Friday Venting: Ontario Sexual Health Education

For those in the dominant majority, it can be so easy to live in a bubble of privilege. This is no less true in the particular areas of sexual orientation or gender identity. I had lunch with a Christian leader the other day. And he made the comment, that I’ve heard so many times before, wondering why people outside the heterosexual mainstream needed to define themselves by their sexuality. He said, “I don’t view my friends as my heterosexual friends – why should I view someone as my gay friend?” He did acknowledge that if someone has been marginalized or felt the need to hide an aspect of their identity, then when they come out from under that this aspect of their life takes on more weight. But I think it is more than that. Heterosexuals wear their sexuality on their sleeve every day – in ways that most straight people don’t even think about. Straight people so easily identify as husband or wife, mother or father. They never think about whether it is safe to say so. They never consider that identifying themselves in this way could cause offense or anxiety in another. They don’t think about grabbing the hand of their significant other in public. We might not walk around proclaiming our heterosexuality in those terms – but its out there on public display none-the-less. My colleague Brian often says that growing up as a gay man he needed people around him to acknowledge two sides of the same coin. On one hand, people needed to acknowledge that what he was experiencing and journeying through was unique – and that unless it was also their personal reality, they really couldn’t say that they “understood what he was going through”. But on the other hand, he needed people to recognize and affirm to him that he wasn’t so different than anyone else. There were more things he had in common with other people who weren’t gay than were differences. This paradox is important to hold in tension. For those of us who find ourselves in the majority, we need to be intentional to try to identify with the ‘other’. We need to consider what it would be like for almost every billboard and television commercial to portray a heterosexual version of life. We need to try to stand in the shoes of a same-gender attracted person hearing the angry demands that homosexuality not be seen as normal. Normal may not be a particularly helpful word in this conversation. I’ve used the word normalize in the past. That one of the things I wanted to do in the Christian community was to normalize the experience of those who were same-gender attracted. That just because it was a less common experience than opposite-gender attraction, that in-and-of-itself didn’t make it abnormal – just different. Where people can get past the fallacious notion that people choose the direction of their sexual attractions, it is then much easier to see that the experience of same-gender attraction is simply a reality for some people and not something that should be given a value judgment. I’ve been engaging in conversations around faith and sexuality for eight years. And it seems like today more people are able to understand the reality of gay people – and that while it is a reality that is less common, it is not inherently abnormal. Which is why I find it so troublesome that there has been such a backlash from Christian people to the proposed Sexual Education curriculum for public schools in the province of Ontario. The common concern that I hear from parents is that the schools want to teach their kids, from a young age, that homosexuality is normal. The assumption seems to be that if our kids learn that most of the population is heterosexual but a smaller minority of people find themselves outside that mainstream orientation, then that will necessarily teach them that they should morally approve of homosexual behaviour. When parents freak out because their kindergartner may be exposed to a book about a child having two mommies, I have to wonder what is really going on. Having two mommies is less common to be sure. And some people will have moral objections to gay sexual relationships. But do either of those two things change the reality that children in public school may have a classmate who does have two mommies? Or that in kindergarten, all children should learn to treat all people with respect regardless of the ways they might be different than themselves. One might morally disapprove of a common-law heterosexual relationship – but surely one would recognize that such moral disapproval ought not to lead to disrespectful or unkind behaviour towards those individuals or their children. And learning of the reality of different kinds of relationships and families and the need to treat one another with respect and kindness ought to be something that Christians understand and support as an outworking of the unconditional love of God for all of humanity. But of course, the sentiment is that it isn’t just basic respect and kindness that is the intention – but an indoctrinization that heterosexuality and homosexuality are morally equal. While I know that there would be Christians who disagree with me here, I would submit that the experience of opposite-gender attraction or same-gender attraction is not a moral question. If one does not volitionally choose the direction of one’s attractions – how can one be morally culpable for such an experience? And surely the Christian would not suggest that just because a person experiences a less common sexual attraction that means the person is somehow inferior or less than. Every single human being is made in the image of God and has inherent worth and dignity regardless of the direction of their sexual attractions or their sense of gender identity. “But the school isn’t teaching that homosexual behaviour is wrong.” But shouldn’t that kind of moral teaching take place within the home, as the responsibility of the parents – perhaps supported and reinforced within a particular faith community? Are you really so fearful that the school is going to have so much more influence over your children than you do? If the school does, one has to wonder if you are really fulfilling your role as a parent. “But they’re exposing children to sexually explicit concepts at unacceptably young ages.” One of the most common things I’ve heard in reaction to the proposed curriculum is that they will