Arizona lawmakers repealed a 28-year-old law that restricted teachers from providing students with an LGBTQ-inclusive health education.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed the repeal bill into law on Thursday, just hours after it passed the state Senate. The law did not allow instruction on HIV and AIDS that “promotes a homosexual lifestyle,” “suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex,” or “portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative lifestyle.”
Rep. Daniel Hernandez (D), who is gay, gave a speech on the House floor on Thursday about what this repeal meant to him. He said he was born only a year before the ban went into effect, and that at that time, no one would have imagined there would be six openly gay men serving in the state legislature.
“This bill went into effect in 1991, at the height of the AIDS crisis, when an HIV diagnosis or an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence. I went to public schools here in the state of Arizona and the entire time, the entire 12 years that I went to the Sunnyside School District… I was somebody who was labeled as alternative,” Hernandez said. “For me, it’s a really important win today to be able to have this because the struggles and the challenges that I went through as a student in our public schools, where I was labeled as alternative, labeled as an other will be going away today.”
Ten Republicans in the Senate voted against the measure, one of whom said that she opposed sex education in general, according to the Associated Press.
Only two weeks ago, Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of Equality Arizona against the state superintendent of public instruction and the state Board of Education. The groups said Arizona’s law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment since it focused on queer students. Attorney General Mark Brnovich (R) said he would not support the law.
Although the restrictions were limited to HIV and AIDS instruction, some educators have said that the law’s effect was actually broader than that. Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman told the Associated Press that the law “created a myth and a fear that even mentioning LGBTQ relationships in your classroom could result in punishment or firing.”
“The troubling, now repealed, section of the law had created a climate of confusion and fear, where teachers pre-emptively avoided including gay as well as transgender content not only during HIV education but also throughout the school day,” said Joe Golfen, communications director for GLSEN Phoenix, which seeks to end anti-LGBTQ bullying and discrimination and schools, in a statement.
“Some school staff weren’t sure if they could intervene when they saw anti-LGBT bullying or harassment. Others wouldn’t allow students to submit class assignments that addressed LGBTQ issues,” he added.
“The troubling, now repealed, section of the law had created a climate of confusion and fear.”
Justin Unga, the Arizona state director of the Human Rights Campaign, applauded the “bipartisan solution” to the decades-old ban in a statement. But the organization noted that there are still barriers across the country for many LGBTQ students, since six other states have bans on LGBTQ-inclusive education in public schools. Only four states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring LGBTQ-inclusive sex education.
According to GLSEN, a truly inclusive education should not assume heterosexuality when talking about romantic relationships and sex, challenge the gender binary, recognize transgender people, and include LGBTQ health issues in the rest of a student’s health education.
There are major challenges to ensuring public schools create more inclusive curricula for LGBTQ students. Regardless of whether a state mandates or simply encourages recognizing transgender and queer students, some parents and conservatives complain that the school is intruding on family life or discussing sex with their children, no matter how age-appropriate the material may be.
In 2016, Washington state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction released learning standards that included gender expression and identity under “sexual health.” Under the standards, kindergartners would “understand there are many ways to express gender” and teachers could simply talk about whether it’s OK for girls to play basketball, for example. The Family Policy Institute of Washington responded at the time that “parents should be concerned about whether these standards are age-appropriate, as well as whether the manner in which these topics will be taught may undermine the values held by their family.” That same year, conservatives were also incensed over a school district’s efforts to help staff members better respect students’ gender identity.
In 2017, parents were outraged by a California teacher who read a children’s book about a transgender girl, and they held a protest and met with school officials in response. Meanwhile, LGBTQ teachers have been harassed out of the classroom, suspended for mentioning their same-sex partner, and asked to resign after showing videos on anti-LGBTQ bullying.
According to a 2017 National School Climate Study by GLSEN, 18.2 percentage of LGBTQ students said they were affected by the prohibition on discussing LGBTQ topics in assignments.