers on comprehensive education for everyone. That is, the most good for the greatest number of people. He makes it a point of stating that introducing homosexuality is ultimately a way to provide the most good for the greatest number of people regardless of one’s position on the topic. According to Jennings, by exploring the topic, children are enlightened and encouraged to develop their own opinion, something crucial in the development of a child and responsible citizen says Jennings. He uses the loci of person in that his argument centers on the human being. The article has an overarching theme of human dignity and acceptance. He seems to say that regardless of one’s position, what we all do know is basic human respect, dignity, and autonomy. We are human beings above all else according to Jennings regardless of sexual orientation.
It is also important to note that Jennings uses somewhat of a logical appeal in his argument. What he suggests is to not focus on the issue of homosexuality itself but rather the presentation of it and consequent translation of it by students. Jennings seems to indicate that students are endowed with their own free will and therefore able to decipher what is right for them. According to Campbell and Huxman, Jennings creates a truth standard around his argument in that he presents his side as if he is attempting to solve a problem—one he cites through statistics and what can be perceived as logical argument.
With a similar degree of logic, Barbara Foulks Boyd enters the conversation in her article “Should Gay and Lesbian Issues Be Discussed in Elementary school?” Her main argument, in accordance with many of her peers in the same school of thought, centers on an ever-changing world full of diversity. She states that:
“Today's teachers work in an increasingly diverse society. Teachers are expected to broaden awareness of, and appreciation for, this diversity among children and families by being advocates for all people, including those of different lifestyles. By addressing diversity issues in the classroom, teachers can celebrate both similarities and difference among children and their families.”
Boyd uses increasing diversity, as an address of the current state of our world, and places it as an argument in why it is essential teachers include gay and lesbian issues in sexual education. She essentially defines the situation for us—there is a growing population of diverse and non-traditional families, therefore we need to address them in the largest sphere we know possible, our schools.
The issue of sexual education is one deeply rooted in controversy. While some would argue it is our schools obligation to introduce and educate our students on nearly every issue, many would contest this and would rather have public educators stay out of the topic altogether. What is consensual, however, is the conversation that has arisen out of the growing need to address the issue much like what Boyd has presented. As more and more attention is drawn to the homosexual community, gay legislation, and gay public figures there requires an addressing of the situation in the public sphere. Which way this conversation goes depends on the nature of the individuals involved and whether or not they are willing to enter a civilized and well-rounded discourse. For something as sensitive as sexuality, there is an obligation above all else to continue in this debate with a general attitude of respect and dignity for other human beings regardless of sexual orientation or opinion. The debate is not whether all homosexuals should be banished and exiled from mainstream society, but whether or gay and lesbian issues should be discussed in such a large arena as our public schools. No matter what side, the issue is one of importance because of its social relevance but more importantly its relation to our country's youth. People are talking about it. Therefore, we all need to enter the conversation and deem whether or not it is appropriate in all of our schools.
Jennings, Kevin. Schools Should Stress Acceptance of Homosexuality. GLSEN Education Department Resource. January 1, 1999.
P. Harvey, Linda. Schools Should Not Stress Acceptance of Homosexuality.“ Safe Schools: The Trojan Horse of 'Gay' Education,” Culture & Family Report, May 16, 2002.
Foster, Ezola. “Infiltrating America's Public Schools.” Headway. Volume 9. Issue 5. May 1997
Boyd Foulks, Barbara. “Should Gay and Lesbian Issues be Discussed in Elementary School?” Childhood Education. Vol. 76, Issue I. Fall 1999.