Friday, September 30

Queer sex educator fired from Ohio Department of Health for inclusive sex ed outreach

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When Jessica Warner got a job three years ago at the Ohio Department of Health in the newly formed Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) division as a sexual health educator, she thought she’d landed her dream job. 

Warner is passionate about teaching scientifically sound, inclusive, culturally appropriate, pleasure-focused sex education, and getting to do that at the state level – after spending the prior four years in public health at the county level – was a big step up in her career. 

“I was hired by ODH to create the first STI prevention training program for the state,” Warner said of her position in the STI division, which didn’t exist until a few years ago. Before that, the only STI/STD that was addressed at the state level was HIV/AIDS. 

The dream was short-lived as the queer sex educator was fired in June, during the middle of Pride Month. She says the reason for her firing was simply doing the job she was hired to do. 

“The thought was that they should hire someone to train providers, like doctors and local health departments,” Warner said. “But my job kept shifting because nothing was getting approved, ever, even before the pandemic.”

Because she felt the Communications department was dragging their feet on the messaging approval process, Warner started a newsletter about STI prevention that went out to clinics and other healthcare facilities that receive ODH funds. 

The non-public-facing newsletter included awareness days (such as Honor Our LGBT Elders Day and National Masturbation Month), grant opportunities (ranging from funds for mifepristone to abstinence-only classes), and statistics about Ohio’s STI rates — which are currently on the rise, particularly for syphilis. 

Though Warner received positive feedback from newsletter recipients, it was frowned upon at ODH and ultimately led to her firing. 

ODH spokesperson Ken Gordon provided this statement to The Buckeye Flame:

“The investigation confirmed the existence of multiple unvetted newsletters that addressed multiple topics, and that the newsletters had not gone through the proper editorial review prior to release. ODH policies state that all materials must be reviewed in advance of release. Violations of the policies may result in discipline up to and including removal. The investigation of the individual showed that she acknowledged her conduct was ‘intentional,’ and that [Warner] repeatedly circumvented ODH policies.”

Warner contends that she was only doing her job, and that her firing is indicative of systemic issues at ODH. 

Now she’s fighting her termination with arbitration for lost wages and to replenish the retirement funds she was forced to take out early to support her family, backed by the support of SEIU 1199, her union. 

“The Union is filing a grievance on the termination and will process it through the grievance system as outlined by the collective bargaining agreement between the State of Ohio and SEIU District 1199 WV/KY/OH,” Joshua D. Norris, the union’s Executive Vice President, said. 

Frustration with Communication

“We’re done talking about the consequences of an STI infection,” Warner said. “We’re destigmatizing it and we’re trying to use a pleasure-focused model for safer sex. Like, sex can be so great and enjoyable, and what a fabulous lover you are when you’re using condoms.” 

But Warner said the chain of command routinely prevented her from doing the job she was hired to do. 

“Bureaucracy takes forever,” she said. “And with the pandemic, everything had to be online. We spent two years trying to apply for an online training platform and it never got approved. I don’t know if that happens in other programs or not, but everything [the STI division]tried to do was denied.”

When the online training platform request wasn’t granted, she tried pitching a sex education podcast aimed at organizations and healthcare clinics. She also tried pitching a video series for the same audience — nothing public-facing, only materials designed to go to the clinics and healthcare providers that receive funding from ODH. These initiatives, too, were denied. 

Warner became frustrated by the endless red tape and funding rejections , so she settled on a free option.   

“In October 2021, I launched a newsletter on Mailchimp to go out to people who receive [ODH] funds. It had program updates, upcoming webinars, articles in the news, things you should know, stats about syphilis rates, etc.,” Warner said. “We expanded a little each month. We had some regions say they accomplished something cool and asked if we could brag about them, so we’d put it in. It kept expanding and I added more people, like our medication list-serv group. I was involved with the harm reduction program, so I added people from there, along with our HIV case managers. It got up to 436 people.”

The people on the email list were those who worked in the public health and sex education industry, so the newsletter was aimed at a niche group. 

Some of the trainings and webinars Warner included were those she’d made herself, like a training for HIV case managers on how to be more positive-focused and less doom-and-gloom when helping clients. She also created a training on STI basics. 

On May 6, 2022, Warner’s first newsletter went out. 

It included several awareness months for May, including National Masturbation Month, which first began in 1995. The awareness month is in honor of the former Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, a Black woman, who was fired by President Bill Clinton in 1994 for making the case that masturbation should be included in sex ed curricula. 

Documents provided to The Buckeye Flame by Warner show that National Masturbation Month was at the top of the newsletter, followed by syphilis and HIV updates, two areas where Ohio is currently experiencing higher-than-usual outbreaks. The newsletter also featured a list of grants that recipients could apply for. 

