This blog post originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Echo Magazine as part of the magazine's "We The People" column.
The Arizona Legislature is back in session and one thing our elected officials need to do as soon as possible is get rid of Arizona’s “No Promo Homo” law. Every day this law persists, students are stigmatized, teachers and other school staff are confused about what they can say to students, and Arizona perpetuates its reputation as a prejudiced, backward place.
Arizona is one of only seven states that still has a “No Promo Homo” law, according to GLSEN, an organization that aims to make all schools accepting of LGBTQ students. The other states in this shameful group are Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. Utah repealed its version in 2017, but only after Equality Utah and the National Center for Lesbian Rights sued to block the law’s enforcement, arguing it violated the U.S. Constitution and federal education law.
These laws are largely a product of the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis, a 1980s and early-1990s effort to institutionalize bigotry against gay and bisexual men. The goal was to prevent people who teach sex education from talking about same-sex intimacy.
“Many people today still believe that homosexuality is not a positive, or even an alternative, lifestyle,” The Arizona Daily Star quoted Rep. Karen Mills, a Republican from Glendale, saying in June 1991. Mills, according to the newspaper, offered the “No Promo Homo” language as an amendment to a bill allowing schools to teach young people about HIV/AIDS. The “No Promo Homo” provisions were one of four amendments from conservative Republicans vehemently opposed to having children learn about HIV and AIDS.
Arizona’s “No Promo Homo” provisions are specific to public school curriculum about HIV and AIDS. They prohibit all public school districts in Arizona from including in their HIV/AIDS instruction any information that “promotes a homosexual life-style, portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style, [or] suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.”
These provisions discriminatorily single out a subset of the population based upon sexual orientation. They are designed to make LGB people feel ashamed. They also inhibit complete, fact-based HIV/AIDS instruction. Young people of all sexual orientations should learn during sex education that the likelihood of HIV transmission can be drastically reduced by using condoms, taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), getting tested, and talking honestly with sex partners, among other strategies.
Other parts of Arizona’s HIV/AIDS education law require curriculum to “be medically accurate” and “dispel myths regarding transmission of the human immunodeficiency virus.” How can educators be expected to provide fact-based HIV/AIDS instruction if they also must pretend that there’s no way for two people of the same sex to have safe sex?
The best defense against the spread of any infection is a well-informed populace. The “No Promo Homo” provisions, though, encourage educators to withhold critical health information and thereby increase the chance of infection.
In addition to promoting an anti-science agenda, the “No Promo Homo” provisions, even though they are limited to HIV/AIDS-related instruction, undoubtedly discourage teachers and staff from talking about same-sex relationships in other contexts. They shouldn’t. Teachers and staff can talk about same-sex relationships in any situation other than HIV/AIDS instruction without violating this law, which could be challenged in the courts like Utah’s version.
If a teacher is reprimanded for breaching the “No Promo Homo” provisions, whether during sex-related instruction or some other context, they should report it to the ACLU of Arizona, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal, or another legal organization that specializes in the rights of LGBTQ people. No teacher should be told, no matter the context, that they cannot respectfully discuss same-sex relationships.
Nevertheless, Arizona’s “No Promo Homo” law is used to harass school districts that attempt to provide inclusive and comprehensive sex education. In May, Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based legal organization that has been designated as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, sent a threatening letter to the Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson. Liberty Counsel claimed Sunnyside violated the “No Promo Homo” provisions simply by defining straight, lesbian, gay and bisexual in its sex-ed curriculum.
There have been several attempts in recent years to eliminate the “No Promo Homo” provisions, but they’ve stalled quickly in the Arizona Legislature, which unfortunately still has a number of members who would prefer queer people remain marginalized. But after the 2018 mid-term election, we’re closer to having majorities in both chambers that could vote to eliminate this discriminatory law, which makes LGBTQ people feel bad, encourages educators to provide inaccurate information about HIV transmission, and puts people at risk.
Arizona has let nearly three decades pass with this harmful and misleading law on the books. Let’s get rid of it this year. There’s no good argument to keep it. Anyone who says otherwise only wants to perpetuate discrimination.