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How Referendum-90 on sex ed in schools could change the course for Washington’s LGBTQ students

Gay City is a Seattle LGBTQ Center that has pledged its support on R-90. Located in Capitol Hill, they provide testing and community for many LGBTQ people and are currently searching for a new home. (Image: Chamidae Ford)

By Chamidae Ford, UW News Lab/Special to CHS

Just days from one of the most divisive and consuming presidential elections in recent history, some of the other decisions on Washington’s November 3rd ballot are having a hard time gathering attention.

One of those smaller decisions that will still make a huge impact is Referendum 90, which asks Washington voters to support or repeal recently-passed legislation, Senate Bill 5395, that requires schools to provide comprehensive sex education. It’s a dire need.

“If safe spaces are not developed for youth to have these discussions, there’s a high chance they will seek unsafe spaces to learn or be misinformed,” said Melvin Givens, director of communications for Capitol Hill’s Gay City, a Seattle LGBTQ center.

The new law, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in March, sparked outrage among some parents and conservative groups. Opponents believe that the law would lead to inappropriate content being taught to children. The opponent’s successful efforts to place R-90 on the ballot garnered over 266,000 signatures.

A “yes” vote on R-90 would preserve the law; a “no” vote would repeal it.


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Supporters of the sex education requirement said the fears are misplaced. R-90 would require that consent and age-appropriate, factual, sex education be taught. Parents will have the right to take their children out of those classes if they would like.

The referendum will also mandate that the sex education curriculum be inclusive and provide appropriate information for LGBTQ youth.

If approved, this law would increase the amount of factual information LGBTQ students have access to in school. Washington is currently a state that does not require any sex education to be taught in schools, placing the choice in the hands of local school districts.

This new mandate is potentially life-changing for many LGBTQ students. In many states across the country, students rarely receive information about queer sex. According to Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network less than 5% of LGBTQ students were taught about sex and sexual health that pertains to them in a positive way. Currently, eight states prohibit LGBTQ content from being taught in schools at all.

Liezl Rebugio, the field director of Safe & Healthy Youth, stressed the importance of sex education for every student.

“Our LGBTQ youth [need] to be seen, and heard, and have their experiences seen and heard so that they feel like they are valued.”

The lack of discussion around LGBTQ sex often creates a taboo environment within schools that can lead to misunderstanding and discrimination towards students who do not fit the mold.

Dr. Nicole K. McNichols, a University of Washington psychology professor, teaches a popular lecture on the psychology of sex. She talked about how the refusal to acknowledge and discuss the experiences of LGBTQ students allows stigmas to develop and can often lead to more traumatic and life-long suffering for those students.

“That’s [why] we see so many transgender folks experiencing different types of depression and anxiety, and unfortunately, suicide, is because we refuse to address these issues in sex education in schools,” said McNichols.

Many believe that the law will help foster a safe space in schools so that regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, students feel comfortable and included.

Givens of Gay City believes it would yield a more inclusive education environment.

“Educating youth will help them better understand their bodies, understand the physical and social behavior of others, acquire the vocabulary they need to speak about it and create a safe space to address their concerns,” Givens said.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that LGBTQ teens are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than their heterosexual peers. It also found that they are four times more likely to commit suicide. This is directly linked to the bullying and discrimination that they often experience throughout their time at school.

R-90 would create a more inclusive and supportive environment for LGBTQ students and change the way heterosexual students treat their peers, supporters say.

The lack of information around LGBTQ related issues won’t only cause harm, but it also means there is less correct information for them to have access to.

For many people, it can be difficult to talk to family members about sex, especially if that is a taboo topic in your household. For many LGBTQ youths, that option sometimes feels impossible. They may feel unsafe in their home or are not sure that they are ready to come out to their family yet.

The American Progress found that while LGBTQ young people only make up 5-10% of the population, they comprise nearly 20-40% of homeless youth.

Turning to one’s family for advice is commonly not an option, advocates say.

“Curriculum is needed because some youth are unable to gain the knowledge they need by asking their family,” said Givens. “This can be rooted in fear, limited knowledge by adults, and at times, the overwhelming feelings people experience when sharing the intimate details of sex education.”

Without school or home, the options for gaining knowledge are limited, and often incorrect.

The most common place to turn is the internet. While the internet can often be a place of information and connection, in situations where you have very little knowledge about a topic it can allow you to be heavily misinformed.

A Washington voter places their ballot in the Capitol Hill dropbox just a week out from Election Day. Despite R-90 being up in the polls, its future is still uncertain. (Image: Chamidae Ford)

Mindie Wirth, chairwoman of Reject R-90, the campaign to repeal the law, cited budgetary concerns about the law. But opponents mainly fear the lack of input from parents.

“Parents and local communities will have little input in determining how they want their kids to be taught, especially as it relates to materials that include graphic sexual subject matter,” Wirth said.

But the newly-passed law gives parents the option to have their children opt-out of sex education, allowing them to still have control in their children’s education.

If approved, R-90 would make sure all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity receive the sex education they need while still allowing parents to have power over the information their children are taught.

For people like Rebugio, working to approve R-90 is personal. While she received sex education in school, the curriculum was not inclusive.

“It didn’t include issues of consent or boundaries. During that time we were also in a very different place with LGBTQ issues. It was not inclusive,” Rebugio said.

“Instruction did not reflect the experiences and the identities of LGBTQ students. So as my girls grow up, I want them to have a better education than I did, and I want them to have the full, medically accurate information that they need to make empowered decisions to keep them safe and healthy.”

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2 years ago

The sex ed curriculum needs to be more accessible to parents and the community – it is not easy to find out what your kid is being taught. For instance the Seattle Schools use something called FLASH – to get the curriculum I had to track down an email in small print on a king county website saying I should email them for the content. Sex education should be a partnership between home and school, and school is not transparent. I think that may be behind some of the push back to this measure.