When The Conversation Doesn't Include You: LGBTQ+ Sex Ed In A Small Town
Quinn Robinson is only 18 years old, but she has already learned some hard lessons about the world. "It's scary being a trans person because I know there are people out there who just hate me for being myself," she says. "There's been kids who have approached me and say, 'Hey, you should burn in hell.' "
Robinson is a high school senior in Allendale, Mich., a small but growing town about 30 minutes outside Grand Rapids and smack dab in the middle of what's known as the state's "Bible Belt." Drive off the main road and you quickly find yourself in farm country.
This is where, for the past year, parents have been fighting over sex education. Specifically: any mention of LGBTQ+ identities in the school district's curriculum.
"Everyone's so conservative, and they're like, 'You must be this way,' " says Robinson, who has lived in Allendale almost all her life. "But I don't want to be that way."
When we met her, Robinson had long, platinum blond hair with blue tips. Since then she has dyed it a deep brown. A pink and blue transgender pride flag hangs above her bed, which is adorned with a comforter covered with giraffes and zebras.
The focal point of Robinson's room is a massive, flat-screen TV, where she spends hours each day playing video games. Her most recent obsession is a Western-themed, action-adventure game, where she can play other gamers remotely.
"I think being behind a screen when people don't see my face, it's way easier to talk to people," she explains. "So I can just be this Westerner running around and no one cares — like that's just me now."
Big fight in a small town
The fight began last spring, when some parents agitated to update the district's current sex ed program with something that they hoped would be more science-based and inclusive of LGBTQ+ people. (LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, with the + denoting a broader inclusion of sexual and gender minorities.)
The current curriculum does not mention sexual or gender identity. But other parents pushed back hard, saying they felt it was important to keep the sex ed message focused on abstinence — saving yourself for marriage.
At the very center of this debate stood Tiffany Harp. Parents discovered that Harp, the teacher of a high school elective class called "Family and Relationships," had discussed both sexual and gender identity with her students.
"I would explain to them how gender identity is your internal sense of what it is to be male or female. And then, for some people, their gender identity sometimes doesn't align with their biological sex," Harp says. "And kids — when they asked those questions — they were like, 'Oh!' Like it made sense to them."
It did not make sense to a lot of other people. Outraged parents started showing up at public hearings to protest, forming long lines to speak in front of the school board and sex ed advisory board. At one meeting, a parent named Sylvia Rhodea stood at the podium and said, "When you fundamentally discredit the very nature of God's creation of our youth as male and female, you are seeking to discredit God."
Other parents agreed, insisting that the idea of "gender fluidity" didn't match the values of the vast majority of the town. They said discussing LGBTQ+ issues with kids could put ideas in their heads and argued that families — not schools — should be responsible for these conversations.
These parents formed a group called CAST — Conservatives of Allendale Stand Together. In a 29-page complaint to the school board, they accused liberals of trying to indoctrinate their kids with "radical sexual ideology." They demanded that the district ban any mention of LGBTQ+ issues in sex ed — or any other class. Not only that, they also called on the superintendent to throw out a reference to queer and trans kids in the school district's anti-bullying campaign.
"We believe leading our children to explore LGBTQ issues may have significant physical and mental health ramifications," the complaint reads. It goes on to say that including queer and trans kids in the anti-bullying materials may "increase discrimination against students in our schools who do not agree with LGBTQ."
NPR reached out to several members of CAST multiple times over a period of months, but no one from the group agreed to be interviewed. They did send a statement, though.
"It is every parent's natural right to teach their OWN children what they believe in regards to sexuality," part of the statement reads. "It is not the right of a minority of our community to impose their desire for comprehensive sexuality education inclusive of LGBTQ subjects to be taught to OTHER people's children."
This kind of struggle is playing out in communities across the country. In a recent national survey by the nonprofit GLSEN, less than 1 in 10 LGBTQ+ students said they received sex ed that was inclusive of their identities. In some places, laws expressly prohibit teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ people or topics in a positive way — in other words, "promoting homosexuality." Activists commonly refer to these as "no promo homo" laws.
"Do they look at me as a bigot?"
Though no one from CAST agreed to be interviewed, one family who sympathizes with the group's views did agree to share its perspective. Kim and Steve VanderHelm have lived in Allendale for 21 years; they have two kids who graduated from Allendale Public Schools a few years ago. The VanderHelms still care a lot about what the district is teaching.
They recently invited us into their home on a cold night, to talk about what's been going on in town. The VanderHelms say for them, this conversation is shaped by their faith. "I come from a biblical worldview," says Kim. "We were just, as you guys pulled up, we were reading the Bible together as devotions. So we do not believe God created people to have these desires."
The VanderHelms say they believe that being gay or trans is a sin — a sin that a person can resist. Steve compares being homosexual to "lying, overeating, lust." He says it's "no different than me in my younger days looking at pornography."
