Fremont parents protest the city's sex education policy and curriculum on March 14, 2018. (Sandhya Dirks/KQED)
The parents who opposed the sex education curriculum were all dressed in white, the color associated with virginal brides.
The connotations of their clothing may have been unintentional, but parents were definitely sending a message. They wanted the Fremont Unified School District Board members to see a wave of white standing in clear opposition to the school district’s proposal for comprehensive sex education.
On two Wednesdays in March, hundreds of parents showed up to the school board meetings to oppose a curriculum they fear is more titillating than educational.
The school board voted to approve updating their sex education policy, but they have yet to decide whether to approve the proposed curriculum as is.
“Some of the stuff that they talk about is, in my opinion, very, very inappropriate,” said parent Danny Hsu. “In fourth grade, they are going to start talking about erections, they are going to talk about wet dreams. In fifth grade, they actually talk about if the male and female have sexual intercourse than the penis is inserted into the vagina.”
Hsu said his son, who is in fifth grade, is too young for these explicit details.
The Fremont Unified School Board said it is updating its sex education curriculum in order to come into compliance with a California State law that was rolled out in 2016. That policy, called the California Healthy Youth Act, set some of the most progressive sex ed requirements in the country.
California does not require that sex education be taught before seventh grade, but Fremont has traditionally taught a version of it to fourth through sixth graders, said Denise Herrmann, the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Instruction. She said for Fremont to be in compliance with state law, no matter the grade sex ed is taught in, you must comply with state set guidelines.
“There was no decision on our part to say we believe this content should be at fourth grade,” said Herrmann. “What we used is the document that’s published by the State of California, that’s endorsed by pediatricians and by experts on puberty health and development, to help us make those grade level placements.”
Still, some parents think the information is extreme.
“I was really terribly shocked, like why should my fourth grade daughter know about spontaneous erections and then wet dreams?” asked parent Sunitha Devi Gopalan.
“It’s too much details for them to digest,” Devi Gopalan said. “It’s actually going to kill their innocence, that’s what I think.”
Both Hsu and Devi Gopalan are, like the overwhelming majority of parents who showed up in force to voice their concerns, Asian-Americans. Fremont, like other Silicon Valley suburbs, is an ethnoburb. More than half of the city’s residents have Asian ancestry, the majority from China or South Asia. Even more significant, Asian-Americans make up 70 percent of the student population in the Fremont Unified School District.
Cultural differences, many parents said, play a role in their opposition.
For parent Sylvia Wong the lesson plans taught to elementary students before the proposed updates were already too much. There is an option to opt out of all sex ed classes, but Wong said it didn’t work and her daughter found out what was being taught anyway.
“She told me one day, 'Mom I know all these things already. Because kids who attended the class talk about things like, it’s so gross, that just took away my innocence',” Wong said.
“When I heard that I was really angry,” she said. “Because you think that you can opt out and protect your child, and raise her up in a more traditional and conservative way.”
Raising her child with traditional cultural beliefs is important to Wong.
She believes the new lesson plans will further impact her ability to teach her child about sex in a way consistent with cultural beliefs.
“They even talk about love making positions,” Wong said. “They talk about sexual intercourse, anal sex. These things, I’m even ashamed to talk about it, I’m 45-years-old, I don’t want my ten-year-old girl to be involved in that.”
Parent Mina Naveed said she actually liked the old curriculum for her kids, but she is worried the new one is just teaching kids to have sex.
“These are very curious minds,” she said. She described her daughter as always wanting to try the experiments she learns in science class at home. “So imagine they are learning about oral sex and anal sex in classrooms and then they are going out to experiment.”
But Leena Yin, who graduated from Fremont’s Mission San Jose High School a few years ago and is now a sexual health educator, said these fears are unfounded. She said teaching kids about sex can actually prevent sexual activity, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
"I think that when folks hear these words, their alarm bells go off,” she said. “What I think they don’t understand is that sex education is really about children understanding their own bodies."
Yin says her own sex education in Fremont’s schools was inadequate. That is what brought her to these school board meetings to advocate for the new curriculum.
Yin sat with a cluster of sex education advocates. The color they wore to flag their support for the curriculum was green.
Also dressed in green was Yasi Safinya-Davies, the executive director of SAVE, a Fremont-based nonprofit that provides support to victims of domestic violence. She said her organization works with a lot of young people who tell her, “we don’t have adults in our lives who are having earnest open conversations about our relationships, about our sexuality. We didn’t even know what consent was.”
As a parent herself, she said she is sympathetic with the opposition.
“I absolutely understand the concern that parents have around this curriculum,” Safinya-Davies said. “Because if you didn’t grow up learning about your sexuality, and certainly not in a comprehensive way, this is all new.”
Safinya-Davies pauses, “Is the assumption that people who are for sex ed are interested in sexualizing our children?”
It is not about sexualizing kids, Safinya-Davies said, it is about being realistic about what is happening within their own bodies, and what information is out there.
