Monday, April 04, 2005

The State of the Debate

This post is just a high-level overview of the controversy over the sex-education curriculum for eighth- and tenth-graders in Montgomery County, Maryland, up to this point in time. This web site and the related Yahoo group TeachTheFacts are part of a grassroots movement to support the new changes to the MCPS Family Life and Human Development curriculum. The changes were proposed by a citizens committee that included representatives of conservative groups, and after several years of discussion and revision the changes were adopted unaminously by the board of education in Novermber, 2004. The board's report, including descriptions of all the changes, can be found HERE.

And why do we need to support these changes? We don't normally support changes to a curriculum, for instance, no web site would spring up if there were changes to the precalculus curriculum, do ya think?

We need to support the changes because some people in our county are trying to have them thrown out. These people claim that the changes undermine their religious values, offend them morally, and they also claim that people like them will be "discriminated against" if their children are taught the new things that are in the curriculum.

What are the changes?
There are two basic changes.

First, there is a new video that demonstrates how to use a condom. A lady in the video puts a condom on a cucumber.

It is not clear what it is that the opponents of the curriculum really disagree with here. There was already a video available under the old curriculum since 1992, which showed how to put on a condom, using a computer-generated graphic of an erect penis. That video is outdated, for instance it discusses some contraceptive techniques that are no longer available, and it needed to be replaced. Having seen both, I'd say the new video is less "graphic" than the old one.

The fight over the condom video is really irrelevant. The video was piloted in three schools this past year, students were unoffended, nobody really complained about it, and it has been accepted as part of the program. So when the opponents of the curriculum complain about the condom video, they are really ... just ... complaining.

The second thing is more serious. The new curriculum introduces the topic of sexual orientation. That is, it talks about homosexuality. It talks about it without criticizing it, without calling is sinful, without judging gay people. The curriculum avoids political disputes about "ex-gays" and about controversial therapies designed to make gay people straight. It mentions that some families have gay parents. It mentions that if a kid had engaged in sex play with someone of their own gender when they were younger it doesn't mean they're gay. It does this without encouraging sexual experimentation, without "promoting" anything, it just simply tells students that such things exist.

And this is where we see the opponents of the curriculum go ballistic. They will take a little phrase out of context from the board of education report and twist it, exaggerate it, make it sound like something terrible -- they will claim, for instance, the the new curriculum "instructs children in anal sex," because the video says that a condom should be worn during anal sex (the old video says the exact same thing). They'll tell you the curriculum encourages kids to identify themselves as straight or gay at an early age, and that the curriculum tells students as young as 13 that a sex life is necessary for a good self-image.

These statements are simply lies. The curriculum does no such thing.

Unfortunately, not many people are going to read the report that details the curriculum changes. There is a chance they will hear what these opponents of the changes are saying, and believe that stuff is really part of this health course. So one job for is making sure people can get the correct information.

How we got where we are
Last year a site appeared on the Internet, dedicated to kicking out the entire MCPS school board over this. The site,, was widely regarded as a laughingstock, as the comments that were posted there went overboard to the point of hilarilty. In fact, some blogs began republishing the outlandish things that were being said, for their humorous content. The Recall group finally put a password on the message board to keep the nonbelievers out, and eventually the site seemed to lose steam.

That web site was the location for messages and planning suggestions for a meeting held on December 4th, 2004, to organize against the school board and the new curriculum. Several of us attended that meeting who were not in agreement with those goals, but simply wanted to see what the hubbub was about.

For a guy like me, it was unbelievable.

The people there, one after another, talked about the "sodomites," and the "gay agenda" that was trying to corrupt our youth, and the necessity of imposing Christian morals on the public school system. Those people were adamant that their Crusade was very important, they were highly motivated, and they were organizing like crazy.

None of the core group of Teach the Facts knew each other before that meeting, but we got in touch through email and soon met, just a few of us, to figure out what to do. We started a blog, called "Vigilance," but soon realized we should set up a real web site, with the blog as one part of it. So we pooled our cash, bought a domain name and space on a web server, and went to town.

In the meantime, the Recall group was busy. They were trying -- mostly unsuccessfully -- to meet with local politicians, they were talking in the churches, passing around petitions, they were undermining the curriculum at every point they could think of. But some of the more savvy members realized it wasn't wise to state their goal as recalling the entire school board. So they started calling themselves something more benign-sounding, "Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum," and set up a web site with a blog of their own, and announcements etc.

We usually refer to them as the "Ex-Recall" group. It is clear that they have no love for the school board, and certainly would love to see them, at least most of them, recalled. The joke is, they have given up the goal of recalling the board about as much as most "ex-gays" have given up being gay.

At first, after the new web site started, activity ceased at the original Recall site, but after a while the first guys broke off from the CRC and it started back up again, but very weakly. There isn't much going on there now, it seems. The curriculum's opponents also started another pair of blog sites, one at that is supposed to be serious news about the school district, and another at, which is an embarrassing attempt at satire. Like, they think it's "satire" to refer to school board member Sharon Cox as "Sharon Cocks." Their main gist has to do with changes at Seven Locks school, but they also complain about the sex-ed curriculum.

