Sex ed battle sends delegate back to ’96

Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2005

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Ana Sol Gutierrez remembers the packed meetings, the emotionally charged testimony and the national attention the last time the county school board took up the issue of sexual orientation.

In 1996, Gutierrez was a member of the board that voted to add sexual orientation to a list of characteristics covered by the school system’s anti-discrimination policy.

‘‘All hell broke loose,” Gutierrez told about 100 people at a forum Sunday in Bethesda sponsored by, a parents group formed to show support for the county school board’s controversial efforts to include a discussion of homosexuality in eighth- and 10th-grade health classes.

Gutierrez recalled evangelical church leaders packing the boardroom the night when the board approved the policy.

‘‘They were yelling at me, saying I was bringing homosexuality to be taught in our classroom,” she said.

Now a state delegate, Gutierrez (D-Dist. 18) of Chevy Chase sees parallels in this year’s debate over the curriculum revisions.

‘‘We’ve come a long way, but it really seems we have not,” she said.

The curriculum revisions approved by the board last year drew the ire of a parents group called Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, which held a forum of its own in March and joined in a federal lawsuit to stop the curriculum.

In May, a federal judge blocked the curriculum, ruling that teacher resource material unfairly singled out religious denominations for their views on homosexuality.

In June, the school board settled the case with CRC and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays, a group that contends homosexuality is a choice that can be abandoned. As part of the settlement, the board agreed to scrap the revised curriculum.

Now the board is back to the drawing board. It plans to appoint a new 15-member panel on Oct. 11 to help develop new lessons. The new panel will take a more advisory role than its predecessor, which the board disbanded after the the court ruling.

The nation is watching, Ron Schlittler, deputy executive director for PFLAG: Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays in Washington, D.C., warned Sunday’s audience.

‘‘What you’re doing here is model-setting for other communities around the country that need to be having these kinds of conversations,” he said.

Michelle Turner, who heads Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, spent last weekend in St. Louis speaking to a conference of the Eagle Forum, a conservative group.

‘‘We’re being contacted from across the country by both media and private citizens that fear these issues are coming into their community,” Turner said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

People want to know what the county school board is doing, and they want advice, she said.

Sunday’s forum focused largely on reparative therapy, a practice that some contend can ‘‘cure” people of homosexual impulses.

Robert Rigby Jr., a special education teacher in Falls Church, Va., told Sunday’s meeting that he spent 17 years undergoing reparative therapy as a member of the ‘‘ex-gay movement.”

‘‘During those 17 years, my life was a disaster,” he said, recounting bouts with depression and two suicide attempts.

Rigby finally came out as gay after a Baptist minister told him, ‘‘Robert, God made you the way you are and God loves you the way you are.”

Paul A. Wertsch, a physician from Wisconsin who chairs the American Medical Association’s committee on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, gave a presentation in which he said medical evidence suggests homosexuality is inborn.

‘‘A person’s sexual attraction to the same sex or opposite sex can be acted on or not, but the attraction can’t be changed,” Wertsch said.

Reparative therapy cannot be dismissed, Turner said.

‘‘There are people who have left the homosexual lifestyle,” she said. ‘‘How can you discount them?”

With CRC and PFOX both guaranteed seats on the board’s advisory panel as part of the settlement dismissing the lawsuit, the debate is sure to continue.

The school system is in the national spotlight, and the debate is one in which supporters of the curriculum must be vigilant, David S. Fishback said.

Fishback, who chaired the disbanded advisory committee and sat on the panel at Sunday’s forum, noted that other parts of the country, such as Kansas, are engaged in a similar debate over evolution and intelligent design.

Without parents calling on the school board to ‘‘follow the lead and wisdom of major mainstream health care association such as the American Medical Association,” conservative groups ‘‘may view Montgomery County as the next Kansas where fact and dogma vie for a place in our classrooms,” he said.