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Op-ed: Why Alabama Needs to Update Its Sex Education

By Patricia Todd

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four little girls and awakened a nation. Unfortunately, in so many ways, Alabama remains stuck in the 196's with its unspoken segregation, whispered disparagement of those in poverty, and a ferocious societal adherence to a literalist, unforgiving Bible.

My state has the longest constitution in the country, with over 800 amendments that include requiring a horse in Macon County to wear a diaper in a parade.

No, I am not kidding.

Our poverty rate is one of the highest in the country and we spend less money on public education than the majority of states, and it shows. The evidence is, in part, our nearly 60% dropout rate. White flight and "brain drain" from Birmingham, Alabama's largest city, has left in its wake a segregated school system recently taken over by the state Board of Education because of mismanagement. In Alabama the entire tax base rests on a high sales tax, the most regressive form of taxation.

Alabama is the buckle of the Bible Belt, where public policy is based on religious beliefs instead of the U.S. Constitution. It is not easy to come out in Alabama or serve as its only openly gay elected official. As a legislator I am constantly bombared with "Bible babble" that seeks to defend discrimination and hatred toward our LGBT brothers and sisters.

I have spent most of my six years in the legislature working on bills to reduce poverty and increase transparency in our state; in so doing I have passed legislation creating the first Alabama Housing Trust Fund and establishing the first state-funded commission to reduce poverty. I am proud to be seen as the advocate for the disenfranchised and have worked tirelessly on legislation to assure accountablity in state government and transparency in our financial transactions.

I knew when I was elected in 2006 that all eyes would be watching me and I carried the hopes and dreams of the LGBT community on my shoulders. I also knew that I needed time to develop relationships with fellow legislators to gain their trust. In 2010, when the Republicans took control, I realized that my goal to obtain equality for all had just become even more difficult. But sometimes when barriers seem most impossible to overcome, we me must not retreat but instead seize the moment as an opportunity to challenge the status quo.

And so that moment has come.

In the upcoming legislative session I will introduce a bill to strike the homophobic language from our state-mandated health education curriculum. In the early 1990s the Alabama legislature passed a law mandating that when HIV education is taught in the public schools, teachers are required to teach "an emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state."

No, I am not kidding.

It would seem to be a simple fix for those outside the South: First, there is no scientific evidence that this statement is true, and second, the U.S. Supreme Court stuck down sodomy laws in 2003. Understandable, so strike the language!

But, as we know, Alabama does not always follow the federal laws — and we are best known for refusing to follow the law. Remember Gov. George Wallace refusing to allow two black students to attend the University of Alabama? Or maybe you remember when, more recently, our Supreme Court justice Roy Moore refused to remove a stone plaque of the 10 Commandments from the Alabama Supreme Court building? That is Alabama. Interestingly, Moore was just reelected to the Alabama Supreme Court as chief justice, no less, and has spent most of his public appearances spewing hate and preaching that same-sex marriage will destroy our country.

This is what I face as a lawmaker in this state, but I keep reminding myself that my work is much like a missionary's — you go where to work needs to be done.

The legislation I am proposing in the coming session would strike that language from the public school curriculum and would actually take curriculum development out of the hands of the Alabama legislature, where it currently rests, and place it in the hands of the state Board of Education. In fact, my bill's first hurdle will come when I ask for it to be placed on the agenda of the Education Policy Committee, chaired by the most conservative woman in the Alabama House. In fact, she informed me that she doesn't believe sex education should be taught in the schools at all. Ignorance is bliss.

I remain convinced that this bill is a step toward good public policy in Alabama. It may not pass, but what it will do is challenge the Alabama legislature to begin the conversation around these once-taboo issues while providing an appropriate public forum where meaningful debate around the harmfulness and factual inaccuracy of such existing law can take place. Now is the time in Alabama, and now is the opportunity to shift from a course of inequality to full equality.

As you read this and shake your head in disbelief, take a minute to help me and other LGBT Alabamians move our state out of the 1960s. You can help. Equality Alabama will be leading the educational efforts, and it will take money to organize and educate the legislators to do the right thing. You can make a donation to Equality Alabama by going to EqualityAlabama.org

While today many states are fighting for marriage equality, Alabama once again finds itself far behind the curve, living in another time. But while the issue here may not marriage equality, for every LGBT Alabamian, this is our line in the sand.

PATRICIA TODD is an Alabama state representative.

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