It’s time to pass the Healthy Youth Act

Sex ed bill would provide vital information to Mass. youth

IN 1992, responding to high rates of suicide attempts among gay and lesbian youth and reports of pervasive anti-gay bullying in schools, Gov. William Weld created the first-in-the-nation Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, which is now known as the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth. The commission held hearings around the state at which gay and lesbian students delivered moving testimony about the ways in which they had been mistreated by their parents, teachers, fellows students, and even law enforcement.

As a result of those hearings, Massachusetts lawmakers swiftly enacted the Safe Schools law, which explicitly protected gay and lesbian students from discrimination by teachers and other school officials. That law gave rise to what is now known as the Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students and Gay/Straight Alliances, clubs that foster a more safe and supportive school climate for LGBTQ students.

In hindsight, the speed with which our political leaders tackled the crisis of gay and lesbian youth suicide was extraordinary, especially given the social climate at that time. In 1992, the AIDS epidemic was still raging, with the disease the leading cause of death among men ages 25–44. Culture-shifting shows like “Ellen” and “Will & Grace” were years away. Merely acknowledging that queer youth existed—never mind implementing policies to meet their mental health and safety needs—was way outside the mainstream. Yet our state’s approach to protecting gay and lesbian students from discrimination and violence became a model for the nation.

This is one reason why it is so puzzling that lawmakers have failed to take action on the Healthy Youth Act, which was first filed in 2011. The bill would require school districts offering sex education to provide medically accurate, age-appropriate information—including material that is inclusive and affirmative of LGBTQ youth—and to focus on teaching students how to build healthy relationships and understand consent and boundaries. Parents and guardians could still opt their children out of receiving the instruction.

Unlike 27 years ago, when the broader public was largely ignorant of the needs of LGBTQ youth, that isn’t the case today when it comes to sex, sexuality, and relationships among young people. By their senior year of high school, a majority of students have engaged in sexual intercourse. Yet 16 percent of young women and 10 percent of young men report that they did not use protection the last time they had sex, and over 20 percent of young women and 35 percent of young men are not taught about birth control from their parents or schools.

It’s not uncommon for young people to mistake jealousy and possessive behavior as signs of love. Over seven percent of all high school students report having been sexually assaulted, with 11.3 percent of young women and 3.5 percent of young men saying they have survived an act of sexual violence. LGBTQ youth face higher risks of acquiring HIV and sexually-transmitted infections as well as higher risks of intimate partner violence than their heterosexual and cisgender peers.

Research consistently shows that comprehensive sex education that includes instruction about consent, how to build healthy relationships, and that is LGBTQ inclusive reduces sexual violence, unintended pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases.

News coverage of the stalled effort to pass the Healthy Youth Act hints that the requirements to teach about consent and be inclusive of LGBTQ students are hampering its passage. Conservative activists, apparently, fear that honest discussions of these subjects will encourage sexual experimentation among vulnerable young people.

Similar arguments were lobbed against the Safe Schools law. Weld was branded a fool for signing the bill into law, and conservative activists decried teachers “being forced to teach about the homosexual lifestyle as normal and natural, which it is not.”

As it turns out, passing the Safe Schools bill in 1993 was the right thing to do. And Weld, a Republican, won reelection the following year with 71 percent of the vote.

Meet the Author
Now it’s 2019—and passage of the Healthy Youth Act is long overdue.

Gina Scaramella is the executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.