Education on homosexuality spurs debate
April 16, 2004
Sean R. Sedam
Staff Writer

GAITHERSBURG -- If health classes in Montgomery County's public schools are going to discuss homosexuality, they also should discuss the risks of homosexuality and people who have left the "homosexual lifestyle," say several members of a committee that advises the county school board.

Discussions of sexual orientation -- and how to address it in school -- have stirred controversy on the Citizens Advisory Committee for Family Life and Human Development. A minority on the committee, which approves materials for county schools' health classes, said they believe that most of the group, including its chairman, is promoting a "pro-gay" agenda.

That has led to the approval of inaccurate information on sexual orientation from sources that are not credible, charged Henrietta Brown, who has served on the committee since July 2002.

Other committee members, including Chairman David S. Fishback, refuted Brown's comments, saying that the group discusses all viewpoints and that the materials recommended for eighth- and 10th-grade health classes are from credible sources.

On March 25, Brown sent a letter to the school board, claiming, "The committee is controlled by pro-gay activists (including the chairman) who continually vote for factually incorrect information that puts students' health at risk."

Not true, Fishback said in an e-mail to The Gazette.

"Every statement in the proposed curriculum has emerged from study of mainstream American medical and mental health organizations and from other well-respected groups who advocate for the health of our children," he wrote.

The material, submitted by Brown and others, including information about "reparative therapy" -- a controversial method that considers homosexuality a disease that can be cured -- presents views that are not scientifically valid, Fishback wrote.

The debate is similar to those among medical professionals, said Lara J. Akinbami, a pediatrician with the National Center for Health Statistics and a committee member.

"Look at the Atkins diet," she said. "There's a ripple of controversy, and nobody really knows the long-term effects one way or another."

Earlier this year, Brown sent the school board a letter detailing course materials that the committee recommended and materials that it had not recommended or even considered.

The committee is preparing an annual report that will include the revisions to the eighth- and 10th-grade health curriculum, including a video demonstration of condom use and discussions of sexual orientation.

On March 22, the school board approved the condom demonstration video for a pilot program in three county high schools this spring.

The board will vote on the rest of the curriculum sometime during the 2004-05 school year, said Russell Henke, county schools' health coordinator, who also serves as a liaison to the advisory committee.

Much of the debate revolves around whether homosexuality is something that is inborn or whether people become homosexual over the course of their lives.

"It's the old nature or nurture [debate]," said Kimberly J. Campbell, a clinical psychologist who has served on the family life committee for four years. "I think that debate could go on for centuries."

Brown also argues that homosexuals face greater health risks for HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases because of their lifestyle. She asked the committee to include data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about sexually transmitted diseases among homosexuals, but left out similar data on heterosexuals, said Akinbami, who works for a branch of the CDC.

The school system considers CDC material dealing HIV and AIDS and some other sexually transmitted diseases a suitable resource for health teachers. Brown said she presented the material about homosexual sex to make it easier for teachers to find.

Homosexuals should not be singled out, Akinbami said.

"We really shouldn't be talking about gay sex vs. heterosexual sex," she said.

There are sexual practices that both gay and straight people use that are equally risky for both groups, Akinbami said.

There is a clear split on the committee when it comes to views on sexuality, Fishback said.

"There are some committee members whose viewpoints are more socially conservative is I guess how you'd describe it," said Fishback, who has two adult sons who are gay.

Others, because of their personal or professional experience "have a perspective which some would describe as more up-to-date, more in tune with what we've discovered about human beings over the last several decades," he said in an interview.

Those who question much of the material the committee has recommended make up a clear minority on the 24-member committee.

Michelle Turner, a former president of the county council of PTAs who joined the committee in July and is part of that minority, said that when dealing with the health of children, both sides should be heard.

"If there is information out there that shows a gay lifestyle is harmful to them in various ways, then I think they should have access to those materials," said Turner, who signed Brown's March 25 letter. "And if they are going to go this far in discussing the gay lifestyle, they have to show all sides, all aspects of it."

Brown agreed.

"In an educational atmosphere, you should be able to see both sides of an issue," she said. "Because without both sides of an issue what you're doing is indoctrinating [students]."

Jackie Rice, who also signed Brown's letter after trying unsuccessfully to get the committee to recommend including information on reparative therapy, said omitting mention of that therapy is not giving students a complete picture of sexual orientation.

"I feel that if you're going to be telling someone anything, you have to give them the whole story, not half," she said.

Fishback said parents may choose not to allow their children to participate in the health units about sexuality.

Those who have supported the panel's recommendations say the accusations of bias are unfounded.

"We spend a considerable amount of time listening to their objections," Campbell said. "We spend a considerable amount of time reading articles that they bring in to counter perspectives."

That sometimes means spending as much as 30 minutes of the committee's monthly meeting debating a single word, she said.

"What is it they do in Congress?" Campbell said. "Filibustering?"