Gender identity a lightning rod in N.J. sex ed curriculum debate

By: - April 22, 2022 7:15 am

Avery Heimann stands in front of Somerville’s Pride mural last year. Heimann is a sex educator, social worker, and patient navigator for gender-affirming services at Planned Parenthood Metropolitan N.J. and a mental health therapist for LGBTQ clients at CogniCare in Branchburg. (Photo courtesy of Avery Heimann)

Avery Heimann knew before they even started school that they were queer. Their classmates caught on to their difference immediately and were not kind.

“From kindergarten to fifth grade, when my parents pulled me out of public school and put me into a private school, it was nonstop bullying,” Heimann remembered.

As unwelcome as that experience was, it was also formative. Determined to support others on their same path, Heimann became a sex educator and mental health therapist for LGBTQ adults and children in North and Central Jersey.

So Heimann was elated when New Jersey adopted new health and sex ed standards in 2020 that were partly intended to make schools more inclusive to LGBTQ youth by teaching students about gender identity and expression.

“Representation matters, right? Visibility matters,” Heimann said. “The concept of normal is a very fraught idea, but the new standards normalize, in a way, their identity.”

But complaints about the new standards have mounted as fall approaches, when schools must implement new sex education curricula. While much of the hubbub has centered on what schools will teach about pornography and masturbation, some critics have targeted the standards on gender identity and expression, echoing the moral panic that has driven legislators around the country to introduce bills that seek to restrict LGBTQ rights.

“It is polarized,” Heimann said. “Some folks have been outwardly transphobic in their language, strong-arming the conversation and throwing in as many fear tactics as they can.”

The rhetoric, though, doesn’t deter Heimann or others, like Dr. Paria Hassouri, a California-based pediatrician who provides gender-affirming health care. It just means there are plenty of others who have lots to learn, beyond New Jersey schoolchildren, they agreed.

“Schools should teach the range of human identities and the gender spectrum and the sexuality spectrum. This is part of normal human development, so it should be taught,” Hassouri said. “Any parent who has issues with this should consider that their kids are going to be learning things on their own — and who knows if they will get the right or wrong information from what they see on the internet?”

What exactly is the worry?

Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) is one of the more vocal critics of the new sex ed standards.

She wrote about her concerns in a Facebook post on April 5 that went viral. “I truly think New Jersey has lost its damn mind,” she wrote. She linked to sample curriculum drafted by the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Youth that she called “totally age-inappropriate and highly sexualized.”

“I don’t need the state to bring up my children, that’s my job and NJ is infringing on parental rights,” one parent wrote in response — one of more than 1,000 comments on the post.

In an interview this week with the New Jersey Monitor, Schepisi insisted her concerns were not rooted in transphobia.

“I am truly, hugely supportive of people who are indeed transgender,” she said.

Instead, she objected to lesson plans that would include information on puberty blockers, citing “growing international concern about the proliferation of medical interventions that have low certainty of benefits while carrying a significant potential for medical harm.”

She worries about children for whom gender confusion could be a “phase” and fears girls who are tomboys or boys who are effeminate will be “convinced they’re something they’re not.” That’s especially concerning, she said, because she believes hormone blockers can have lifelong effects.

“I have a real concern that we’ve gone from the far-right conversion therapy, which was a discredited, horrible practice, and trying to ‘pray away the gay,’ back to the hip new thing, which is to try to convince kids that gender doesn’t exist at all,” she said. “You are seeing more and more kids within a certain age group really being confused and identifying as what they probably aren’t.”

What health experts say

Hassouri has heard it all. Besides being a pediatrician at Cedars Sinai Medical Center who provides gender-affirming care to youth, she also has a transgender daughter, now 18, who came out at 13. She wrote about her family’s experiences in her 2020 memoir “Found in Transition: A Mother’s Evolution During Her Child’s Gender Change.”

She said much of the criticism is rooted in ignorance.

Only 2% of adolescents across the U.S. identify as gender-fluid, nonbinary, transgender, or something other than purely cisgender, Hassouri said. Their path to gender-affirming care is lengthy and careful, requiring many medical and mental health visits before such care can begin, she added.

Puberty blockers are safe and reversible, she added. They’ve been used for over 30 years, including on kids who go through early puberty, she said.

“Do we need to teach students in school about puberty blockers? No. But do we need to teach that about 2% or so of the population feels that their true identity doesn’t match what gender was assigned to them at birth based on their genitals? Yes, we can teach that,” Hassouri said. “There’s no reason not to teach the range of what exists on the gender spectrum. These things need to be normalized and taught accurately.”

And teaching such things won’t result in a wave of children suddenly becoming confused and switching genders, she added.

“If gender was contagious, then transgender people would become cis, because trans youth who have spent their entire lives being bombarded by cisgender people, media, and education would forget about their gender dysphoria and become cisgender,” she said.

Heimann believes the shift in sex ed in schools from “very risk-based doom and gloom” to a more affirming approach that presents sexuality as a pleasurable thing has left some squeamish.

“That is a hot button when it comes to youth, but I personally don’t think youth should be excluded from that conversation,” Heimann said.

Gender is baked into the culture and even the architecture of many schools, like this century-old elementary school in Lawrenceville. (Photo by Dana DiFilippo/New Jersey Monitor)

A pause for review

The sex ed debate has prompted some politicians to pump the brakes.

Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this month directed Department of Education officials to review the standards and clarify age-appropriate guidelines.

And Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Middlesex) earlier this week said he’d introduce legislation to improve transparency by, among other things, requiring school districts to post all curriculum online for parents to review.

Hassouri thinks schools should go a step further, though.

Gender is baked in to school culture, from gendered bathrooms and locker rooms to gym teachers divvying up class activities by gender. Simple changes can make a big impact, Hassouri said.

“In schools, why do we still ask kids to divide by gender, telling boys to line up on this side and girls on the other?” Hassouri said. “It’s long past time to stop that.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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