Equity & Diversity

Mass. Ed. Dept. Criticized For Taped Session on Gay Sex

By John Gehring — May 31, 2000 4 min read
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The Massachusetts Department of Education has become embroiled in a controversy over a gay-rights forum where high school students and department employees took part in sexually explicit discussions that were captured on audiotape by a parents’ group.

The public forum, sponsored by the Boston chapter of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, included about 50 discussion groups that focused on such topics as anti-gay harassment in schools and safe sex. Sessions included “Starting a Gay/Straight Alliance in Your School,” “Youth Coming Out in High School,” and “Ask the Transsexuals.”

While the state education department did not sponsor the event, three AIDS/HIV counselors who worked for the agency—either as direct employees or under contract—took part in a session in which teenagers could submit anonymous questions to be answered by presenters. As a result of the controversy, one counselor has been fired, another resigned, and the third had his contract terminated.

During the forum, at least one member of the Parents’ Rights Coalition, a group founded in 1995 to monitor sex education in schools, taped a session entitled, “What They Didn’t Tell You About Queer Sex and Sexuality in Health Class,” which included graphic discussions of gay and lesbian sex. The organization then sold some copies of the tape, portions of which were played on Massachusetts radio stations. Members of the coalition, which is based in Newton, Mass., also sent the tapes to a handful of state legislators.

The Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, a nonprofit legal-aid organization, obtained a restraining order to stop the release of the tapes on May 17 in Suffolk Superior Court. GLAD is representing one of the education department employees and a student at the workshop, both of whose voices are on the tape.

“There were assurances of privacy,” said Jennifer Levi, a staff attorney for GLAD. “It was unlawful for them to make the tape.”

Massachusetts Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll released a statement May 19 addressing the controversy, in which he emphasized the need for “effective, age-appropriate, school-based AIDS/HIV education” and said the agency would offer training and information to parents, teachers, and health educators. “Our role will not be to interact directly with students on issues related to sexuality,” he said.

Brian Camenker, the leader of the Parents’ Rights Coalition, said lawyers have advised him not to comment publicly on the tape or the forum, which was held in March at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Chief’s Resignation Sought

The recent controversy comes after the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth earlier this month criticized the state board of education for changing regulatory language governing how homosexuals are to be portrayed in the school curriculum. (“Mass. Stance on Anti-Gay Bias in Schools Stirring Debate,” May 17, 2000.) Massachusetts is one of only four states that have laws that specifically prohibit discrimination and harassment against homosexual students.

At a May 18 rally at the Massachusetts statehouse, angry parents held up copies of the tape and called for Mr. Driscroll’s resignation. The coalition has also called for disbanding the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth and cutting its $1.5 million annual budget, as well as enacting a bill that would strengthen a state law allowing parents to keep their children out of sex education programs.

Kevin Jennings, the executive director of the national Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, a New York City-based organization that works to prevent anti-gay bias in schools, said he had not heard the tape, but had concerns about the session.

“Some of the content would have raised some concern for me,” he said. “We are still investigating what happened and if a line was crossed we will put in guidelines to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

But Mr. Jennings emphasized the taped session was one of about 50 workshops attended voluntarily and was targeted by a group who he claims has tried to discredit the work of GLSEN for years. “This was a politically motivated witch hunt,” he said. “This one workshop is being seen as typical and that is not the case.”

Rep. Francis L. Marini, the Republican minority leader in the state House of Representatives said he found the subject matter “clearly out of bounds.”

“I don’t care if we are talking about homosexual or heterosexual sex,” said Mr. Marini, who commended Mr. Driscoll for disciplining those involved in the forum. “That is not the business of the public school system, in my opinion. Subjects like that are not appropriate for 13- or 14-year-old kids.”

Mr. Marini predicted the forum would bring “an increased level of attention” to how sexual issues are discussed in such settings.

Meanwhile, about 3,000 high school students, most of whom are gay or lesbian, gathered May 20 at an annual pride rally outside the State House in support of the state’s Safe Schools program for gay and lesbian students, which promotes the creation of gay-straight alliances and other programs in schools.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 31, 2000 edition of Education Week as Mass. Ed. Dept. Criticized For Taped Session on Gay Sex

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