In the meantime, several newspapers began to get wind of this controversy. The Washington Times, which is of course a conservative paper, published a series of stories, mostly tending toward the conservative view, that the curriculum was radical and wild and ridiculous. But we have noticed that, as The Times gets more knowledgeable about the actual issues, and as they come to see the motivations of the opponents of the curriculum, they have become more and more fair. The Gazette has also published a series of very well-balanced articles, documenting the controversy without taking sides. The Post has hardly covered it, their one story was riddled with errors. Other local papers, including The Examiner and The Sentinel have published stories on this. CNN came out and interviewed some people, as did a major radio network. CNN's story aired immediately, the radio network is developing a more in-depth piece that is taking some time.

The Ex-Recall group had their grand coming-out party on March 19th of this year, with a widely promoted "town hall meeting." A number of us from Teach the Facts felt obligated to attend. We knew it would be bad, but never dreamed how intensely ugly the rhetoric could be.

First of all, you need to realize that Ex-Recall constantly promotes themselves as mainstream. They'll tell you they are just a bunch of concerned parents and taxpayers (they include "and taxpayers" because at least one of their leaders sends his kids to private school, so the MCPS curriculum doesn't affect him at all). But everything they do, from the discussions on their blog to the political chicanery they try, reminds you again and again that they are a fringe group. Sometimes we call them "nuts," though I am trying to be nice in this post, but in fact their goals and their methods are extreme, nothing near the mainstream, even if they try to stay moderate in what they say.

Ex-Recall lined up a series of speakers for their town-hall meeting that reflected the farthest extreme of the religious right. The theme of the day was the threat of homosexuality. For three hours, we listened to one after the other warn us about how gays were infiltrating our society, trying to recruit our children. One speaker "dispelled myths" about gays, giving us any opinion or datum he could find, from any source, that put them in a bad light. Another sad-sack showed us a bunch of gay porn he had collected. Can you imagine? He has to travel all around the state, attending conferences where they have this stuff. And of course the way he stated everything, you woulda thought his gay porn was being shown right in our schools, right in the classroom. Another guy told us that "the threat of homosexuality is a far greater health threat to kids than even smoking. And anybody who is promoting homosexuality to our kids in the name of tolerance is not acting out of compassion -- they've got an agenda," which was followed by sustained, enthusiastic applause. They had a lady who somebody had crowned as "Mother of the Year," who, well, she didn't have much to say, except that a religious person can hardly send their kid to a public school any more. The meeting ended up with old-time preaching by a Maryland state delegate from Anne Arundel County, who shouted and waved his arms around and said he was "spreading hate and fear" of the homosexual agenda, and ... well, by the end I think the media folks there were in shock, many of us who came to observe were beyond shocked, bordering on nausea. Even the leaders of the Ex-Recall group told the press afterwards that they did not agree with the opinions expressed by their speakers.

Anybody can see those speakers' web sites, you see what they always say. They didn't surprise anyone. The leaders of the group know this plays badly in the press, it looks bad for them to be associated with these ... nuts, but these nuts really do express the core of their message. This is no mainstream movement, these are extremists trying to impose their views on a community that really doesn't agree with them.

We understand that Ex-Recall has sent a letter to the school board threatening a lawsuit. The grounds of the lawsuit, besides some made-up stuff about the process, are that if kids learn about homosexuality in school they will more likely turn out gay, and then they will get AIDS or some other horrible disease and die, and it will be the school board's fault. The letter threatens to sue to prevent that.

We know that their kind of viewpoint has support in the White House and the Congress. For instance, abstinence-only sex education curricula get preference for federal funding. We recently saw the new HHS webpage that strips all information about contraception away and just tells parents to teach their kids to say no to sex. American support for African countries fighting the AIDS epidemic is often dependent on their agreeing not to encourage the use of condoms. We see laws passed every week restricting the rights of gay people, and giving more latitude to people who want to impose their values onothers. In many, many ways we understand that the highest levels of American government are against us in this.

But this is not a battle at the highest levels of government. This is local. The people of Montgomery County will have the final say in this, and we are confident in their judgment.

What now?
This is obviously part of a larger battle, sometimes these days called "the culture war." One side, dominated by certain religious groups, wants America to live by its strict code, while the other side -- that's us -- prefers tolerance and acceptance of differences. There does not seem to be any room for compromise. In some places, like Alabama for instance, the "other side" clearly has the advantage. Montgomery County though is a traditionally liberal place, richly diverse, educated, and the puritanical conservatives are a small minority. It is possible though that a small minority makes so much noise that they end up getting their way, if the others don't stop them.

We at may be naively optimistic. We expect that the people of the county will use their heads, will discuss among themselves, and will inevitably understand what's happening here. We want people to look at the board's report, and see what material the schools will actually be teaching. Honestly, look it over and see if there's anything that offends you. There won't be.

If you're interested in this topic, please sign up for our Yahoo group. Come and participate with us -- we need people to carry petitions, to meet with parents' groups, to speak to the school board, and all of the things that need to be done to protect common sense in Montgomery County.


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