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Before Colorado’s new comprehensive sex education bill had a single hearing, it was already one of the most controversial proposals of the 2019 legislative session. Incited by dramatic calls to action—some with misleading information—parents and community members flooded the Capitol over the past two months to testify at late-night committee hearings and rally on the steps.
A primary concern was a false allegation that Colorado children as young as nine would be taught graphic sex acts in classrooms, and that parents would not be able to opt their students out of sex education. Neither is the case. In fact, the only mentions of graphic sex acts came from speakers inside the House and Senate hearings who called one legislator a pedophile and accused another of child abuse.
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Fueling the discord is a much deeper rift between religious definitions of sexuality and state lawmakers’ urgent efforts to address new health risks to Colorado students, including vulnerable LGBTQ youth. At the same time the Colorado House, which includes a record number of LGBTQ representatives, approved the sex education bill in February, for example, the United Methodist Church faced a global schism over a vote to uphold its ban on same-sex marriages and LGBTG clergy.
As the comprehensive sex education bill now works its way through the Senate, where it passed its first hearing on a 3–2 vote on February 28, co-sponsors Nancy Todd (D-Aurora) and Don Coram (R-Montrose) are determined to keep Colorado students from falling through the cracks of the fractured debate. “I have never seen the degree of angst that I see today,” says Todd, who helped pass Colorado’s previous sex education bill in 2013. Todd says she’s received an outpouring of emotional emails, faxes, and calls to her home and the Capitol. “There is so much misinterpretation that this bill is about teaching kids to become gay,” she says.
Coram says his family and friends have been bullied on the street and on social media over his support for the bill. Nevertheless, when a busload of bill opponents drove up to his house on a Sunday afternoon, Coram opened the front door and welcomed them inside—until the group’s leader belligerently told his wife Dianna to “shut up” after she offered her perspective. “I respect everyone’s right of free speech,” Coram said at the Senate committee hearing. “Unfortunately, truth has been the first victim.”
Colorado doesn’t currently mandate sex education, but the state’s 2013 law says that if schools do offer it, it must be comprehensive, evidence based, medically accurate, and culturally sensitive to the experiences and needs of LGBTQ youth. Todd and Coram say their new bill, dubbed the Youth Wellness Act, updates that 2013 law to address new harms to the physical and mental health of Colorado students—namely soaring rates of STIs and a rise in teenage suicides that disproportionately affect LGBTQ youth.
Colorado’s teen suicide rate is nearly twice the national average and rose 34 percent among 10- to 24-year-olds from 2013 to 2017, according to the Colorado Health Institute (CHI). In the state’s southeast corner, which includes Coram’s Senate District, the rate is nearly three times the national average. For Coram, the crisis is deeply personal. “In the last 18 months, I’ve had three personal friends lose a child or a grandchild to suicide,” he says. “We need to teach tolerance and acceptance of those who do not think exactly like we do.”
While the causes of suicide are complex, bill sponsors are particularly troubled by data from the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which reveals that one-third of students who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual reported bullying in 2017—which is twice the rate for heterosexual youth—and one in five report having attempted suicide.
Todd and Coram say they’re also concerned about a growing epidemic of STIs in Colorado and across the nation that disproportionately impacts young adults. In 2017, cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis hit record highs, with the highest rates reported among 15- to 24-year-olds. From 2013 to 2017, Colorado reported a 23 percent increase in cases of chlamydia, a 182 percent rise in gonorrhea, and a 62 percent jump in syphilis, including a growing number of women passing the infection to their fetuses.
Although fewer Colorado teens were sexually active in 2017 and teen pregnancy rates fell, teens’ use of condoms also declined, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado survey. One factor may be an increase in the use of Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptives (LARCs) like intrauterine devices (IUDs), which protect against pregnancy but not STIs. Colorado has long been considered a leader in teen pregnancy prevention, as the Colorado Family Planning Initiative has been providing low-income women and teens with free or low-cost LARCs since 2009. Between the beginning of the program and 2016, Colorado’s teen pregnancy and abortion rates were both reduced by half. Another factor is that some Colorado schools continue to offer abstinence-only education, which multiple studies show increases rates of teenage pregnancy and STIs by limiting teens’ access to health information.
