Senator Sandy Pappas (DFL-St Paul) (Photo, James Sanna)

Sexually-Transmitted Infections are on the rise among Minnesota teens, but current law do enough to teach comprehensive sexual health education that would help both their straight and LGBT students stay safe as they start exploring their sexuality, say advocates. A pair of bills making their way through the state Senate and House of Representatives is trying to change that, but in Wednesday’s hearing in the Senate’s Health, Housing, and Family Security Committee, the bills met with at-times strange opposition from social and religious conservatives.

According to 2001 data presented at the hearing by Senator John Marty, a sponsor for one of the bills and the committee’s chair, American teens have much higher rates of STIs than their peers in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, or Sweden, even though teens in all countries have roughly the same amount of sex and start having sex at similar ages.

“We do a horrendous job of addressing STIs and teen pregnancies” compared to these countries, Marty told the committee.

Public health workers say comprehensive sex ed is not the only answer to the recent dramatic increase in HIV rates among young gay and bi Minnesotans, but they agree that it has to be part of any effort seeking to head off any more increases.

Tom Prichard, head of the right-wing Minnesota Family Council, testified that the kind of comprehensive sex ed outlined in the Senate bill would promote “homosexual behavior, anal or oral sex, things like that.”

“Do you think someone wakes up one day and decides to leave an ‘alternative lifestyle?’” responded Sen. Paul Koering, the state Senate’s only gay Republican member.

Prichard and other opponents of comprehensive sex ed also claimed that most Minnesota schools already teach some form of comprehensive sex education. However, in an interview with TheColu.mn last month, Lori Alveshere of the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention, and Parenting, one of the groups lobbying for the bill, said that no-one knows what is being taught at all Minnesota schools.

Tom Pritchard (Photo, James Sanna)

Robin Edmunds, mother of two high schoolers at Chaska and Chanhassen high schools, said a sex ed seminar at one of the schools covering condom use “raped my children’s minds and souls,” and suggested that the proposed bill would offend many conservatives throughout the state.

Senator Sandy Pappas, the bill’s chief sponsor, responded that the proposed law offered plenty of opportunity for parents like Edmunds to pull their children out of portions of a sex ed class that they found offensive, and requires school districts to get specific parent approval for any new sex ed curriculum introduced to comply with the law.

Following the hearing, MOAPPP’s Alveshere conceded that this same provision that would make the bill palatable to vocal conservative groups in Greater Minnesota communities could also result in LGBTQ teens going through a health class without learning vital safe-sex practices, such as how to properly use a condom or a dental dam.

“We want to respect Minnesota’s strong tradition of local control [of school currculum],” Alveshere said, suggesting that achieving LGBT-inclusive sex ed in all Minnesota schools would be a two-step process.

“The bill leaves a lot of room for advocacy at a local level…for parents and teacher to advocate for what the community needs,” she said, referring to curriculum elements discussing anal sex and other ‘non-traditional’ positions.

So What’s Good Sex Ed?

I spoke to Emily Shor, a sex health educator at Minneapolis’ North High who is organizing a queer sex ed class for District 202, about what would make an ideal queer-inclusive sex ed program.

“One of the most important things for queer kids talking about sex is feeling really safe and feeling that there’s a strong base of community support,” she said. “Before talking about prevention want to make sure kids feel safe talking about being queer and sexually active, or not.”

To be fully inclusive and most effective, Shor said, educators would do well to talk in terms of behaviors, not identity. Not only does it make sure students don’t have to out themselves in front of peers, but it makes for more effective communication.

“You’re laying out all the risks,” Shor said. “You’re telling them ‘if you’re putting a penis in a vagina you’re at this point [on the risk continuum.]‘”

Senator John Marty (Photo: James Sanna)

“Keeping it alive”

Alveshere and Senator Marty were both less-than-optimistic that the bill would pass this session, despite a study by Dr. Michael Reznik from the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Pediatrics Department, presented to the committee, suggesting an overwhelming majority of Minnesota parents support comprehensive sex ed classes taught in schools.

“What we want to do is pass it, obviously,” Marty said in an interview following the hearing, “but it’s not likely to pass this year give the political realities.”

By making their case before the relevant committees in the House and Senate, Alveshere said, they were keeping the issue alive, and educating senators and representatives about the problems caused by a lack of comprehensive sex ed.

“I think if you had a governor leading the way,” it would pass easily, said Marty.

Don’t worry, Tom Prichard. Comprehensive sex ed won’t be turning Minnesota students queer.

Yet.

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James Sanna is the Assistant Editor.

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