He says this belief is laid out in the Bible and he is following it to the best of his ability. "I try to live my best to God's word," he says. "But then for somebody that doesn't believe, do they look at me as a bigot? Do they look at me as a hater?"
The VanderHelms are deeply troubled by the idea that anyone in Allendale would feel hated because of their views. By the end of the conversation, Kim's brow is furrowed, and she is near tears.
"I want you guys to know that our belief does not mean that we hate these young kids," she says, voice quivering. "Our belief is not about the fact that we think there is anything awful about them. But love does not mean that we accept certain things also."
What's missing for Quinn Robinson
Allendale Public Schools maintains that the sex education program it has used for a decade, called "Willing to Wait," meets the requirements of Michigan law, emphasizing the "benefits of abstaining from sex until marriage." The superintendent, Garth Cooper, believes that LGBTQ+ kids get the same thing from it "as everybody else."
"It doesn't matter what your sexual orientation is," says Cooper. "The bottom line is that abstinence is the best and only proven way to keep yourself from getting a sexually transmitted infection or from getting pregnant. And so whether you're straight or trans or bi, the message is the same."
In response to this story, Willing to Wait sent a statement to NPR, which says that the program "includes topics such as reproductive anatomy, STDs, healthy relationships, dating violence, consent laws, setting boundaries, refusal skills, goal setting, contraception methods including efficacy and limitations, and communicates the intrinsic value of every student without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity."
Robinson remembers taking Willing to Wait in eighth grade and believes the program is tone-deaf. She says it sent a message of, "Don't have sex — or else." Even though it's called sex ed, she says, "no one wanted to say the 'sex' word."
As Willing to Wait notes, the program does teach about contraceptives and STDs, but Robinson says all the discussion is focused on heterosexual relationships.
"I knew, of my own friends who were lesbians, this wasn't gonna help them at all," Robinson says. "There's no way you can help a lesbian prevent STDs in this kind of format."
NPR spoke with other LGBTQ+ students who agree with Robinson. Most wanted to remain anonymous because they aren't out to their parents, but they described Willing to Wait as having "religious" undertones and being "shame-based." One student said it left her feeling "dirty." Another said, "The only thing we learned about gay sex was it gives you STDs and you shouldn't do it."
Beyond that, Willing to Wait failed to address one issue that weighed heavily on Robinson: how gender dysphoria can make sex for a trans person really complicated — married or not.
"The idea of having sex as a trans person is weird because your brain is disconnected from your physical body," she explains. "So when you look at your body, you don't want this, you know? So the idea of having sex in this body is hard ... because maybe I'll just look down and see this disgusting body of mine and cry or something, you know?"
This is the kind of thing Robinson wishes her sex ed program had talked about.
The Grand Rapids Pride Center
Half an hour away, though, people are having these kinds of conversations.
At the Grand Rapids Pride Center, a rowdy group of about 40 teens gathers every week, and they talk about sex, gender and relationships. They have a rotating cast of adults called facilitators, who lead discussions and pull questions out of a hot pink box.
The kids write things like, "Is gender a social construct?" And, "For any of our facilitators with dysphoria, how does that affect your sex life?" And, "How does being sexually active affect you emotionally?"
For most of these teens, the Pride Center is the only place they can ask these questions.
High-schoolers Siona Wilson and Everett Mabry met here, and they affectionately call each other "besties." Wilson (whose pronouns are "they/them") is a high school freshman with a shock of pink hair, who says sexuality-wise, they're questioning, and gender-wise, they're nonbinary. Mabry's a sophomore with a big smile, who is gay and cisgender. They both say that the sex ed they have gotten at the center has made them realize they used to be clueless about some of the most basic things.
"There's this whole myth of, 'Oh, if you're a lesbian, honestly, just, like, go for it 'cause you can't get pregnant LOL!' " jokes Wilson. "But it's not true — there's, like, risks and stuff that go into that, and I know that from going here. And like, lesbians wear condoms when they're having sex. People should know that. Lesbians should know that!"
Mabry says he didn't know about PrEP, an HIV-prevention pill.
"I didn't know that HIV was technically preventable cause of, like, PrEP," he says. "It's possible to have HIV but not be able to transmit it. So, when I first found out, I was like, 'Are you joking?' And I found out at the Pride Center, which is honestly shameful to the public school system."
Back in Allendale, the school district has removed any mention of gender and sexual identity in school materials. It has also removed the mention of LGBTQ+ students in the anti-bullying campaign, and it has no plans to include queer and trans issues in a new sex ed program that it's working on now.
For her part, Robinson cannot wait to leave. She is headed to Chicago for college, where she says she hopes to finally find a community that will accept her for who she is.
"I just wanted them to understand that I'm a normal person," she says. "I want to be treated just the same as everybody else. I want to get some job, and I want to be seen as just the register lady or something, you know what I'm sayin'? I don't wanna be looked at as 'Oh, the trans girl.' I just wanna be me."
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