The bill sponsors claim that by teaching that heterosexual marriage is the only morally correct family structure, abstinence-only sex education programs exclude and stigmatize LGBT youth, as well as children of never-married, divorced, or LGBTQ parents. At the recent Senate committee hearing, a transgender student from Colorado Springs testified that until she received comprehensive sex education in eighth grade, she lacked the vocabulary to define her identity. Without comprehensive sex education, “I would not be sitting here in front of you,” she said. “I probably would be in a grave with a gravestone of a name that I do not recognize.”
Sponsors also say that abstinence-only programs reinforce harmful gender stereotypes. High school student Astrid Flores testified at the Senate hearing that girls in her church’s abstinence-only program were lined up and asked to suck on hard candies—and then pass the half-eaten candies to the person next them. “When the girls looked disgusted at the idea, the teacher responded: ‘Exactly! Just like a candy, nobody wants a woman who is used,’” Flores said. “I was so shocked I had a loss for words.”
Todd notes that while abstinence-only programs focus on when sexual activity begins, comprehensive sexual education provides lifelong information, education, and skills. “In many ways I look at sex education as being prevention,” she says. “The more information you have, the more intelligent you are about what you may need now or what you may need down the road.”
Although the state’s 2013 law bans schools from directly receiving federal Title V funds—a block grant program that offers support for programs that provide health care and public health services—for abstinence-only education, a loophole allowed schools to outsource the programs to community groups instead. Colorado organizations received over $800,000 in Title V abstinence-only education funding in 2017, according to the Colorado Department of Education.
The new sex education bill closes that loophole, ends an exemption for charter schools, and contributes $1 million to fund comprehensive sex ed programs, with a priority given to low-income districts. The bill also adds new education about sex trafficking and how to communicate and require consent, which only eight states and Washington D.C. currently require. In Colorado, young women and LGB students report higher rates of physical abuse from a partner and nearly 20 percent of LGB students report being physically forced to have sex against their will.
During the recent Senate hearing, Sen. Faith Winter (D-Westminster), one of several women who filed a sexual harassment complaint during the previous legislative session (along with bill sponsor Susan Lontine), testified that she survived a sexual assault as a young child. Winter says education about consent provides youth with the vocabulary and understanding to identify harmful situations and ask for help. “My neighbor was just a boy,” she says. “I always wonder if I wouldn’t have been raped if we were taught consent.”
As the bill’s co-sponsors work to clarify the bill’s aim to protect the mental and physical health of all students, the cost of the unresolved discord is high: Because Colorado doesn’t currently mandate sex education, both schools and parents can opt out of programs they don’t like, which means some students could get no sex education at all.
That’s why Todd and Coram ambitiously aim to not only pass the new bill, but to also find common ground among stakeholders. Their bipartisanship stand out in a Democrat-controlled government that technically requires neither—and are a key reason why Coram got involved. “The simple answer is that if you are not at the table you are on the menu,” he says. “Respect and collaboration can be more fruitful rather than spewing hate and intimidation.”
At every step of the bill’s journey, Coram and Todd have worked to restore civility and calm the continuing undercurrent of discord. First, they listened. In January, as distraught speakers at the first House committee hearing spilled into four overflow rooms, Todd invited parents to meet in her office upstairs. Her door has been open ever since: “There was absolutely no one that asked to meet with me that I did not meet with,” she says.
For his part, Coram worked closely with conservative groups to find common ground on ways to protect both religious and LGBTQ youth. “The facts are that children are also bullied because of their religious views and that includes Christian children,” he said at the hearing. Coram, whose own son is gay, says he and his wife Dianna often filled in as unofficial neighborhood counselors for other LGBTQ children and their families. His advice to other parents was always the same: “You accept them, and you love them, or you lose them. It’s your choice.”
Second, the co-sponsors created six bipartisan amendments that were unanimously passed at the recent hearing to help clear up misconceptions about the bill. The amendments defined gender stereotypes and healthy relationships, supported students’ free speech, and clarified that parents can still opt their students out of sex education. They also specified that the bill applies to students in fourth grade and higher—and that no explicit sex acts will be taught. “Frankly, we made a better bill,” Coram says.
Last, but not least, as the bill moves toward a full Senate vote, Todd and Coram plan to spread the word both inside and outside the Capitol about their bipartisan approach, the newly approved amendments, and the bill’s focus on protecting students’ physical and mental health. “Our children are our most valuable resource,” Coram said at the hearing. “We need for them to have all the tools that are necessary to lead a good life.”