The newsletter was distributed on the first Friday of the month and Warner’s team met the Monday beforehand to discuss content. In the intervening days, Warner said it was not uncommon for more items to be added as info became available. 

Between Monday, May 2, and Friday, May 6, when the newsletter in question went out, several items were added. 

One of Warner’s coworkers added info about medication programs and Warner added info about ExPAND Mifepristone, a program through the Department of Family Medicine at The University of Chicago. In an effort to include as many opportunities as possible, Warner placed the ExPAND Mifepristone mention alongside an abstinence-only grant. 

Within an hour of the newsletter being sent, ODH expressed their displeasure. 

“I got called and told that I need to take that [ExPAND Mifepristone grant] out,” Warner said. “There was also a webinar on harm reduction, sex workers, and abortion from another national healthcare organization and I had to take that out too. So I issued a ‘correction’ and removed it.”

A short while later, Warner said she was told that a health commissioner called and complained to ODH Communications. 

“ODH would not identify or say who [the health commissioner was]or give any evidence that this person actually contacted ODH,” Warner said. Both she and her union rep, Chris Binder, have been trying to get this information from ODH without success. 

On May 9, Warner said things got worse. She was told to stop work and cancel any upcoming trainings.

Warner was called into a meeting with a representative and asked to explain herself regarding the “controversial” content. 

“[The investigation meeting] focused a lot on the abortion part and the masturbation part, but she also wanted to know why I included other ‘controversial’ things like Black women’s reproductive cancers, National Condom Month, National Honor Our LGBT Elders Day, and Pansexual and Panromantic Awareness and Visibility Day,” Warner said. “They were asking, ‘Why are you talking about this with STIs?’ and I was like, ‘Because how do you think you get STIs?’ Sex is part of it, so your sexuality is part of it.” 

When asked by The Buckeye Flame about ODH policies that might prevent recognition of celebrations like National Condom Month or National Honor our LGBT Elders Day, Gordon declined to answer. 

Abortion Aversion 

Warner, alongside her union rep, began asking questions about the items HR had deemed controversial.  

“Where’s the policy that says I can’t talk about this stuff?” Warner said. “Where is the policy on abortion? I can’t find anything and [the union rep]can’t find any policies I’ve signed that say I can’t talk about this.”

“There is no ODH policy on abortion,” Gordon told The Buckeye Flame in a statement. “But rather an Ohio law — Ohio Revised Code 3701.034 — that prohibits ODH from using funds to promote non-therapeutic abortions. The department is committed to adhering to established law.” 

Warner argues that ODH’s response doesn’t track, as she did not use any department funds for the newsletter — the department used Mailchimp at no cost — and that she was merely highlighting a grant from another institution. 

Queer Health Matters 

In that HR meeting, the ODH staff member returned several times to National Masturbation Month.

“They had a direct quote [in the disciplinary documents]that it went against the mission of ODH, so I said, ‘Can you show me what ODH’s stance is on masturbation?’ They have yet to turn in any evidence in response to me and my union in response to those requests,” Warner said. 

Before Warner was hired, she claims the only sex education work ODH had done before was abstinence-only, an approach that multiple studies have repeatedly shown does not work

Because ODH had little to no sexual health information, particularly as it relates to STIs, Warner was hired to create it.Although she says ODH never explicitly said she could only teach sex education as it pertained to heterosexuals, she said they made their stance clear in other ways. 

“This is on track with other top-down behavior at ODH,” Warner said. “Pride was taken away this year. They said we didn’t have any activities because of the pandemic but Comms shut down the whole division from doing anything. They were going to do a pronouns training and they canceled that and we were told we can’t use words like ‘pronoun’ or ‘advocate.’” 

Actions like these affect ODH employees and in turn, those they serve, Warner said. 

“They can’t keep people of color or gay people on staff,” Warner said. “It’s mostly straight white women. The entire LGBTQ group is white women.”

ODH approved Warner to do the sexual health educator certification program at the University of Michigan, for which they agreed to reimburse Warner for her tuition costs. 

“All the content I was teaching was the content I was learning in an education certification program that ODH approved me to do,” Warner said. 

The questioning in that HR meeting then returned to the topics ODH had deemed controversial — mostly about abortion, but also LGBTQ issues and Black sexual health. 

“They said, ‘You do know this is against ODH’s mission.’ I said no, I just know we can’t work with Planned Parenthood. They said ‘Why?’ and I said because politicians’ ignorance is impacting healthcare access for Ohioans,” Warner said. 

One of the few things that did get approved for Warner to buy was $500 worth of textbooks and other educational materials from PP. 

ODH wanted to discipline Warner for her comments about politicians’ ignorance. 

“It was a part of my violation sheet,” Warner began. “I told them that was a violation of my first amendment rights as a public government employee. They said I showed contempt and disrespect for politicians and I said you can’t tell me that I can’t say that unless you can show me a policy that says I can’t talk crap about politicians.”

