Southern Marylanders are divided about the controversial topic of sex education. Several local public libraries had initially planned to host sexual education classes, but strong opposition from residents about the sex educator and her motives forced the libraries to cancel the events.
Bianca Palmisano, a sex educator from Washington, D.C., and owner of Intimate Health Consulting, planned a Small Town Sex Ed Tour around Maryland to be held March 1-15. The tour included four presentations — two in Charles County (at the Waldorf West Library and Potomac Library branch) and two in St. Mary’s County (Lexington Park Branch Library) — geared toward children ages 12-17.
“The fact that the community is so aggressively opposed to teaching comprehensive sex ed is strange to me,” Palmisano said. “I’m no stranger to a little bit of disagreement around sex ed because people have very strong feelings about it. Most of the pushback is in regards to me being a lesbian, and a stranger teaching sex education to kids in the community.”
Palmisano planned the free tour as a way to give back to the community. She specializes in training healthcare providers around issues of sexual health, as well as LGBT, sex worker and sexual assault survivor competency. She said that her previous work as a social worker encouraged her method of teaching — harm reduction.
Her content and materials include information about anatomy, the HPV vaccine, Hepatitis A and B vaccines, consent and boundaries in relationships with others. Palmisano said a waiver signed by parents was required in order for teens to attend. After Palmisano submitted her materials to the libraries for review, she began receiving phone calls from local residents voicing concern.
Great Mills resident Georgia Kijesky, who called herself a “whistleblower,” said she was shocked when she noticed the sex education class being advertised at local libraries. Kijesky and other residents called the library staff and directors, as well as local elected officials, to voice their concerns.
“I’m fighting to stop the corruption of morals of minors,” Kijesky said. “The instructor is involved in nefarious activities and her social media appearance (photos and videos) represents her and what she’s advocating for. The event was sponsored by a lubricant company and I did not like that no parents are welcome to join the class. It was for children only.”
Kijesky personally feels it is not Palmisano’s sexual orientation but her social media pages that raised concern in the community. In an online post (on a blog called “A Priest Life”), Kajesky wrote that Palmisano describes herself on social media as a “vivacious queer, feminist and dancer.”
“While I am happy that the classes are cancelled, I am of the opinion that they never should’ve been scheduled to begin with. I realize that public libraries are struggling to retain their relevance in the modern world of digital content, PDAs/cell-phones, and high-speed internet. However, that does not mean that libraries should be allowed to expand their scope of responsibility into sex-activism. That is highly inappropriate and shows an egregious lack of judgement on behalf of our library’s administration,” Kijesky said in a release.
Mechanicsville resident Pam Gavin said she was afraid the class would plant ideas in young people’s minds.
“My main concern was whether this was a way for [Palmisano] to recruit (for sex-activism), and who better to go after than the young — they are impressionable,” Gavin said. “We have counselors, a public health department and physicians with much more knowledge than [Palmisano] has. I don’t see her as an educator. She said ‘anything is on the table’ and the way she phrased her questions and advertised herself, goes against normal behavior.”
On Feb. 24, Palmisano learned the classes at Lexington Park Library branch were officially cancelled. The program was removed from the website and program calendar two weeks ago.
“We had citizens register concerns about the program here in the county and we simply wanted to respect their opinion at this time and recognize that this is a controversial topic for some people,” said Michael Blackwell, director of St. Mary’s County Public Library. “We regret that controversy has arisen around a program that has been well-received at other Maryland libraries. The presenter would have presented life-affirming messages. Still, we have heard concerns from some library users about the program. We have decided that this particular program is simply not a good fit for our library.”
California resident Patricia Taylor Hertzbach, the mother of 12- and 14-year-olds, had planned to have her sons attend the class at the Lexington Park Library.
“I thought it was a really neat opportunity for teenagers to ask questions about their sexuality and coming of age with an independent expert with mom and dad not hanging over their shoulder. The fact that people actively tried to shut down the program, I don’t understand why they feel the need to control information that I think my children should have,” Hertzbach said. “I hope in the future that the library will commit to a program, they will follow it through at least once to see if there is interest.”
Leonardtown resident Lisa Grossman said people who aren’t interested should just not attend.
“I’m disappointed that people think the class is a bad thing,” said California resident Anne Marie Dailey. “I would rather my children talk to an expert rather than talking to their peers and getting wrong information. I know the library is in a difficult position so I don’t really fault them, but I think the class would be a positive thing to have in the community.”
During the Charles County Public Library System Board of Trustees public board meeting on March 2, the trustees decided to postpone both programs and take time to address all of the citizens’ concerns.
