Arizona educators and LGBTQ+ advocates are making strides to create more inclusive curriculum following Arizona Legislators approval of Senate Bill 1346, which repealed a 28-year-old law that prohibited discussing homosexuality during public schools’ HIV/AIDS instruction.
What does this mean for students, specifically LGBTQ+ identifying students?
Alicia Cardoza, a senior at Verrado High School in Agua Fria Union High School District, hopes it means her peers will be better educated in the future. Cardoza said she was aware of the law and she “always felt it was unfair.”
“I believe LGBTQ+ youth should have the right to be included in a school curriculum and be educated on their sexuality just as everyone else is,” said Cardoza, president of Gay Straight Alliance at Verrado High School.
Gay Straight Alliance is an after-school club that meets for an hour every week to plan charity work and discuss the climate of the school environment for LGBTQ+ students. As a bisexual identifying female, Cardoza said she is grateful that a friend introduced her to the club two years ago.
“I believe it helps me be who I am and allows me to be comfortable with myself,” she said.
What the curriculum was like
Sex-education, or Human Growth and Development, is taught during the Physical Education course that freshman students are required to take and is primarily abstinence based, said a physical education teacher at Verrado High School. Cardoza said she took PE during her freshman year whilst still being in the closet about her sexuality.
“The material being presented to me was somewhat helpful since I am bisexual, but I felt kind of left out when it came to being taught about safe sex,” Cardoza said. “I did not know what applied to gay couples.”
Gabriella Siciliano, a Verrado High School teacher and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, said she had a similar experience when she was in public school.
“I found sex-education to be heterosexual sex education, and even then, it was vague. It was not a comfortable, or open discussion, as I believe it should be.” Siciliano said. “By under-educating our students, we are setting them up for failure, which is simply a disservice.”
Why inclusive curriculum is important
As a teacher ally to at least 20 LGBTQ+ students and the Gay Straight Alliance sponsor, Siciliano said she’s seen the difference that inclusivity in all aspects can make.
“Queer students often find themselves either in the dark, or looking to outside resources to get the education they need,” Siciliano said.
One hundred forty out of 768 new HIV/AIDS cases reported during 2017 involved high school or college-aged people between 13 to 24 years old, according to a 2018 supplemental report by the Arizona Department of Health Services. Nearly 62 percent of these 768 cases were the result of sexual transmission.
By advocating for and properly informing all teens, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, “we could literally be saving lives,” Siciliano said.
Due to the abstinence based sex-education taught at Verrado High School and the lack of clarity in how the former law applied to after-school clubs, Siciliano educated her Gay Straight Alliance students as best she could. She met with a Planned Parenthood educator who organizes classes for LGBTQ+ youth, who gave her pamphlets to help answer pertinent questions that students might have.
“I stayed neutral, but did tell them that if they were looking for resources pertaining to inclusive sex-education that they would be on a desk in my classroom. This way, they would be attending by their own free will,” Siciliano said.
What’s being done now
The Verrado chapter of Gay Straight Alliance has held donation drives for the Arizona Homeless Youth Connection and held an Ally Week, put together by students, during which they encouraged their fellow students to pledge to be more supportive and aware. This chapter won the Back to School Voices campaign by Phoenix’s chapter of national advocacy organization Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, known as GLSEN. The campaign called for students and teachers to share how they have worked or will work to make schools safer for LGBTQ+ students. Siciliano and her GSA students have worked closely with GLSEN Phoenix this year as GLSEN equipped her with the materials necessary to run an effective GSA club.
“[Its] mission to work with schools to create a more inclusive curriculum is incredible,” Siciliano said of GLSEN Phoenix.
The organization hopes to continue its work with Arizona schools following the signing of SB 1346 into law, said GLSEN Phoenix co-chair Caryn Bird. Before legislators approved SB 1346, GLSEN Phoenix met with Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman to discuss how to help schools be more inclusive, Bird said.
GLSEN Phoenix has already begun working closely with several school districts to create safer school environments through student support, educator training and policy work at state and local levels, Bird said.
“Our plan is to continue to expand that work,” said Bird, noting that the new law has brought more attention to the need for schools to update their instruction.
“We will be here to help as schools begin to reevaluate their curriculum,” she said.
As a former high school English teacher and department chair in Scottsdale, Bird said she spent 10 years witnessing first-hand how the previous law prevented public school educators from displaying positive representations of LGBTQ+ people.
“I had many colleagues misinterpret the law and believe it was against the law to even mention LGBTQ history or people in class,” Bird said. “Teachers would tip-toe around LGBTQ+ issues or leave them out completely.”
This is one reason why SB 1346 is so important, Bird said.
“As GLSEN’s Annual National School Climate Survey showed time and again, inclusive curriculum, supportive educators, and strong anti-bullying policies help to increase outcomes for all students,” Bird said.
Students often need to be reminded that they aren’t alone in order to be successful, healthy adults, Siciliano said. “Being unable to discuss homesexual or LGBTQ lifestyle in a positive light in school truly inhibits creating an inclusive environment for our students,” Siciliano said. “It is so important to normalize, and acknowledge the fact that LGBTQ+ people are a part of our community, and acknowledge them as such. They are your doctors, lawyers, teachers, and neighbors.”