The Scary Reality Of Sex Education In Alabama | State Of Grace | Refinery29

The Scary Reality Of Sex Education In Alabama | State Of Grace | Refinery29

December 15, 2019 100 By Ronny Jaskolski


I mean, look at your sexuality. I mean, literally, I guess you could. Why did I not know that you were going to
do that? Did you just say I look gay? Let’s talk about sex. The birds and the bees.
The horizontal tango, the four-legged Foxtrot. Oh, what you want to know about is sexual
intercourse. I mean… you get it. Talking about sex has been awkward for as
long as I can remember and probably you can remember. Stop laughing at me. And yet states all across America are swiftly passing legislation to regulate the results of getting it on. The laws regarding sex education are decided on state and local levels with no federal regulation. Only 24 states require that sex education be taught in public schools. Just 13 states require that it be medically accurate. Six states still include “No Promo Homo” and “Don’t Say Gay” laws. And just two states prevent the promotion of religion. How is God present in our classrooms and
eventually our bedrooms? And at what cost? Birmingham, Alabama is a Bible Belt city in an abstinence forward state that does not
mandate sex education. I was curious to see what the conversation around sex looked like in Alabama. And upon arrival, I received a clear message. The most restrictive abortion bill in the
country just passed in Alabama. Abortion would be criminalized in Alabama. This is the most restrictive ban on abortions
in the nation. Last night the Alabama State Senate passed
a bill effectively banning abortion at every stage of pregnancy. As of now the governor Kay Ivey, who is a
Republican, has not issued a comment. You can’t not educate people on something,
not talk about something, and then effectively punish them for the silence that you implemented. No? I always feel crazy in this show. It was overwhelming to me that a local government that was not mandating sex education was regulating the results of having sex. I sat down with Dr. Samantha Hill at Children’s of Alabama to try and make sense of it all. So in this state right now, what is sex ed? What does that look like? Unfortunately, one of the biggest drawbacks
about the sexual education law here in Alabama is that it’s not enforced. Our students here in the state of Alabama
are not necessarily getting the same sexual education. What are the risks and consequences if we
just don’t deal with sex education? Continuing the silence that we have around
sex education just increases the stigma. Keeping it stigmatized only serves to further
jeopardize that person’s health, as well as everybody
they come in contact with. Alabama ranks 11th in the country for highest teen pregnancy rates. Of the teens having sex in Alabama, 80% have never been tested for HIV. And more than 20% of newly diagnosed cases are found in heterosexuals. The issue of sex education is not a conversation about gay or straight, but about human rights. The literature shows that once you instill
and incorporate a comprehensive sexual education curriculum within your particular arena, so
schools, the rates of STDs and pregnancies decline. I mean, you could argue that a great way to avoid getting pregnant is gay
sex. So- Have they thought about that? That’s an interesting thought. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve made some great
strides, but for the wonderful country that we are, I don’t think we’ve gone far enough
at improving our young people’s health in this particular arena. I had been warned that talking about sex in
Alabama would be difficult, but I had to give it the old college try, right? Hi, my name is Grace. I’m working on a documentary about sex education, and I’m wondering… Yes. Oh, OK. So there is not a sex ed program at your school
at all? Hi, my name is Grace, and I’m working on a
documentary about sex education. Hi, my name is Grace. Hi, my name is Grace. My name is Grace. Hi, my name is Grace. Oh my gosh. Hi, this is Grace, too. Hello? OK. But today’s Thursday. OK. OK cool. Alright, and is… All right, thank you. Bye. It became abundantly clear that there was
almost no one in the state of Alabama that wanted to talk to this ol’ lesbian about sex. Who’s next? Go figure. In Alabama the law currently states that within
the sex ed classroom, an instructor must emphasize
in a factual manner, from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable
to the general public, and that These laws are commonly referred to as “No Promo Homo” and “Don’t Say Gay”. While the bill to remove this language nearly
reached a House vote this year, the legislature prioritized abortion bans. In a state that has largely disregarded the
conversation around sex and has overlooked or condemned some within it, spaces
like Magic City Acceptance Center exists to provide LGBTQ youth with the tools
needed to protect themselves. There is glitter in the wall. When we opened five years ago, we opened to
serve LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 24. And recognizing that young people didn’t have
access to safer sex ed that was inclusive, that they didn’t have access to testing. The idea was to have a space where young people can go, and feel comfortable, and have that access, and be able to talk about themselves. I love that the kitchen is the first thing,
kind of a little mini kitchen. Very important. I like the priorities here. Because we’re a youth center and I’m a mom
about their art. I will steal their art from them when they leave it behind and decorate the fridge. Every time we welcome someone in, usually
this is about the point that they tell me that they’re really nervous and that they’ve
never been in a space like this before. And I get to say, at this exact point every
single person has given me the same speech because no one has ever been in an LGBTQ youth
space in Birmingham because this is it. So you’re all having an experience that’s
the same for everyone in that it’s new. Once a month, Magic City Acceptance Center
hosts their unicorn pizza club, which is a discussion forum that focuses on the diverse aspects of LGBTQ sexual health and
well-being. I did have sex ed. The problem is that I was not in a place with
my own sexuality where when it was all about straight stuff, I was just like, oh not for
me, checked out. In health class I was so confused about why
boys had to wear boxers and girls wore panties that I couldn’t even understand what was going
on, because I was just lost by the idea that I couldn’t wear boxers. They’re so comfy. That’s great. Well, I did get one sex ed class out of the
