Gay Slurs, Erotic Art: Sex Ed and Christianity in Montana

In Helena, Montana, educators are trying to implement comprehensive sex education.  But the curriculum has spurred furious right-wing opposition, and false claims about the content.

Gay slurs and erotic art.

These, apparently, are fighting words.  Educators in Helena, Montana are trying to stop elementary school kids from hurling hateful epitaphs at one another, and they’d like to use erotic art to help older teens learn about sex and relationships. This and more has local residents like Pastor Rick DeMato calling local educators ungodly, and claiming that the local school district has “been taken over by those in high places that wish to eradicate Christian morals in America.” More on the thinly veiled Obama attack later.

This new proposed curriculum is now fast becoming national news, largely the result of exaggerated claims, and opponents of sex education have succeeded in forcing a new review of the content at a hearing next month.

For example, kindergartners would learn that “family structures differ.” That prompted Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council to claim on Fox News that the proposed curriculum would, among other things, “teach first graders they might be homosexual.”  Author and educator Logan Levkoff shot back on Fox, saying, “This program is not teaching first graders if they are gay.  They are saying there are a lot of different kinds of families out there.  Some have a Mom and Dad, some have two Moms, two Dads, a single parent, all different kinds of family makeups…”.

Helena, Montana is just the latest community embroiled in a sex education fight. This summer, opponents in at least two other local communities have pushed back at attempts to provide comprehensive sex education in schools.  In late May, Johnson County, Kansas residents convinced local officials to withdraw a bid for federal funding for comprehensive sex education due to the involvement of Planned Parenthood as one of the participants.  In June, some schools in New Jersey disinvited Planned Parenthood educators from co-teaching sex education classes after some parents objected.

As the Obama administration prepares to announce new federal grants to localities to implement comprehensive sex education, these local flare-ups give us an interesting glimpse of the public discourse on the horizon.  The next set of hearings in Helena, scheduled for August 10, may be a valuable window into how the public discourse will evolve in the nation’s most embattled communities.

Some vocal opponents, such as Jim Sedlak, simply oppose any sex education in elementary school and describe sex education programs as “social engineering schemes.” The Associated Press describes the controversy this way:

Under the proposal for the Helena school district, kindergartners would be taught proper anatomical terms, first-graders would learn sexual relations could happen between two men or two women, and fifth-graders would learn the various ways people can have intercourse.

Here are highlights of some of the rhetoric, and the wording from the proposed curriculum:

Fox News:
“It includes teaching first graders that people can be attracted to the same gender”.

Actual curriculum for first graders:
“Recognize that family structures differ”.

Fox News:
“In second grade students are instructed to avoid gay slurs”.

Actual curriculum for second graders:
“Understand making fun of people by calling them gay (e.g., “homo,” “fag,” “queer”) is disrespectful & hurtful”
Fox News:
“By the time students turn 10 years old they are taught about various types of intercourse”.

Actual curriculum for fifth graders:
“Understand that during puberty, many people begin to develop sexual and romantic feelings. Understand that sexual intercourse includes but is not limited to vaginal, oral, or anal penetration. Define STI & recognize transmissions (gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV infection, Chlamydia, genital warts and herpes) Understand abstinence from sexual activity is the only 100% effective way to avoid STIs. Understand anyone can get STIs if they exchange bodily fluids orally, vaginally, and anally. Understand barrier methods of contraception (e.g. male and female condoms, dental dams can greatly reduce but not prevent STIs)

In 2007, Montana officials announced they would turn down federal funding to teach abstinence-only programs. The hearings this week didn’t focus on abstinence-until-marriage curriculum, despite the fact that proponents for this approach organized the opposition.  Instead the focus was on criticizing the comprehensive sex education approach.

Some like Pastor Rick Demato are encouraging residents to pull their children out of public school. Pastor Rick (as he calls himself) asserted that the school system is inhospitable to Christians in his most recent sermon.  “While Muslim children can carry their prayer beads, Christian children are discouraged from carrying their bibles.”  He asks, “What will Helena and the system do when they get Muslim children in classes…?” He answers his own question, “Muslim parents are not going to allow their children to sit in these classes while the rest of America’s children are subjected to the most vile of teachings.”


I don’t know how many Muslims live in Helena or have plans to move there.  The city is about 95 percent white, 2 percent African American, and almost 2 percent  Hispanic.   But Pastor Rick is sure Muslims are on their way.  “The only reason they’re not in some areas is they don’t have the money to do it yet.  They build their own schools.  But until that time when they put one in Helena, I guarantee you he’s going to have rights to his religion, that little kid, that yours does not have.  Because Christians are up for the slaughter, in our society, in America.”

Pastor Rick urges his parishioners to enroll their children in a Christian school or have “wives” home school the children.  Helena School Superintendent Dr. Bruce Messenger sounded somewhat weary when he said, in the aftermath of this weeks hearing, “At some point we also have to decide what we think is in the best interest of all children, and that’s not always popular with everyone”.

Misguided and thinly disguised accusations about President Obama’s christianity, as well as fear-mongering about Muslims and exaggerated claims about kindergarten sex education are hallmarks of past political divisiveness. We can expect more of the same as we get closer to the implementation of new federal pregnancy prevention curriculum, expected to be announced in September. These are well-known battlegrounds about which proponents of comprehensive sex education should be well prepared.

There will also be parents, educators, and other community members who need to engage an honest and respectful dialogue about new approaches to sexuality education.  

As we emerge from the abstinence-only-until-marriage era and find new pathways for innovative perspectives on adolescent sexual health, new communications strategies must be prepared.  Rather than focusing the majority of our energy on old battles and entrenched opposition, we have an opportunity to spark a rigorous and useful conversation about innovative new curriculum.  Perhaps if the focus of our dialogue is on those who seek engagement of new ideas and reality-based interventions, the public discourse can be fresh and useful. As the mother of young teens, that kind of conversation can’t happen soon enough.