The two Alabama high school students who created a Change.org petition urging the Alabama legislature to remove homophobic sections of the state’s sexual health education policy are but one part of a large movement of Alabama youth who are working for sexual health education reform in the state.
Sarah Noone and Adam Pratt’s petition calls on Alabama legislators to support Representative Patricia Todd’s (D-Jefferson) proposal to repeal part of the state’s sexual health education policy that mandates Alabama students be taught that homosexuality is a socially unacceptable “lifestyle” and illegal according to the laws of the state. “We want our schools to be a safe place for everyone,” Noone says in a video that accompanies the petition, “and the current law promotes school-sponsored bullying.”
Todd’s legislation would also remove a requirement that forces educators to explicitly associate premarital and adolescent sex and teenage pregnancy and parenting with negative outcomes and would force schools to discontinue the practice of primarily emphasizing abstinence as a means of avoiding unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV/AIDS. However, Todd has said that the legislation’s broad scope makes it unlikely that it will pass through the House’s Education Policy committee.
While sexual health education reform may not come from the state of Alabama, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) have reintroduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act. REHYA would expand federal grant funding for schools (including colleges and universities), health departments, and other public and private entities focused on adolescent health or education to provide youth with comprehensive, medically accurate, and LGBT inclusive sexual health education. It also stipulates that no federal funding be given to health education programs that withhold information about HIV, promote gender stereotypes, and denigrate and ignore the needs of sexually active and LGBT youth.
The Alabama Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Justice (AASRJ), a student group at the University of Alabama, has been collecting support for REHYA since the beginning of the year. Students in the group have collected petitions in the university’s student union, at numerous on-campus events and conferences, and after speaking with members of other student organizations, including the campus chapter of the College Republicans, about the need for sexual health education reform in Alabama and the United States.
“Comprehensive, medically accurate, non-homophobic and not-sexist sexual health education at school is the key to true education,” Student Government Association Senator and AASRJ member Anthony James said. “If biased sexual health education is continued anywhere, those who receive it will suffer the consequences of believing political and religious agendas that have been mixed into a subject where neither of the two have any purpose.”
In other words, inadequate sexual health education programs like those in Alabama did little to prevent the 28,640 cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis that occurred in Alabama youth ages 15-24 in 2011; the 12,360 pregnancies of Alabama teens aged 15-19 in 2008; or increasingly high rates of HIV transmission among Alabama youth ages 13-24.
Nationally, 48% of newly-diagnosed sexually transmitted infections occur in people ages 15-24 and 39% of new HIV infections in 2007 occurred among people ages 13-29. Instead of shaming sexually-active youth, schools need to be teaching students the information they desperately need to learn and feel confident about their sexual desires, make healthy decisions about their sexual activity, and avoid sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, and unintended pregnancies.
On Tuesday, April 9, AASRJ will join with other Alabama youth at the state capital in Montgomery for a Youth Advocacy day to talk with legislators about the need for comprehensive, medically-accurate, and LGBTQ inclusive sexual health education in the state. The advocacy day was organized by the Alabama Alliance for Healthy Youth (AA4HY), a youth-led and youth-focused sexual health organization sponsored by the Birmingham-based nonprofit AIDS Alabama. Greg Gabbert, Youth Advocacy Coordinator for AIDS Alabama, said that AA4HY’s primary mission was to “create an atmospheric shift around the topic of sex education” and work with “legislators and local policy makers, including school board members, to encourage the implementation of more effective, comprehensive, and evidence-based sexual health education in schools around the state.”
Even if you don’t live in Alabama, you can support the work that youth there are doing to improve sexual health education for themselves and others in the United States. To help Alabama youth remove homophobic language from the state’s sexual health education policy sign Sarah Noone and Adam Pratt’s Change.org petition. You can also let your Congressional representatives know that you support the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act.
Adolescence and young adulthood are times of rapid physical and personal development that can be fraught with anxiety. We need sexual health education policies that will give youth the tools they need to make healthy sexual decisions and protect themselves from bullying, abuse, and exploitation as they mature into adulthood.