Coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights groups calls HHS changes to abstinence-only programs a significant step forward

A coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights organizations commended the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) today for announcing important changes to the way in which the “abstinence-only-until marriage” program will be administered. The coalition includes national LGBT organizations working on youth issues, including the Family Equality Council; Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN); National Center for Transgender Equality; National Coalition for LGBT Health; National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) National; and The Trevor Project.

The changes, which roll back the draconian and profoundly anti-LGBT ways in which the program was run during the Bush administration, will allow states to choose which sections of the program they will highlight and allow them to fund programs utilizing mentoring, counseling and adult supervision programs. In addition, the changes highlight the unique impact these programs have on LGBT youth so that states can work to lessen the harm caused, and they require programs to provide information that is “medically accurate,” meaning it cannot be based on unproven or false information.

“This is a major step in the right direction for all families. We applaud HHS and urge Congress to finally end destructive abstinence-only programs. All children deserve science-based education programs that are inclusive of everyone, including our LGBT loved ones,” said PFLAG Executive Director Jody M. Huckaby.

“The abstinence-only program was resurrected from its well-deserved grave during the fight over the passage of health care reform, but today HHS has taken the sour lemon it was handed and is doing what it can to limit the damage,” said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

The “abstinence-only-until-marriage” program was created by Congress in 1981 and since then more than $1.9 billion has been allocated to states to implement it. Repeated studies have shown the program to be counterproductive at worst and ineffective at best. The program has been particularly harmful to LGBT youth and children with LGBT parents because the Bush administration interpreted the law to require programs to teach each of the eight definitions of “abstinence-only” contained in the law, six of which hold that sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong and has harmful psychological and physical effects.

Family Equality Council Executive Director Jennifer Chrisler said, “During the Bush administration, the children of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parents were invisible at best and demonized at worst. Abstinence-only education programs either did not include them or discussed their parents as ill. They were marginalized and degraded simply because of who their parents are. By respecting all families and all children and ensuring all who need it get the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their health, these proposed changes will actually save lives.”

Under the laws of 45 of the 50 states, same-sex couples cannot marry and young LGBT people have been, in effect, taught they can never have sex or fulfilling relationships. Children with LGBT parents have been marginalized and have been taught that their families and their parents are not valued. As a result of this and other deficiencies, a growing number of states have refused to participate in the program; 23 states and the District of Columbia declined to do so in 2009.

“These programs have sent young people ill-prepared into the world by denying them accurate information about their health and relationships,” said Rebecca Fox, executive director of the National Coalition for LGBT Health.

“GLSEN is encouraged by this announcement and the positive effects these changes will have for LGBT youth,” said GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard. “Not only do many abstinence-only curricula provide misleading and medically inaccurate information about health matters such as the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, they also explicitly ostracize and may even harm LGBT students. GLSEN’s 2007 National School Climate Survey found that LGBT students in schools with abstinence-only curriculum reported higher levels of harassment and assault, were more likely to feel unsafe and miss school, and had fewer supportive educators than in schools without such curriculum. We owe it to our youth to make sure that our school policies are inclusive of all students.”

Under the HHS funding announcement released today, states will no longer be required to teach all eight elements of the law — reverting to the Clinton administration interpretation — but must affirmatively demonstrate that all programs are “medically accurate” and must make a distinction between what is opinion and medical fact. For the first time states will also be obligated to consider the implications of their proposal for and the needs of LGBT youth. Finally, states will now be allowed to use these funds for mentoring counseling and adult supervision.

“The Trevor Project is heartened by this move toward the eventual end of abstinence only education and recognizes the Department of Health Human Services for their commitment to better education for LGBTQ youth. Abstinence-only education, which is medically inaccurate and misleading, far too often leaves LGBTQ youth in the margins and at increased risk for health disparities,” said Charles Robbins, executive director of The Trevor Project. “Fostering an environment that is inclusive for all sexual orientations and gender identities is integral to promoting healthy outcomes in this community and reducing the risk of suicide.”

Advocates said their goal continued to be getting the abstinence-only statute re-repealed. Both houses of Congress moved to do so in 2009, but it was reinstated in the passage of the Health Care Reform Act, which included an appropriation of $250 million over five years to continue it.

“From the beginning, abstinence-only programs have been harmful for LGBTQ kids and their families because these programs ignore the realities of adolescent sexual behavior and put adolescents’ health at risk by denying them accurate information about their health. We urge Congress to eliminate abstinence-only programs once and for all,” said Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

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