A lot of the opposition to TUSD’s proposed sex-ed curriculum is being fueled by an anti-LGBTQ organization that claims comprehensive sex education is a conspiracy to sexualize children for profit.

A video seems to have fueled much opposition from people at Tucson Unified School District meetings and hearings. It was produced by Family Watch International, a Gilbert-based organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group that works to further anti-LGBT efforts around the world.

The challenge to Tucson Unified School District’s sex ed curriculum is “the biggest battle” the group has undertaken since a group called the Protect Arizona Children Coalition was formed in June, Sharron Slater, president of Family Watch International, told a gathering last week at Gilbert’s American Leadership Academy.

Among the people in the crowd was Arizona House Speaker Russell Bowers, state Sen. Sylvia Allen and Corporation Commissioner Justin Olson. Bowers made headlines this week when he said he believed sex-education courses in the state “are grooming children to be sexualized.”

“We got into motion and we helped create, with the Protect Arizona Children Coalition, a documentary called ‘Deception: Behind TUSD’s Proposed Sex Education Curriculum,’” Slater said at the meeting in Gilbert. “We sent it far and wide, and it’s made a huge difference in that fight.”

Bernadette Gruber, the only member of the board-appointed group that wrote the updated TUSD curriculum who’s opposing it, appears in the video. In it she says a portion of the curriculum that explains gender identity is confusing.

Gruber and many opponents who don’t want the curriculum to discuss gender identity seem to conflate gender identity with genetic and anatomic sex. They also say that if students learn about gender identity, they will be confused about their own gender.

Gender identity is defined in the curriculum as the gender to which someone identifies. It also defines gender expression as a person’s outward appearance as it relates to gender. This differs from genetic and anatomic sex, which depends on a person’s chromosomes and genitals. The lesson on gender — given to high school students — gives examples on how different people have various gender identities and sexual orientations.

The video Gruber appears in says, with no evidence, that schools are manufacturing and profiting off transgender kids, indoctrinating children into “radical gender ideologies” and promoting high-risk sexual behavior. It also quotes a controversial psychologist, Dr. Paul McHugh, saying that sex-reassignment surgery is promoting “a mental disorder.”

“An assault on their culture”

“This is real,” Gruber said on stage at the meeting in Gilbert after the room watched the video. “It’s happening in our schools. And it’s on our watch.”

She said the video has been very helpful to get the word out and mobilize parents in Tucson.

“When the Hispanic community, especially the pastors and ministry leaders of that community, got wind of what TUSD was trying to do and what was in the curriculum, they mobilized and they were angry,” Gruber said. “They were upset because this was an assault on their family. This was an assault on their culture that’s deeply pro-family and pro-faith. This is not a religious issue. This is a health issue, and we want our children to have the best health outcomes and a healthy future.”

Vocal opposition from white retirees, Hispanics

Gruber is a member of Protect Arizona Children Coalition, and is an administrator on the group’s Facebook page. She has also served as education domain director with 4Tucson for the last eight years. The faith-based organization believes in finding biblical solutions for city problems. The organization’s 2018 winter magazine says, “The Education Domain envisions every Tucson-area school being served by Christian churches and ministries to the benefit of all students and families.”

On the nonprofit’s 2017 tax filing, the latest publicly available, the group claimed nearly $711,000 in revenue and spent nearly $649,500, with the largest portion going to program services. It spent more than $70,000 on its education domain, “mobilizing the Christian community to engage in these church-school partnerships,” the group’s tax filing says.

In earlier hearings on TUSD’s curriculum, many opponents were white retirees, often with ties to 4Tucson. After the Protect Arizona Children Coalition video was released, the opposition shifted to primarily local Hispanic families.

Many opponents who regularly spoke at TUSD board meetings and hearings said they were representing the “Hispanic-Latino” community, and some went on to share they belonged to specific churches.

The points made by Slater, Gruber and others at the meeting in Gilbert closely echo the talking points of the local opposition. The main points: The curriculum sexualizes children, it’s too controversial, and the curriculum should not discuss gender identity.

A flier with a link to the video circulated in parts of the religious Hispanic community in Tucson before the Sept. 10 meeting where the TUSD board was set to vote on approving the curriculum.

The flyer asked people to come to the meeting and to bring banners saying “no on CSE,” the acronym for comprehensive sex education.

