Miranda Uog was raised by her grandparents, Cambodian refugees who shunned any mention of dating and wanted her to earn a college degree before having a boyfriend. Her own mother entered into an arranged marriage as a teenager and gave birth to Miranda at age 16. Her parents’ marriage ended in divorce, rupturing the family so badly that Miranda and her two younger sisters spent their formative years without any parental contact.
Growing up in the care of her grandparents felt suffocating at times. Describing them as “very, very traditional,” she explained that their discomfort with discussing anything sex-related left her in the dark about such topics. “I always had questions, but…those were pushed away and left unanswered,” she said.
Miranda’s limited ability to speak their native tongue also represented a problem. Although she could understand her grandparents, she admitted that “I don’t know how to say certain words,” hampering any “legitimate conversation” about the birds and the bees. By simply uttering “pregnant” in Cambodian, she might accidentally provoke an alarmed interrogation about her own condition.
So when a friend actually became pregnant in sixth grade, Miranda kept the news to herself, despite her bewilderment about what caused her friend’s belly to begin swelling in the first place. And later, when another friend enlisted her help in procuring an abortion, she kept that to herself as well, even though they had trouble locating a clinic and could have benefited from adult advice.
Not only did Miranda lack the guidance of a family elder while navigating the rocky terrain of puberty, but once she got to high school, the curriculum seemed similarly unsupportive. No dedicated sex education class existed; instead, guest lecturers covered the topic in a motley course called “Social Living” offered only to seniors. By the time she reached her final year, however, she had already delved into a rich and relevant learning experience elsewhere, joining fellow teenagers interested in shedding light on sensitive matters.
The opportunity came via the nonprofit Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice — which since then changed its name to Forward Together — based in Miranda’s hometown of Oakland, California. To date, more than 100 young women across the city have gravitated to the organization; most are public school kids from low-income households representing Chinese or Southeast Asian ethnicities. They come for workshops about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and family planning, as well as relationships, body image, gender roles, and sexual orientation. These sessions regularly feature illuminating presentations from a wide assortment of experts, conveying lessons ranging from the pragmatic to the theoretical. Often, the workshops frame issues through the lens of race and culture — deconstructing demeaning stereotypes about Asian subservience, for example, or scrutinizing the double-standard some immigrant parents impose on their sons and daughters’ dating habits. Also, in exercises meant to broaden their horizons and prepare them for adulthood, participants have the chance to bond with one another — swapping stories, building camaraderie, and collaborating on creative projects.
Miranda spent the last three years engaged in this programming, which profoundly affected her. “It really opened my eyes,” the 19-year-old testified. “I learned that you have options and resources, you have people to talk to.”
Now equipped with so much useful information, she wants to aid those who face her former dilemma — like her siblings, for instance. “Because I’m the oldest of three girls, I feel like it’s my responsibility to be that person that my sisters can go to for if they had a problem or questions about anything,” she said.
Miranda isn’t the only Forward Together participant to embrace this attitude. Chay Tadeo, a 18-year-old senior who came to the organization a year and a half ago, has started exporting aspects of its programming to her high school. Selecting activities focused primarily on gender and sexuality, she restages them at Queer-Straight Alliance, an extracurricular campus group that she coordinates. Group members regularly congregate during lunch hour to contemplate identity, stereotypes, and self-expression by holding discussions, watching videos, and playing games. They’ve also mobilized for events such as Transgender Day of Remembrance and the Gay-Straight Alliance Network’s Youth Empowerment Summit.
Like Miranda, Chay found something at Forward Together she was missing — in her case, a nurturing environment that welcomed her lifestyle. For most of the first three years of high school, she had been in a relationship with another female student, but the romance was rocky due to external pressures. The couple endured rude comments from strangers on the street, but the real difficulty arose from the fact that her girlfriend’s traditional Chinese family had no tolerance for homosexuality. Her girlfriend’s sisters even threatened physical violence as punishment for any such tendencies.
Chay never divulged the relationship to her own parents, either. Her elderly Filipino father prefers to speak Tagalog, which she cannot, and his struggles with memory loss further impair their ability to communicate. Her deeply religious Mexican mother has always shown disdain for all things gay, labeling them “disgusting,” “weird,” and “unnatural.” Eventually, Chay hopes to come out to her parents. Considering the extreme tension that would cause, however, she’s decided to wait, perhaps until she’s back in another relationship.
In the meantime, Forward Together has buoyed her, furnishing a safe space for her to openly exchange ideas, opinions, reflections, and confessions with sympathetic peers. A staffer at the organization has mentored Chay, introducing her to lesbian API activists who publish the zine MOONROOT, and assisting her with Queer-Straight Alliance planning.
The organization recently sought to expand its impact by recruiting young men into its ranks, and by launching a citywide advocacy campaign called “Sex Ed the City” that seeks improvement of the Oakland Unified School District’s sex education curriculum. The campaign is being driven by Forward Together youth who wish to help Oakland students avoid the kind of hardships Chay and Miranda dealt with in the past.
The endeavor took shape last spring, as program participants began researching what Oakland students thought about the sex education they were getting and how they might like to change it. Forward Together youth surveyed nearly 500 high school students and facilitated five focus groups. The surveys revealed that 62 percent of respondents had actually received no sex education instruction at all for the year, and that 64 percent wanted to study the subject more than they had (in contrast to only 5 percent who indicated they would have preferred to study it less).
On the whole, results highlighted significant shortcomings in how the district has been serving the needs of its students. Asian Americans seem most likely to suffer from this, given that the surveys confirmed they often don’t get equivalent guidance at home. Forty percent of Asian American survey respondents indicated their guardians did not talk to them at all about sex, a much higher proportion than their Latino and African American counterparts (24 percent and 18 percent, respectively).
Forward Together youth compiled the survey results into a 22-page report that offers numerous recommendations for what the district can do better. This entails classrooms where students can access the information necessary to make healthy choices about their behaviors, bodies, and relationships. Emphasizing inclusivity, the vision outlines a curriculum relevant to the full range of ethnic backgrounds, gender identifications, and sexual orientations, as well as to English language learners and the disabled.
“Right now sex education is just condom, banana, birth control, pregnancy,” Miranda lamented about the subject’s narrow framing in Oakland schools. “It’s not comprehensive at all.”
As they strive to remedy the situation, Forward Together youth hope their report will convince district officials to consider policy reforms. They have already presented the report in meetings with a number of school board members, such as Roseann Torres, who concurred with their findings.
“The curriculum is not carried out consistently,” she said. “A lot of things are so outdated, and need to be brought up to current standards.”
How that could happen remains unclear. Torres explained that the district already has a great deal of energy and money tied up in a separate math and language arts curriculum overhaul, in accordance with the national Common Core State Standards initiative. Attempting to simultaneously revamp sex education would be overwhelming and prohibitively expensive. As an alternative, Torres proposed the idea of outsourcing lesson plans, inviting established organizations into Oakland schools to teach seminars on the subject.
Until some kind of major shift happens, students will continue to face excessive risk, according to Amanda Wake, a youth organizing manager with Forward Together. “This is a big problem,” she said, “especially in a city where there are really high rates of STDs, and also there’s high rates of teen pregnancy, and there’s so many sexually active young people.”
For now, young people like Miranda and Chay are taking on a vocal role in raising awareness.
Alec MacDonald is a writer and editor who lives in Oakland.