Sex education is an equity issue – vote to approve Referendum 90 | Letters

Letter to the editor

We are seeing a resurgence of HIV/Aids that resembles the height of the epidemic. In fact, sexually transmitted infections are on the rise, hitting especially hard in communities of color already experiencing health disparities.

As a member of the clergy and an African American, I can attest to the detrimental stigma too common in our communities around sexuality. We can’t keep sticking our heads in the sand.

One out of two young Black gay men will be HIV positive by the time they are 30. A lack of education and a lack of conversations are directly contributing to this preventable outcome. My fellow Washingtonians have a chance to vote for policy that will help us protect youth and ensure they have a chance to live safe and healthy lives.

Our state has had sex education guidelines for schools in place for over a decade, and they are borne out of the best science and research available across America. But when it came to light that many schools were not making instruction available to students, our legislature stepped up and passed a law to require offering sex education in all schools and made updates to include lessons on consent and bystander training.

Referendum 90 on our ballots this election, if approved, would implement comprehensive sex education in all schools across the state, leaving no student in the dark. God created us as sexual beings. We can hold our faith while also having critical conversations with our youth about sex. But too often those conversations are not happening in the home. I’m one of the fortunate ones. Even though I grew up in the South, in a traditional Christian home, surrounded by ministers, my parents and my grandparents taught me early on about my body, about my sexuality. We know that not every child is so fortunate, and that is why community matters.

Without education about sexuality, sexual risk, safe sex practices, and the all important concept of consent, our youth, and or communities, are at risk. Of course education should be age appropriate. Of course it should be comprehensive and medially accurate and delivered by trained educators. The ballot measure ensures that.

Knowledge about human development, reproduction, and sex that is inclusive of all children, and all protected classes, doesn’t lead children to an identity or to risky behavior. Quite the opposite, studies show that students who have sex education delay sex, have lower rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Sex education is also proven effective at preventing sexual abuse and assault by giving youth the language and tools they need to keep themselves safe, and find and talk to a trusted adult.

If this coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s taught us we must lean into the science, we must listen to public health experts. We can’t just hope it goes away. It’s also helping to shine a light on the root issues causing health disparities for people of color. One of those disparities is a lack of comprehensive sex education in all schools, no matter what zip code.

I think we all share in common a goal for our youth to have the knowledge and tools to grow up safe and healthy. That’s why I joined over 100 other faith leaders across the state to endorse passage of Referendum 90. I hope you will join me in voting to Approve Referendum 90.

Steven Sawyer is Executive Director of People of Color Against AIDS Network. Sawyer is an ordained member of the clergy, serving as Pastor at Living Water International Church in Tacoma. Sawyer also serves on the Washington State LGBTQ Commission.