Further, an email was sent out by the nonprofit Corazon Ministries calling on “brothers and sisters Hispanic/Latinos in Christ” to unite against the curriculum. The message called the proposed curriculum an “indoctrination of our children under the guise of Comprehensive Sex Education.”

The email called for 1,000 people to show up at the meeting and directed families to keep their children home from school the next day, regardless of what district they are in, as a message that what is happening in TUSD affects the whole city, the email says.

Hundreds in the Hispanic community showed up to protest the curriculum. It’s not clear how many of them have children in TUSD schools.

The board delayed the vote after Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo made a number of recommendations, including adding more lessons on abstinence throughout the curriculum.

The flyer included a link to a petition against the curriculum, which has the Family Watch International logo at the bottom. And the flyer is full of inaccuracies on what is in the curriculum and would be taught to children from 8 years old on. It incorrectly states that sex, sex changes and pregnancy will be discussed at every age level.

The flyer also includes things that are in the curriculum for older students, such as defining same-sex relationships and discussions about HIV.

One of the people leading the opposition during the Sept. 10 meeting was Gabriel Corella, who works at a radio station on Tucson’s south side. When a Star reporter asked him about the flyer, he said he didn’t know who made it, but that it was widely circulated in the Hispanic community.

He said the main point motivating the Hispanic opposition is the belief that the curriculum is not age-appropriate. When a reporter asked him which part was inappropriate or if he had read the curriculum, he said he didn’t have time to talk about it.

Francisco Santa Cruz, who runs the radio station and is a pastor at a south-side church, said the problem with the curriculum is that it’s not clear what TUSD will be teaching children.

“There are many things hidden behind those terms,” he said.

LGBTQ lessons unlikely to be cut

One of Superintendent Trujillo’s recommendations that delayed the vote was to create a district-wide “teach-in” for parents and students, to include workshops, breakout sessions and reviewing the Family Life lessons.

It’s unclear if that will assuage the opposition, many of whom say they don’t want any mention of LGBTQ people included in the curriculum.

The Hispanic community in opposition doesn’t believe the curriculum is sex ed at all, but an education in gender ideology, “to put a homosexual agenda in the schools,” Santa Cruz said.

“Because of our values, our principles, our culture, we can’t say that it’s OK,” he said about being LGBTQ. “We accept it, but we’re not in agreement with this kind of life because it’s unnatural.”

Board Member Adelita Grijalva spoke with one pastor who was opposed to the curriculum on the basis that he fear it would introduce the idea that some students have same-sex parents, she said.

Grijalva points out that students have same-sex parents that are around and involved regardless of what curriculum the school uses. She said that argument reminds her of a time when interracial marriage was frowned upon.

She said one option regarding lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation might be to limit it to just a few lessons so that families who are opposed can easily opt-out of those lessons. But completely excluding LGBTQ experiences from the curriculum is not an option, she said.

Besides the need for inclusivity, Grijalva says the district does need to do a better job at informing the community what is actually in the curriculum to disperse some of the inaccuracies.

“My goal is to make sure people are informed,” she said. “You have the parent teach-ins. You make sure the curriculum is available. The teachers have the professional development that they need. But I’m not excluding students.”

TUSD’s curriculum was first created in 1996 and hasn’t been updated in over 10 years.

Sex-ed get statewide attention{

At the meeting in Gilbert, the speakers never referred to any material actually in TUSD’s proposed curriculum, other than a passage Gruber refers to in the video that describes a transgender person. They instead talked about other curriculum materials they fear will be incorporated later if an inclusive, comprehensive curriculum is passed.

House Speaker Bowers addressed the audience at the meeting and said that Superintendent of Public School Kathy Hoffman is promoting sex education that is “radicalizing children’s sexuality.” Then on Thursday, he said that materials he believes are being used in sex education courses in Arizona schools “are grooming children to be sexualized,” based on what he saw at the meeting in Gilbert.

Hoffman said in a statement that Bower’s comments on Thursday and over the weekend have no basis in reality.

“My department is focused on finding solutions to the real crises facing education in this state like our persistent shortage of highly qualified teachers, one of the lowest rates of per-pupil spending in the nation and the physical safety and mental health of our students,” she said. “I urge Speaker Bowers to join me in working to find solutions to these critical challenges instead of spending his time amplifying conspiracy theories being pushed by known hate groups.”

At the meeting in Gilbert, Slater touted the work of her other national group Protect Child Health Coalition, saying the group is working with people nationwide “that are having the same kind of battles that you saw in the Tucson District.”

“And we’re winning in a lot of these states,” she said.

She warned the crowd that the “next battle” is at the state legislature, using California as a cautionary tale. The neighboring state requires schools to offer comprehensive sex education, but parents can excuse their children from the classes.

“You can not opt out your children in California, out of LGBTQ education,” Slater said. “And my main concern with that is the transgender, gender-identity stuff.”

In finishing her presentation at the Gilbert meeting, Slater summed up why stopping comprehensive sex education is so important in her view.

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“As the children go, so goes the families, so goes the nation, so goes the world,” she said. “We need to protect our children.”

LGBTQ lessons unlikely to be cut

One of Superintendent Trujillo’s recommendations that delayed the vote was to create a districtwide “teach-in” for parents and students, to include workshops, breakout sessions and reviews of Family Life lessons.

It’s unclear if that will assuage the opposition, many of whom say they don’t want any mention of LGBTQ people in the curriculum.

The Hispanic community in opposition doesn’t believe the curriculum is sex ed at all, but an education in gender ideology, “to put a homosexual agenda in the schools,” said Santa Cruz, the south-side pastor.

“Because of our values, our principles, our culture, we can’t say that it’s OK,” he said about being LGBTQ. “We accept it, but we’re not in agreement with this kind of life because it’s unnatural.”

Board member Adelita Grijalva spoke with one pastor who was opposed to the curriculum on the basis that he feared it would introduce the idea that some students have same-sex parents, she said.

Grijalva points out that students have same-sex parents who are around and involved regardless of what curriculum the school uses. She said that argument reminds her of a time when interracial marriage was frowned upon.

She said one option regarding lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation might be to limit it to just a few lessons so that families who are opposed can easily opt out of those lessons. But completely excluding LGBTQ experiences from the curriculum is not an option, she said.

Besides the need for inclusivity, Grijalva says the district does need to do a better job at informing the community what is actually in the curriculum to disperse some of the inaccuracies.

“My goal is to make sure people are informed,” she said. “You have the parent teach-ins. You make sure the curriculum is available. The teachers have the professional development that they need. But I’m not excluding students.”

TUSD’s curriculum was first created in 1996 and hasn’t been updated in over 10 years.

reject “Known hate Groups,” state schools chief urges

At the meeting in Gilbert, the speakers never referred to any material actually in TUSD’s proposed curriculum, other than a passage Gruber refers to in the video that describes a transgender person. They instead talked about other curriculum materials they fear will be incorporated later if an inclusive, comprehensive curriculum is passed.

House Speaker Bowers addressed the audience at the meeting and said that Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman is promoting sex education that is “radicalizing children’s sexuality.” Then on Thursday, he said that materials he believes are being used in sex education courses in Arizona schools “are grooming children to be sexualized,” based on what he saw at the meeting in Gilbert.

Hoffman said that Bower’s comments on Thursday and over the weekend have no basis in reality.

“My department is focused on finding solutions to the real crises facing education in this state like our persistent shortage of highly qualified teachers, one of the lowest rates of per-pupil spending in the nation and the physical safety and mental health of our students,” she said. “I urge Speaker Bowers to join me in working to find solutions to these critical challenges instead of spending his time amplifying conspiracy theories being pushed by known hate groups.”

At the meeting in Gilbert, Slater touted the work of her other national group Protect Child Health Coalition, saying the group is working with people nationwide “that are having the same kind of battles that you saw in the Tucson district.”

“And we’re winning in a lot of these states,” she said.

She warned the crowd that the “next battle” is at the state Legislature, using California as a cautionary tale. The neighboring state requires schools to offer comprehensive sex education, but parents can excuse their children from the classes.

“You cannot opt out your children in California, out of LGBTQ education,” Slater said. “And my main concern with that is the transgender, gender-identity stuff.”

In finishing her presentation at the Gilbert meeting, Slater summed up why stopping comprehensive sex education is so important in her view.

“As the children go, so goes the families, so goes the nation, so goes the world,” she said. “We need to protect our children.”

RELATED: Photo gallery: TUSD delays vote on Family Life Curriculum 

Reporter

Danyelle joined the Star in 2018 and covers K-12 education. Previously, Danyelle wrote for the Tucson Weekly where she won several statewide awards including story of the year and first place investigative reporting.