whole 18 years of me going to school. I was getting my education from other people
who really didn’t know what they were talking about. Or experience. Or experience, yeah. And that… I paid the price with that. So we are actually number 17 in the nation
for the highest rates of newly diagnosed HIV infections. So in this graphic, Birmingham has a higher rate of HIV infection than Los Angeles, where we came from. Correct. It is per capita. Admittedly, as a gay woman, I ignorantly assumed the conversations around HIV and unwanted pregnancies never related to people like me. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Studies have found that lesbian and bisexual women are at equal or greater risk of unwanted pregnancies and terminations than their heterosexual counterparts. By excluding the LGBTQ community from the sex-ed conversation, all students are getting only a fraction of the story. I am a Southern queer mom. This is Taylor Winfrey, a Southern queer mom. All of those things wrap up into this beautiful
package of what I express to the world and what I feel about myself. Can you tell us a little bit about the ideas presented to you in your sex
education in Alabama? Really the entirety of my sex education here
was abstinence only and fear based. And so it was like, okay don’t have sex. If you have sex, this is what’s going to happen
to you. We were handed out these little business-card-sized things that we wrote our name on and it said, “Dear Jesus,” comma. So we wrote our names, we signed at the bottom. It was a pact between ourselves and God that we were going to remain pure for our wedding nights. My virginity was not mine. It was men’s. You know, my dad’s, Jesus’s,
my spouse. But it wasn’t mine. At the age of 19, Taylor found herself pregnant
and questioning her options as well as her sexuality. I was already having a hard time understanding
how being gay fit into this white picket fence narrative that I’ve been fed. It let me off the hook for a while of dealing
with my own sexual orientation. Well, because I would imagine most people
would just sort of have assumed that you were straight. Exactly, yeah. And a lot of it just had to do with this idea
that is force-fed to you that the only right way to be, and the only right way to raise
a child, is with a husband. I fought against that before I had Emily,
this idea of letting go of the narrative. It took a good three years after she was born
for me to get to a place where I was able to come out. We hear this idea that if you just don’t talk
about the experience of a queer person, and maybe if your kid is queer, if you just don’t
talk about it, then maybe it’ll go away. Yeah. And I hope that we’re getting to a point where
we’re like, no, we’re still going to be here. Yeah. I’ve made it a huge part of my parenting to
parent as gender neutral as possible. My kid is nine and is very vocal about being
gender fluid. Mamma, can I get on that? She’s on that. You can ask her. When we give kids these words and these ideas, they really resonate with them. Because kids are very fluid in the way that
they think and the way that they perceive the world. People here are very quiet about sex education. And yet when it comes to reproductive rights,
very loud. Very loud. How do you make sense of that? None of it makes sense to me. I was at my kitchen table with a friend last
night just trying to figure out what it means for us… Right. As people who can get pregnant. So we just got word that Governor Kay Ivey
has signed the most restrictive reproductive rights bill in the United States. It is now the law of the land in Alabama. It feels very timely that all of this is going
down as we are here in Birmingham trying to learn about reproductive health and sex ed. I don’t understand how we’re having this conversation
and we’re not having the other one. It feels like you’re treating a symptom, you’re
not treating the problem. And yet all across America, abstinence is
being prioritized. In fact, President Trump has allotted millions of dollars to sexual risk avoidance programs which heavily emphasize abstinence. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed
a greater understanding of what an abstinence forward education looked like. And while it seemed I wasn’t going to be able
to have this conversation in Alabama, I found someone that was willing to make a house call. Hi! Thank you so much for coming. Heather Ruesch is a wife, a mother, and a life
issues speaker. You know, when I say that abstinence saves these kids from the hurts of casual
sex, I say that from experience. Much like Taylor, Heather found herself pregnant
at the age of 19. The birth of her daughter was the catalyst
for the work she does today. The CDC declared that we’re in an epidemic with sexually transmitted infections in our country. We’re in an all time high and only getting higher, and we’re dumping all of this money into prevention. And where’s the prevention? Nothing’s woking. Yeah. I would love to see more abstinence-forward… It’s sexual risk avoidance-forward curriculums out there in education. The problem is you gotta have somebody teach them. And that, I think, practically speaking is what we are running into everywhere across the country. Nobody wants to be the one teaching this. Why is that? It’s confrontational. The reason why it’s not being taught… I think it’s hard to find people to teach it because of consequences in teaching it, and also confrontation in teaching it. And I think it’s uncomfortable. I am not opposed to abstinence being part of that discussion at all. Too often with abstinence only, it’s sort of excluding students who might not subscribe to that. Would you be open to talking with people from the comprehensive side of things and seeing if you could find commonalities? Oh, absolutely. Anybody teaching something that is this important
should be teaching it for the benefit of the student. It’s just uncomfortable to talk about and we need to take that, we need to get rid of that. Right. And realize that we’re the adults. Yeah. And we have a moral obligation and responsibility to our children to mentor them, to teach them well. The lack of regulation and the stigma surrounding sex education has resulted in a stalemate that is harmful to the mental, physical, and emotional health of American students. We need to be talking about sex. Education is a human right. Let me just come over here and show y’all real quick. We can’t deny American students the right to understand their bodies and the ways in which they can protect and accept themselves. Thank you so much for watching Refinery29. For more videos, click here. And to subscribe, click here.