“There’s not a single parent in this room who knows what it’s like to grow up and have a curiosity about your body and type that into a google search,” she said.
No matter your cultural heritage, all kids now live in the age of the internet, just a click away from porn. The internet, Safinya-Davies said, does not teach consent.
Another argument pro-sex education advocates like Safinya-Davies make about teaching fourth through sixth graders about erections and nocturnal emissions, or wet dreams, is that those are the grades in which young people are experiencing puberty, if not before.
Parent Purabi Ghosh is concerned by the fourth through sixth graders being taught all this in co-ed classes. “Girls are more comfortable with girls, and boys are more comfortable learning about this with boys,” she said.
That was one point on which the school board changed course. Now those classes will be same-sex.
Ghosh said she understands how complex this is, and she approves of parts of the curriculum.
“Telling them about puberty, teaching them about respect, accepting others, not bullying, that’s absolutely on the go,” she said. But pictures that depict sex acts go to far, “this is like exposing them to an inappropriate toy,” she said.
Ghosh also understands that there is a generational divide. She asked her older son, a junior in high school, if he would like to speak out against the sex education lessons.
“I said would you like to be speaker, he said, 'I’d like to speak from the opposing side',” she shakes her head and smiles. “And I completely get where he’s coming from. He’s having a lot of his friends come out now, who are accepting their diverse sexuality not, not a polar sexuality.”
That’s a subtler part of this controversy. Sex education advocates say, lurking beneath the fears some parents have is homophobia and transphobia.
Sameer Jha is a 16-year-old who is now at a private high school in Oakland. He lives in Fremont and attended elementary and middle school there. He is also the founder of The Empathy Alliance.
Jha said he was bullied constantly for being “feminine.” Jha came out as queer to his family and friends, which he describes as a hard thing to do in his Desi community.
“It was very scary,” he said. “Being LGBTQ plus was seen as taboo and I was the first person to come out in my local South Asian community here in Fremont.”
At first his mother had a hard time with his identity.
“We had so many fears, so many biases. There’s so much stigma in our community,” said Hussain, Jha’s mom.
Now Hussain is a huge supporter of her son, and his biggest cheerleader. As a Pakistani immigrant, she said she had to learn what it meant to be queer. “I didn’t even know that word existed,” she said.
“I wish sex ed was made available to the parents here,” she said. “I look at the sea of parents who are here in opposition because there are so fearful of diversity, and it makes me really realize how important what my son is doing.”
Jha is not the only person who spoke about the difficulties of navigating Fremont schools with a queer identity.
“When I was younger, I felt there was nothing good about being queer in school spaces,” said Anthony Prickett, a 22-year-old who attended Fremont public schools. “I oftentimes felt very lonely when I was younger,” he said.
When Prickett addressed the school board, he declared himself to be a proud, “gay Chinese-American Christian.” In response, someone in the crowd of white clad parents yelled out “No!”
“Quite often we pit Chinese-Americans and Christians against gay people," Prickett said. “When in reality there have always been, and will always be, Chinese Christian gay people.”
Prickett said he respects the need to keep cultural traditions alive, but not at the expense of inclusion.
“Oftentimes we think as Chinese-American’s that we have to sustain our culture,” he said. “Instead of seeing culture as something that’s ever transforming, ever moving forward, ever growing more loving and caring as a community, we see it as the endless sustaining and reiteration of traditional values.”
Traditional values, he said, are “understood as values of purity and the ostracization of those who do not conform to a very particular idea of what it means to be Chinese-American.”
Prickett said there are more ways than one to be Chinese-American.
Parents like Salil Joshi said the battle over sex education in Fremont is not about exclusion of the LGBTQ community in Fremont.
“This is not about LGBTQ,” Joshi said.
He said he supports diversity and the LGBTQ community. What he is against is lessons he thinks are too sexually explicit for his ten-year-old son.
“I still believe that a ten-year-old is innocent,” he said. “I still believe that as a parent it is my duty to preserve that innocence.”
Joshi worries about more than just the fourth through sixth grade lessons. “At the seventh grade there is a possibility that oral and anal sex may be discussed in class, I don’t understand why that is necessary.”
LGBTQ and sex education advocates argue that in order for the lessons to be inclusive for all kids, sex and sexuality needs to be discussed and destigmatized, including sex that may be practiced by those with diverse sexualities.
And they said one reason to believe homophobia and transphobia are lurking behind the pushback against sex ed is the involvement of The Pacific Justice Institute.
In the coming weeks, the Fremont Unified School District Board will decide what exactly the curriculum will include.
But the larger meanings behind flash points like these sex ed debates, may take longer to unpack.
It is clear that the political power bloc of Asian-Americans is growing in cities like Fremont. In the meeting, parents threatened school board members who spoke positively about the sex ed curriculum with recall campaigns and promises to vote them out of office.
Also emerging is a subtle intergenerational divide between immigrant Asian-American parents and their children. Some of whom are growing up with diverse ideas of what it means to be Asian-American.