High school senior KC Miller wrote the Pennsylvania Healthy Youth Act to advocate for comprehensive sex ed in his state, and after garnering support from grassroots organizations, he plans to take it to the Pennsylvania legislature.
Like many 17-year-olds, KC Miller is wrapping up his senior year of high school and applying to colleges. Unlike most teens his age, he's also running his own non-profit. Miller is the president and founder of the Keystone Coalition for Advancing Sex Education (CASE), a grassroots organization advocating comprehensive, LGBTQ-inclusive sex education in Pennsylvania schools.
Pennsylvania's sex education guidelines don't require schools to teach anything other than HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases. Miller believes it's time for new standards that take current research on adolescent sexual health and wellness into account. Toward that end, he drafted the Pennsylvania Healthy Youth Act. The legislation, based on the California Healthy Youth Act that became law in 2015, requires schools to provide instruction on sexual orientation, contraception, intimate partner violence, and sexual harassment.
Miller has already received widespread recognition for his work. In August, he received the Young Heroes Award from the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, which honors young people who have made a positive impact on their communities. RuPaul's Drag Race runner-up Miss Peppermint has even met with him and endorsed his organization.
How did a 17-year-old at a small Quaker school end up in the middle of a controversial issue that many adults—especially politicians—won't even discuss? Broadly spoke to Miller about why he started Keystone CASE and where he sees the movement for inclusive sex ed going.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
BROADLY: What inspired you to get involved with the issue of sex education in schools?
KC MILLER: The raw, unfiltered stories of others inspire me to fight for what I believe in. When I learned the stories of women—my best friends—who had experienced sexual violence, I was horrified, to say the least. But their stories awoke the activist inside me. I knew it would be impossible to magically make their pain disappear, but I realized—in my own way—I could help prevent future assaults through activism.
Advancing sex education in schools to talk about sexual assault, consent, and safe sex are all ways we can educate people and deter sexual violence. As a gay student, I feel particularly motivated because I saw firsthand how these programs fail to help LGBTQ+ people. We're neglecting the queer community, and they deserve inclusive and comprehensive sex education just like everyone else. In the end, I simply want to empower people with the tools to keep their bodies happy, safe, and healthy.
Tell us about Keystone CASE's primary objectives.
One of our main goals is to connect with local advocacy organizations to obtain endorsements for our mission to advance sex education and enact the Pennsylvania Healthy Youth Act. Then we want to take this grassroots support to the Pennsylvania legislature. They can easily dismiss a 17-year-old queer high school student trying to change sex education legislation, but I'd like to see them dismiss a network of grassroots organizations who stand behind me.
Apart from legislation, we are focused on community outreach to gain public support for our initiatives and spread awareness about reproductive issues. Part of our mission is taking action on issues involving women's rights, LGBTQ+ equality, health care, reproductive rights, and more.
What about other organizations? Any others joining your efforts?
Our coalition is a volunteer-powered organization, and I have the most amazing volunteers, but I'm always looking for new people to get involved. Recently, SASS (Sexual Assault Survivors & Supporters) became the first organization to endorse my legislation, so I'm working with their leadership to build a lasting partnership.
I'm also assembling a Board of Directors that will include parents, activists, students, health professionals, and educators whose names and stories will be revealed in January 2018. And we're taking nominations!
How about politicians?
They are notably absent from our movement, and it really surprises me given the overwhelming support comprehensive sex education has from voters. I think a lot of politicians see this as a fight that will require a lot of work and isolate religious conservatives. They're afraid of controversy or backlash because in America, anything remotely related to sex is taboo—unless, of course, we're talking about the advertising industry, which exploits sex to sell.
My message to lawmakers is simple: Get involved now. Abstinence-only and abstinence-based programs are a public health crisis. We've got to act now and equip our youth with knowledge about their bodies to stay safe. I hope politicians start taking more initiative and reaching out to organizations like Keystone, because soon, I'll be bringing our grassroots power to them. And if they aren't interested in working with us, we'll take our grassroots power to the polls.
"[Politicians] are afraid of controversy or backlash because in America, anything remotely related to sex is taboo."
What do you see next for the organization and for yourself?
After we successfully enact comprehensive sex education in Pennsylvania, we will start reaching out to other states. California has had huge success with this type of legislation, and we're hoping to expand upon that across the country. The health of our youth is literally in danger, so we need to address this issue with urgency.
As for myself, I'm applying to a few different programs, but my main goal is to get into University of Pennsylvania's Nursing School. Nursing brings a very practical element to these issues.
Surely, with such a controversial issue, you've had some pushback.
The far-right political sphere has been my biggest challenge. They are a vocal minority who claims comprehensive and inclusive sex education encourages sexual activity among youth. Their claim is flat-out wrong, and they advocate for abstinence-based programs, which have been shown to be totally ineffective in a Congress-authorized study on four popular abstinence programs in 2007.
I'll admit, I'm confused by deeply religious folks opposed to abortion and also against comprehensive sex education. Our programs would effectively lower the abortion rate by preventing unintended pregnancy from the start. It's baffling that these people aren't on the front lines of comprehensive sex education with us.
What advice would you give to others, especially teens like yourself, about getting involved in these kinds of issues?
I want other activists and young people to know the strength we hold in numbers. Far too often, leaders and organizations race to the top. Activism is not about competition or personal gain. When we're juggling political and social issues, there is no room for "turf wars." Partner with as many people as possible. Talk to your family, friends, and neighbors. Change will only come if we work together and collectively strengthen each other's missions because injustice is intersectional and interconnected.