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A Legislative Battle Looms Over Arizona's Repressive LGBT Education Laws

It is one of seven states with laws that prohibit the promotion of homosexuality and that expressly forbid teachers of health and sexuality education from discussing LGBT issues in a positive light—if at all.
Arizona's Democratic U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema

Arizona's Democratic U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema

Six days after the 2018 mid-term elections, Kyrsten Sinema was declared the winner of a close and contentious Senate race in Arizona. The news media hailed her come-from-behind win as historic—and rightly so. She's the first woman from Arizona to have ever been elected to the United States Senate, the state's first Democratic senator in more than two decades, and the first openly bisexual senator. Informed meaningfully by having grown up in poverty and attended community college, Sinema is known for being a strong advocate of affordable health care and public education—two planks of her platform that inspire hope in her supporters.

And yet, despite the promise of Sinema's victory, in Arizona, everything isn't all rainbows. In fact, it's possible that the state's classrooms may become the next political battleground: Arizona is one of seven U.S. states with laws that prohibit the promotion of homosexuality (also called "no promo homo" laws) and that expressly forbid teachers of health and sexuality education from discussing lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender identities in a positive light—if at all.

But before we go into all the ways in which these laws are harmful to, in this instance, queer Arizonans in the present and what they may mean for Sinema as a senator in the future, let's look at how they came about in the first place.

Oklahoma passed the country's first anti-gay curriculum law in 1976. The legislation was primarily promoted by Anita Bryant, a popular singer and prominent Florida Orange Juice spokeswoman. In addition to innocuous publicity ventures, she was also involved in multiple anti-gay "Save Our Children" campaigns across the country. Between 1987 and 1988, nine states adopted anti-gay curriculum laws—despite a 1986 report from the U.S. surgeon general that read: "There is now no doubt that we need sex education in schools and that it include information on heterosexual and homosexual relationships." It continued, acknowledging that "our reticence in dealing with the subjects of sex, sexual practices, and homosexuality" was inhibiting "our youth" from gaining "information that is vital to their future health and well-being." The report was deemed so critical to public health that Congress made the decision to mail a condensed version to every household in the U.S., in order to ensure that the public was informed about HIV, which at the time was devastating, in particular, communities of queer men all over the country.

Apparently, Republican lawmakers in Arizona fell off the mailing list, because shortly after the report was delivered nationwide, an HIV education law was proposed that they initially rejected. But due to the mounting public-health crisis across the country, and to the pressure to educate everyone about the spread of the virus, they felt compelled to pass something. Arizona Republicans compromised—by including anti-gay language in legislation. Arizona law ARS § 15-716 specifically states that "No district shall include in its course of study instruction which: 1. Promotes a homosexual life-style. 2. Portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style. 3. Suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex."

Now, fast forward to the darkly ironic year of 2018. Arizona has both harmful, homophobic education laws and a bisexual, education-focused senator-elect. A state snapshot from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network shows harrowing statistics for LGBTQ students in the state, and what's at stake for them when it comes to LGBTQ equality in the classroom: In a 2015 survey, 82 percent of LGBTQ students reported hearing homophobic remarks in school, and 71 percent reported bullying based on their sexual orientation. At the same time, only 21 percent indicated having access to a queer-inclusive curriculum, and only 7 percent reported having a comprehensive anti-bullying policy at their school.

These numbers point to more than "just" a disadvantage for some students. Researchers from the Williams Institute explain that early negative experiences in school not only shape the economic lives of LGBTQ people—the less engaged students are in school, the more likely they are to drop out, to experience poverty, and to attempt suicide—but they also have a negative effect on a state's economy writ large. "Education discrimination excludes LGBTQ students from opportunities to increase their human capital (that is, their knowledge and skills) and to be employed in higher-skilled jobs that contribute to overall economic productivity," the researchers explain. Recognizing the dependent relationship between how students are treated in school and what they're taught, an inclusive curriculum remains a ripe opportunity for improving a critical aspect of queer students' experiences in school.

In some ways, overturning Arizona's no promo homo laws may seem like low-hanging fruit, especially in 2018. The laws are, after all, deeply homophobic, further marginalizing queer people in a particularly insidious fashion: disappearing them from public discourse. But this battle won't be an easy one to fight. Early next year, Sinema will will represent a state whose government has actively fought LGBTQ protections. Governor Doug Ducey and State Attorney General Mark Brnovich, for instance, both have histories of actively working against LGBTQ legal protections in the deep red state. In addition, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas famously fought 2016 Obama-era guidance on transgender bathroom laws, claiming that communities, rather than the federal government, should decide whether to offer trans students basic rights. And the Human Rights Campaign and the LGBT Movement Advancement Project both rank Arizona in the bottom 3 percent of U.S. states in terms of how it regards people of gender and sexual minorities.

Clearly, the odds are stacked against the newly minted senator.

Still, the price is too high for her to do nothing—plus, she may have the cultural and political wherewithal to move things forward. Sinema's background, support base, and momentum uniquely position her to make the sort of changes across Arizona that have never before seemed truly possible. No promo homo laws are a sobering reminder that policies born out of fear, discrimination, and the corrosive pieties of the past have adverse effects on all citizens, even the most prominent among us. How Arizona deals with reconciling its anti-gay state law with the results of this election will go a long way toward showing the nation what type of state it wants to be.

This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.