In Response to Concerns Over Washington State's New Health Standards

On July 30th, the Tacoma News Tribune ran a letter to the editor entitled “Gender: New health standards are alarming.” (Read it here: http://www.thenewstribune.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/article164246722.html) To be clear, this is an opinion article based on misunderstanding and misinformation. In the interest of disseminating accurate information, I’ll take on each of the arguments presented.

Let’s take a look at what’s true: Washington State will implement new learning standards for health and physical education this fall. Public review and input occurred in January of 2016, and the standards were formally adopted by Superintendent Randy Dorn in March of that year. That the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has developed standards is nothing new; it’s required by state law. I am surprised, however, that most people don’t know that it is districts, schools, and teachers that determine grade-level outcomes. The outcomes listed by the state that are causing such an uproar are optional (although they do represent best practice).

It’s important that we take a look at the writer’s source for their statements: Family Policy Institute of Washington. The FPIW is a well-known anti-LGBT group. In opposition to marriage equality in 2012, they promoted the completely false and utterly reprehensible claim that gay parents molest their children. They’re the same people behind the anti-transgender campaign entitled “Just Want Privacy.” If you want information, I strongly suggest visiting the OSPI website to review the new standards rather than taking the word of someone who gets their information from an organization with ties to anti-gay hate groups.

The writer’s statement that “children as young as 5 will be learning about gender expression, gender identity and fluidity, sexual orientation and HIV prevention” is misleading in places and blatantly untrue in others. I assume the author is referring to the addition of the optional “self-identity” grade-level outcomes. Gender expression is how we outwardly express our gender in terms of clothes, hair, etc. Gender identity is an internal sense of self as male, female, both or neither. In Kindergarten, this looks like  that there are many ways to express gender. I fail to see how this is inappropriate for elementary students.

As for the other claims, the term “sexual orientation” does not come up until fourth grade, and most educators I know use the definition of “who you love.” In elementary school, we look at sexual orientation through the lens of family, respect, and love. For example, students with two-mom or two-dad families should see their families represented and validated by curriculum and respected by staff and classmates. HIV prevention education is required and is taught in fifth grade, as it has been since I very first started teaching.

Perhaps the most outrageous assertion is that “third graders will be taught they can choose their own gender.” This individual does not understand gender identity. No one chooses their gender. They are the gender they are; it’s just that their gender identity may or may not align with their sex assigned at birth. Districts who choose to implement the self-identity outcomes are simply teaching children that they get to be who they are and the importance of respecting all people, regardless of gender expression, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation.   

The author goes on to say that “fourth graders will be taught that gender roles are social constructs.” Even if you ignore the fact that gender roles are social constructs, that’s not the same thing as examining “how culture, media, society, and other people influence our perceptions of gender roles.” As a mom, I have no problem with schools taking on gender stereotypes. I don’t want my daughter limited — period.

The final accusation is one of indoctrination. This is not about promoting an agenda or attacking traditional values; it’s about fostering respect. As OSPI itself has stated, “Please note that teaching about topics such as self-identity is not the same as promoting the topics. Classroom teachers should not convey their own values about any sexual health education topic — that is the role of parents.” If a parent doesn’t like a particular grade-level outcome (and the district has decided to teach it), they can opt out. School districts are required to make any sexual health education curriculum or materials that they choose to adopt available for parent review.

This letter to the editor is yet another case of making an issue where there isn’t one.