talk about masturbation in grade three and anal and oral sex in grade 6/7. As a parent of elementary school aged children myself, I can understand some of the hesitancy on the part of parents. I can understand wanting to protect the innocence of our children. At the same time, the reality is that one in four 8 year olds have come across sexually explicit content on the internet. The reality is that little Johnny at school is all too eager to tell all the kids in his peer group about sexual behaviours he overheard his older brother talking about. The reality is that school playgrounds are rife with mis-information, crude assumptions and innocence-stealing discussions. Our society is over-sexualized, our kids are sexualized at earlier and earlier ages – and while we might not like that very much – it is our current reality. If a parent wants to do their very best to shelter their children – that’s their choice. If they want to home-school, get rid of the television and computer in their homes and ensure their children only play with other children who are not exposed to media (who are also not exposed to other children who do have access to media), they are completely free to do so. I know parents who have taken this kind of route – and I respect their commitment and love for their children. But even then, unless you’re planning on living with the Amish I’m not sure how successful you would be in completely sheltering your children from the world around you. I don’t mean to be harsh, but I think it is naïve to think you can completely prevent your children from being exposed to sexual concepts at young ages – given the society we live in. My own children have been in both Christian school and public school. Inevitably, in both situations, they heard language and definitions that I wasn’t very happy about. But I decided early on that I would be proactive. That I would be the one from whom my children received accurate, age-appropriate information about the human body and the realities of human sexuality. That these conversations would happen in the safety of our own home, with the gentleness and accuracy I could provide – where my trust relationship with my children could ensure that they could ask questions, process their reactions (including the normal fears and curiosity), and instill the kind of values that I believed were consistent with God’s intentions for our sexuality. It wasn’t easy for me necessarily. I didn’t really have a good model. I grew up in a home where sexuality wasn’t discussed openly. But I was willing to process my own discomfort, anxieties and Calvinistic guilt around the area of sexuality so that I could step up and be the parent my kids needed. “But the new curriculum introduces ‘gender identity’ to kids and that is only going to make them confused and engage in sexual experimentation.” Let me be really clear here. Learning about the reality that some people experience difference in their experience of sexual orientation or gender identity will not cause children to be gay or to become confused about their own gender. While causation in both of these arenas is complex and multi-faceted, descriptive information will not create these kinds of realities where there otherwise would not have been. Confusion is a normal part of growing up – and for the vast majority of children will be just part of the developmental process out of which they eventually emerge into the majority status of heterosexuality and gender clarity and security. Having clear information about the realities of both normal confusion and the minority of people for whom these are significant and persistent realities will equip our children to not fear confusion or difference. And for those children who do find themselves outside of the mainstream of sexual and gender identity, such information could be literally life-saving as they seek to make sense of their experiences and find people who will advocate and create safe spaces for them to understand themselves. The Christian community should not seek to prevent these individuals from having access to information that will help them understand their personal reality. Lack of information won’t change their experience – it will just make it scarier, more confusing, and more likely cause them to be lonely, misunderstood and mistreated. In a public school situation, the needs of all the students need to be considered. And the reality is that there are children whose parents aren’t particularly proactive or involved in their children’s sexual education. There are children who are ill-equipped to navigate this over-sexualized world they find themselves in. They very much need accurate information. They need the care of concerned educators to learn how to respect themselves and others in this area of sexuality. In an effort to protect our own children, might we in fact contribute to withholding the very education that other children desperately need. This article shared these insights from current sexual education practitioners:

“Children are still looking for information, they are hard-wired, I believe, to be curious about sexuality around puberty. My concern is that most of this is factual and age-appropriate knowledge — in an age where there is a deluge of sexualized content in the media to which many kids are exposed without supervision.”
“The point of education is providing information before you need it,” says Shannon Boodram, 24, and author of Laid, a collection of essays by youth about their sexual experiences. Through the book and website Boodram has heard countless stories from kids who become sexually active too early and regretted it, who got infections following unprotected sex and who didn’t believe they could turn to adults for help.”

There is much more I’d like to say, but this is getting long enough ….. As a final thought, I would submit that we should not be afraid of this new curriculum. It may force us, as parents with clear beliefs and values around the area of sexuality, to engage in proactive ways in the sexual education of our children – but I, for one, think that is a good thing. Note: If you’ve only gone on hear-say regarding these proposed curriculum changes, then I urge you to read through the actual source material. Check out this link. Given that the whole document is 200 pages – consider this link for a 3 page summary of the proposed changes.