Two Alabama high school students have started a petition to repeal a 1992 Alabama law that mandates teachers in sex ed classes teach that homosexuality is a criminal offense and “not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public.”
While there’s no evidence Alabama schools adhere to the outdated law, the state’s first openly gay legislator, state Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, wants it off the books. She is being assisted in her effort by a conservative Republican in the Legislature who doesn’t want sex ed taught, period.
Politically, Mary Sue McClurkin and Patricia Todd don’t have a lot in common. Todd, a Democratic state representative from Birmingham, is Alabama’s first openly gay state legislator. McClurkin, a Republican from Indian Springs, is a longtime member of the conservative group Eagle Forum.
Yet both women say they’d like to repeal the state’s law governing what public schools should teach students about sex. “Sex education is best taught by the parents,” said McClurkin, who heads the House Education Policy Committee. “We should take out any state requirement to teach sex education.”
The current sex-ed law, passed in 1992, lays out the content that must be taught in sex education programs. The law says they should emphasize that abstinence is “the only completely effective protection” against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease and that “abstinence from sexual intercourse outside of lawful marriage is the expected social standard.”
The law also requires teachers to tell students — falsely — that gay sex is illegal. Teachers must emphasize “that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense,” the law states. “I don’t know if anybody is actually teaching this, to be honest with you” Todd said. “But the fact that this is even in the law is an insult.”
Laws against consensual gay sex were struck down nationwide by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in the case Lawrence v. Texas. Even before 2003, it was unusual for consenting partners to face prosecution under Alabama’s sodomy laws.
“We never prosecuted it in Birmingham, but then, we had a lot more pressing issues,” said Don Cochran, a former Jefferson County prosecutor who now teaches criminal law at the Cumberland School of Law. “Even if there still is a crime on the books, it would be unenforceable after Lawrence.”
Despite the wording of the law, there’s no evidence that teachers are actually telling kids that gay sex is a crime. “As far as I know, that law has not been observed,” said Calhoun County Schools Superintendent Joe Dyar.
Joan Frazier, superintendent of Anniston City Schools, said she didn’t think teachers were telling students homosexuality is illegal. “We teach only what is in the Alabama Course of Study,” she said. The Course of Study is a set of standards set forth by the state Education Department, and those standards include no mention of homosexuality being illegal.
The entire 1992 sex education law, however, is reprinted in an appendix to the Course of Study. Malissa Valdes, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Education, said there’s no way of knowing whether schools are observing the letter of that law.
Todd is also getting some help to repeal the law from two Birmingham students.
Here is a release from Change.org about their petition effort:
The Birmingham students, 16-year-old Indian Springs School junior Sarah Noone and 17-year-old Homewood High School junior Adam Pratt, started their Change.org petition after learning that Alabama State Representative Patricia Todd introduced a bill that would strike the controversial language from state law. The teens say that the current law forcing teachers to tell students being gay is a “criminal offense” isn’t just hurtful, it’s also factually incorrect.
“Think of the dangerous message this law sends to lesbian, gay and bisexual youth in schools,” said Sarah Noone, who launched her petition on Change.org. “Can you imagine the self-hatred you would feel inside after hearing a teacher say that being gay is a criminal act and that society will never accept you? All students deserve to feel safe and welcome in school, but this law prevents that.”
Noone, who identifies as queer, notes in her petition that in the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, the court ruled that sodomy laws are illegal and cannot be enforced, affecting not only Alabama’s pre-existing sodomy law but also this segment of the law that dictates sexual education curriculum.
“Telling students that being gay is a crime is not only wrong, it’s unconstitutional according to our nation’s highest court,” added Noone.
“It’s tough enough being a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender student in Alabama, especially when our school curriculums provide students with a blueprint for bullying,” said Adam Pratt, a straight student who helped Noone launch the petition. “More than forty percent of the state’s homeless youth are LGBT, and suicide rates, especially among LGBT teens, are horrific.”
To help spread the word about their petition, Noone and Pratt recorded a video urging youth across state to speak out and join their campaign. Both students are involved with local gay-straight alliances and have participated with the Birmingham Alliance of Gay, Straight and Lesbian Youth (BAGSLY).
“Supporting Rep. Patricia Todd’s bill isn’t about accepting gay people, it’s about making our schools a place where all students can feel safe. I know that if enough people sign our petition, the legislature will hear what Alabama youth have to say,” said Noone.
“More than 15,000 petitions were started on Change.org this past month, but this student-led campaign was definitely one of the fastest-growing,” said Mark Anthony Dingbaum, senior campaign manager at Change.org. “In just a matter of days, Sarah and Adam have inspired more than 78,000 people, including young people across the state of Alabama and around the country, to take action. I wonder how long it will take for the Alabama legislature to respond?”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog