In 2019, advocates in Arizona won the struggle to remove explicitly homophobic restrictions on HIV/AIDS education in schools. But two years later, HIV/AIDS education itself is under attack by a Republican state lawmaker.
On February 2, State Representative John Fillmore alone introduced House Bill (HB) 2710, legislation that would instate a partial ban on HIV/AIDS education while imposing transphobic and heteronormative censorship of the instruction. This isn’t the first time he’s proposed such a policy: In May 2020, he introduced a bill with matching text, only for it to die after not being reviewed by the House Rules Committee.
Fillmore has a history of unabashedly transphobic and queerphobic statements. “I believe that if you were born with the equipment of a male … you are a male as long as you are with that equipment,” he stated on his personal website. In a February 10 hearing where lawmakers were considering another transphobic bill by Fillmore—this time to preemptively ban legal recognition of nonbinary people—he compared identifying outside the gender binary to “identify[ing] as a chicken.” Fillmore did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.
More than 18,000 Arizonans were living with HIV/AIDS in 2019, and the state registered 776 new cases that year. Black Arizonans had the highest incidence HIV/AIDS, at 36.5 cases per 100,000.
The office of Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, Arizona’s top elected official overseeing education matters, responded to Filter‘s request for comment by voicing opposition to the ideas represented by the bill. “The Superintendent has not officially taken a position because it has not been put on a committee agenda for a hearing,” said Morgan Dick, Hoffman’s public information officer. “However, we have opposed similar legislation this session and would likely oppose this bill if it moves forward.”
That legislation also targeted HIV/AIDS education. Introduced by other Republican representatives in May 2020 and January 2021, HB 2658 and HB 2184, respectively, both aimed to eliminate HIV/AIDS instruction below the fifth grade and requiring parental permission for participation. While provisions related to gender identity and monogamous relationships were absent, the latest bill stated that sex education courses “may not violate” a law that prohibits providing “to minors any item that is harmful to minors.” A violation is a class four felony punishable by up to three-and-a-half years in prison.
Multiple aspects of Fillmore’s bill are problematic for Hoffman. “Requiring permission to receive HIV/AIDS education creates an extra barrier for students,” Dick said. Asked whether Fillmore’s bill was transphobic, she did not mince words: “Yes.”
Put together, she said, “Bills that promote transphobia or block students from receiving medically and scientifically accurate information do not advance safe learning environments.”
A national advocacy organization for youth sexual health denounced the legislation. “This bill can only do harm to Arizona’s young people by robbing them of information they need—and by needlessly attaching shame and stigma to HIV and to transgender individuals,” Emily Bridges, a spokesperson for Advocates for Youth, told Filter. “All people have the right to lead healthy lives, and that includes receiving non-judgmental, accurate, age-appropriate information about HIV.”
Both bills, HB 2710 and HB 2184, have yet to be scheduled for review by the Education Committee.
A Progressive Alternative
Democratic lawmakers have introduced their own bills on updating sex education policy. State House and Senate lawmakers introduced bills (HB2277/SB1120) during the 2020 session that would have mandated “medically accurate and age-appropriate” sex education programs, inclusive of HIV/AIDS prevention, for students from kindergarten through grade 12.
In stark contrast to Fillmore’s approach, the lawmakers required discussion about “populations that historically have been more vulnerable to sexual abuse and assault,” making specific reference to transgender people.
On January 13, a Democratic House bill was introduced that similarly amends the law such to require “medically accurate and age-appropriate” sex education. The sponsors did not respond to Filter‘s request for comment.
The Democrats’ bills seem more in line with Hoffman’s vision. “The Superintendent believes all students are entitled to age-appropriate, medically and scientifically accurate health education,” said Dick. “Research shows that when students have this information they are able to make healthy, informed choices about their health. HIV is a preventable disease; providing clear and factual information on how it is transmitted helps prevent infection.”
Dick also noted the benefits of the Democrats’ proposal to no longer require prior authorization from parents: “An opt-out system provides parents with a mechanism to direct their child’s education—while removing some of those barriers to participation.”
Screenshot of Representative John Fillmore on February 10 via Arizona Legislature