Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Hopefully, History Doesn't Always Repeat Itself

The school board has voted to disband the citizens advisory committee and start over from scratch. No one is sure what happens next, if "educational professionals" will develop a curriculum for approval of a new citizens committee, if the advisory committee will recommend a curriculum to the educational professionals, how long anything will take, exactly what will change and what will stay the same ... nobody knows.

As we sit at this crossroads, it seems useful to review how we got to this point. David Fishback, who chaired the citizens committee in recent years, has written a piece describing some of the issues and giving some important historical detail on the working of the citizens advisory committee.

It might be a good idea to learn from history, so we can avoid repeating it.
With the decision of MCPS to start the curriculum revision process from scratch, the major substantive issues in the upcoming months will be (1) whether the simple proposition accepted for decades by every mainstream American medical and mental health professional association that homosexuality is not a disease should be mentioned in the Family Life and Human Sexuality unit of the MCPS 8th and 10th Grade health curriculum; and (2) if so, whether the contrary view -- i.e., that homosexuality is something that people choose and is a disease that can be "cured" -- has any place in the health education curriculum.

In order to shed some light on these issues, I provide here a summary of what transpired in the course of the deliberations of the now-disbanded Board of Education Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development (CAC):

From October 2003 through May 2004, the CAC spent hours on these issues and examined them closely. Those propounding the view that homosexuality can be "cured" had ample opportunity to present their views and documents purportedly supporting that position. The vast majority of the Advisory Committee was utterly unconvinced.

The approaches set forth by advocates of "reparative therapy" are, at bottom, all premised on the proposition that homosexuality is a "disease" -- a premise completely at odds with the mainstream scientific/medical consensus. Indeed, efforts early in the last century to "change" homosexuals through psychotherapy and other techniques typically resulted in extremely bad outcomes. It was such bad outcomes (suicide, depression, alienation from families and society, etc.) that led American mental health groups to reexamine the conventional wisdom, and ultimately conclude that being gay or lesbian was just another way to be, and not itself a mental disorder. Moreover, close examination of reparative therapy-related materials and statements of their most prominent proponents demonstrate that they are premised on the proposition that there is no such thing as healthy sexual orientation that is not heterosexual. Because these materials are in direct conflict with all modern mainstream learning, the CAC rejected their inclusion in either the curriculum or the background teacher resources. Inclusion of such "information," moreover, would be unnecessarily hurtful to those who happen to be homosexual or who have homosexual family members and friends. I know that some may say that we should not avoid tough issues because someone's feelings might be hurt. In this case, however, such logic would lead to presentation of discredited pseudo-scientific assertions regarding miscegenation or the superiority or inferiority of different races.

CAC members who advocated reparative therapy had ample opportunity to convince a majority of the Committee of the appropriateness of these materials. Their suggestion that all they wanted to do was to "offer another view" may have surface appeal, but examination of the details demonstrated otherwise. For example, one document offered as a teacher resource was a pamphlet from Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX), which, on its face, contained simple generalities. See http://www.pfox.org/Downloads/Teenbooklet%20(Read-Only).pdf. However, an examination of the websites presented in the pamphlet for finding more information revealed that every single site was premised on the proposition that homosexuality was a disease and/or that homosexuality was forbidden by scripture. None of these sites presented credible scientific or mental health studies to support their contentions that homosexuality is a defect and a defect that is "curable." Following a report of this examination, the pamphlet was rejected for inclusion by a vote of 18-3. Similar materials were offered, and were also overwhelmingly rejected for the same reasons. While individual citizens are certainly free to have any views they wish (whether theological or otherwise), materials in the public school health education classes should be based on the best science and should serve to help children and their families.

Those holding the minority view on the Committee were given the opportunity to submit a dissent to the Committee's June 2004 report, but chose not to do so -- instead waiting until just before the May 2005 piloting of the curriculum revisions (which were approved unanimously by the Board in November 2004) to bring a lawsuit in federal court.

I hope this discussion has been enlightening. Anyone wishing to express their opinions to the Board of Education may do so via e-mail at boe@fc.mcps.k12.md.us.

[David S. Fishback is former Chair of Board of Education's Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development (CAC)]

That committee made a lot of good recommendations, but the end result was that a small group of extremists was able to stop the whole thing. I do hope the next committee learns from this lesson.


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