“We pumped the brakes because we wanted to make sure that we are giving the citizens the best information and the highest quality of information to the community. I was so passionate about knowing what the community and our staff think about this topic,” said Claudia Bellony-Atanga, chair of the CCPL Board of Trustees.
Indian Head Vice Mayor Ron Sitoula, also a member of the CCPL Board of Trustees, said the community and board should not be alarmed or panicked by this one particular issue. He said he trusts the judgement of CCPL Executive Director Janet Salazar on this matter.
“The school system does a great job providing sex education, the public health office does a great job providing sex education and the library would also do a great job providing sex education in our community,” Salazar said. “It is a natural fit for us. We aren’t trying to replace sex ed programs offered in the schools or by the health department; we just want to supplement the information the teens are already getting. Teens may know the basics about sex, but their questions certainly don’t stop there. Libraries play a critical role in helping teens safely ask their questions about sex and sexuality.”
According to the 2014 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a Maryland high school survey, there is statistical data that supports the need in Charles County for additional sex education programming. More than 36 percent of teens in Charles County reported being sexually active, compared to 32.4 percent state-wide. Of respondents, 13.3 percent said they do not use a condom and 4.7 percent were sexually active before the age of 13.
“A carefully vetted, sex education program would allow teens to have a safe space to discuss their questions and concerns on a range of topics related to sexual health,” said Ashley Teagle, branch manager for the Waldorf West Library. “I consider our teens a vulnerable population because they live in a world full of peer pressure and misinformation. The library is a trusted resource for information and information can make a big impact on lives. I hope the library is one of the first places teens turn to for information.”
Waldorf resident Janet Beck said the public had to rely on social media for information on Bianca Palmisano’s background in order to make an educated decision about teens attending the class.
Beck said Palmisano’s social media pages showed that she is an advocate for the “’sexual positive movement,’ an attitude towards human sexuality that regards all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy and pleasurable, and encourages sexual pleasure and experimentation.”
“Allowing 12-year-old girls to participate in a sex talk with 17-year-old males is disturbing,” Beck said. “Sponsorship by a personal lubricant manufacturer should have been a red flag for library management. For that reason, I have lost trust in our library system. The board of trustees and management have a lot of work to do to restore my faith in their commitment to doing what is best for our community rather than what is politically expedient.”
Waldorf resident Kevin Washington said Palmisano’s social media pages insinuates that “anything goes,” and he does not want his children practicing that. He said the library’s time and space should not be used to discuss this controversial subject.
Amanda Stewart, vice president of the Charles County Board of Commissioners and member of the CCPL Board of Trustees, said she disagreed with Salazar’s initial decision to allow the class at the library.
“I expressed my strong opposition to the library sponsoring such an event, and urged Salazar to cancel the program,” Stewart said. “I question Ms. Salazar’s judgment in approving this program. This type of sensitive issue should be addressed by trusted community organizations and leaders that specialize in this subject matter. This is about mission, not censorship. Programming should be aligned with the library’s mission. I want to make it clear that I do not support this proposed program. I ask the board to be mindful of the community’s concerns before moving forward with this type of program.”
Waldorf residents Zachary Ball and Melissa Gilpin-Ball disagreed with Stewart.
“I felt like Commissioner Stewart’s point (and Facebook post) about not having a permission slip was a very arbitrary distinction because a kid can go to a library right now with no permission slip and there’s 80 books regarding sexual education that they have access to,” Ball said. “She said she didn’t feel it was in the mission of the library to do this, but the mission of the library is to educate ... There’s another issue that they don’t want to come out and say and they are not being upfront about the reasons.”
Brynn Bales, a La Plata resident, said cancelling the class is a blatant example of discrimination against Palmisano’s sexual orientation. She said the “straight talk sex ed” with teens is absolutely a great idea and finds it disheartening that a few closed-minded individuals can influence a public system in this way, especially with all of the positive feedback.
Waldorf resident Liz Mildenstein said the library never gave the event a chance, stating the public library will see negative implications as a result of restricting people from holding programs at the local library.
“Cancelling this class is setting a dangerous precedent and I would certainly not want to hear someone say that because of who you are you can’t teach this class,” said Peter Ullmann, a Waldorf resident. “It’s a short leap to other discriminatory practices against religion, race, gender. We have made steps to evolve beyond that point and we need to evolve beyond this as well.”
After the sex education classes in Southern Maryland were cancelled, Palmisano decided to have the class at the Greene Turtle in La Plata. Recently those classes were cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, she said.