An Interview with Public Health Advocate Lyv Norris
Massachusetts is known for being a liberal haven, along with the rest of New England. But our state policies aren’t always as progressive as you might expect.
For instance, MA schools aren’t required to teach sex education. And if they do teach sex ed, they aren’t required to talk about consent, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
They also aren’t required to make sure that the info in their sex ed classes is medically accurate. If that sounds bad to you, that’s because it is!
Fortunately, there are folks who are working to improve the state of sex education here in Massachusetts! I recently talked with Massachusetts-based public health advocate Lyv Norris about the fight for better sex ed in our state, and how to support it.
The Healthy Youth Act is one big piece of this fight.
Pleasure Pie: What is the Healthy Youth Act? What will change if it passes?
Lyv Norris: The Healthy Youth Act would ensure that the sex and relationship education taught in our schools is high-quality, accurate, and inclusive. This type of education protects young people against bullying and abuse, helps them develop healthy relationship skills, and improves their academic performance.
If it passes, schools that choose to teach sex ed will need to use a curriculum that is medically accurate, consent based, and inclusive. Schools will still be able to determine whether to teach sex ed, which curriculum to use, and the age that instruction begins.
PP: Why is this something that you're passionate about, on a personal level?
LN: I was born and raised in Massachusetts. This means I've received all my healthcare in MA and all of my education in MA.
I cannot stress enough what a challenge I faced as a teenager and young adult while trying to learn and understand my relationships to myself and others, my body and my health, and my gender and sexual identity. I had to do a lot of that work on my own or with the help of friends (who also didn't know much—we were all winging it).
And it wasn't just the learning piece that was challenging, but also:
When we aren't having these conversations with young people, we fail them as children, and again as teenagers, and again and again and again as adults.
I am dedicated to fostering spaces of wellness and joy for everyone, including young people. We know so much better than what we're offering our young people. They deserve so much better.
PP: I heard that the HYA has been shot down for over a decade! Why hasn't it passed in all these years?
LN: The bill has passed in the MA Senate multiple times, but hasn't even come to the floor for a vote in the MA House of Representatives. There is not enough urgency from House leadership to get this bill voted on, passed, and implemented.
Additionally, many people I talk to about the HYA are shocked to learn that this kind of legislation is not already in place. People expect better of our state and education system—especially given our state's history as a leader in education, banning conversion therapy, legalizing same sex marriage, and passing protections for trans folks. Many folks don't know and are shocked to learn that our young people aren't receiving inclusive, medically accurate and consent based education in every Massachusetts school.
We can't understate the significance delaying this bill has had on our young people and communities. Despite the overwhelming support for sex ed across the state, an entire generation of students has gone through our school system since the Healthy Youth Act was first introduced. Another way to think about this: if this legislation were a person, it'd be old enough to start high school soon!
PP: What's the timeline like on the HYA? When is it up for consideration?
LN: Massachusetts has 2-year legislative sessions and every single bill filed (all 6,000+ of them!) gets a public hearing.
The Joint Committee on Education recently held this session's public hearing on H.544/S.268 (An Act Relative to Healthy Youth) on October 11th. Over 50 advocates attended in person and even more joined virtually. We heard from many incredible young people, educators, parents, health care professionals, sexual and domestic violence prevention experts, faith leaders, and more in support of HYA.
Now we wait for the Joint Committee on Education to report the bill out, hopefully favorably (which they've done before!) so that we can continue our advocacy and work to bring the bill to the Senate and House floors for a vote. The Education Committee will decide whether or not to report HYA out favorably by early February. We then would have until the end of July for the bill to be voted on in both chambers.
PP: Does it look like there is a good chance of it passing? Is anything being done differently this time to prevent it from being shot down again?
LN: Our Coalition is doing an amazing job of keeping the attention and pressure on. Our advocacy helped inspire the Governor to release a new draft of the state's health education framework over the summer, which the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted in September. This is the first time the framework has been updated in 24 years and accomplishes a major aim of the HYA.
Our work is now helping the legislature understand why the bill is still needed:
People in MA want to see comprehensive and inclusive education! The HYA ensures that the new education frameworks are the minimum standards and not merely guidelines.
It should be an easy lift, we know there is support for this bill and there has been for over a decade. We're hopeful that this is our session!
PP: How can people in Massachusetts support the HYA?
LN: So many ways!
PP: Where can people get HYA updates?
LN: Folks can keep up with the Healthy Youth Coalition following us on Instagram, Facebook, X, and TikTok at @healthyyouthma.
You can also sign up for action alerts on our website healthyyouthact.org.
Learn more about sex ed in Massachusetts!
Introduction and questions by Nicole Mazzeo. Nicole is a sex and consent educator, zine maker, and founder of Pleasure Pie. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.