Bad Vibrations

Last December the National Coalition of STD Directors sent out an email about vibrator donations, which Warner and her boss both received. 

“I said, ‘That’s cool, let’s look into it. My boss asked how many [vibrators]we wanted and I said 400. So we got 400 of them donated and we needed to come up with an idea of what to do with them,” Warner began. “May is National Masturbation Month, so I created a training about using masturbation as an STI prevention technique. It’s backed by a lot of evidence. 

“Maybe they’re a newly [STI] diagnosed individual and this is a way to help them get in touch with their body and get comfortable and feel safe again before exploring with others. Maybe it’s mutual masturbation where you’re together but not engaging in penetration,” Warner added. “Or, encouraging people, if they are making risky decisions, maybe masturbate before you go out with the hookup; do you still feel like it after?”

Warner’s training focused on counseling techniques, which would go out to local health department HIV testers, along with the vibrators, to distribute however they saw fit.

But none of that ever happened. 

During her investigation, ODH went through Warner’s emails and were not pleased about the vibrators. 

“I told them my plan and [the HR representative]was like, ‘Do you feel like this is a violation of ethics?’ and I said no. I came from county-level [department of health]and we got donations to give out to communities all the time. Trojan [Condoms] can give you a donation, so you give it out. That’s it,” Warner said.  

“They were trying to say that the vibrators were a violation of ethics laws for receiving gifts. You can’t receive gift donations as a public state employee and how many vibrators we had times the total cost, it was like $5,000. So they’re saying we received $5,000 in gifts,” Warner said. “They were in [Warner’s boss] garage because there was nowhere to put 400 vibrators.”

However, as any emails ODH found regarding the vibrators would have indicated, the vibrators were acquired with the intention to distribute them alongside a masturbation training, which ODH would not allow the STI division to see fulfilled — not for the division’s personal use. 

Mission Failure

Because Warner said ODH’s mission was repeatedly mentioned in her investigation and HR claimed Warner’s actions went against it, Warner challenged them on that as well. 

Warner came prepared in her rebuttal. 

“I provided a list of sources for everything I do from evidence-based scholarly journals,” Warner said. “They kept saying I violated their mission statement, which is about providing evidence-based, data-driven information that also combats health disparities and inequities. Everything that I do does that.” 

Per ODH’s website on the About Us page, their mission is as follows:

“The Ohio Department of Health’s mission is advancing the health and well-being of all Ohioans by transforming the state’s public health system through unique partnerships and funding streams; addressing the community conditions and inequities that lead to disparities in health outcomes; and implementing data-driven, evidence-based solutions.”

Warner’s second meeting with HR took place on Tuesday, June 14. 

On Thursday, June 16, HR called after Warner was clocked out and told her to come in for another meeting the next day at 9:00 a.m. The short notice left Warner scrambling to ensure her union rep could attend. 

In that meeting, Warner was handed termination paperwork. 

According to documents provided to The Buckeye Flame, what were originally four counts of policy violations had been reduced to one after Warner turned in her list of sources for her work. 

The policy violation ODH used to fire Warner was: “Any act of dishonesty or conduct that may discredit or embarrass the employer or interfere with the mission of ODH.” 

“[The HR representative] made a point to say, ‘You are blacklisted. You are not on good terms with the state and we’re going to put that in your documents,’” Warner said. 

Within two hours of her termination, Warner called the office of unemployment because she has three children to support. 

“I’ve never done unemployment before and I asked, ‘If they fight it, what happens?’ And [the person from the unemployment office who was assisting Warner]was like, ‘Oh, there’s already a note in here about your termination,’” Warner said. “I don’t know what a normal process is, like whether employers call immediately, but it felt like they were after me and were going to make it harder for me to find other work or get paid.”

Fired without just cause

After reviewing ODH’s claims and Warner’s termination paperwork, the unemployment arm of Ohio Job and Family Services determined that Warner was terminated without just cause, certifying that she is eligible for unemployment benefits despite ODH’s efforts. 

“It seems like a setup,” Warner said. “I’m supposed to go through the chain of command if something’s not going well or I need help of any kind, but no manager is allowed to join a union or they could be immediately fired. So then how does that help me if my higher-ups can be immediately fired for supporting me?” 

While Warner’s union rep appears hopeful that he could get Warner her job back, she no longer wants it — citing systemic problems at ODH that negatively impact the health outcomes of the state’s most vulnerable and least protected communities. 

“I feel lost now. I had to drop out of my program at the University of Michigan. ODH was supposed to reimburse me but to graduate, you have to have a certain amount of teaching hours. If my job teaching sex ed was gone, I couldn’t graduate,” Warner said. “It was a certification that would’ve been $6,000 out of my pocket. I’ve already paid $2,000, so I guess I’ve just lost that. I thought this was my future, so I let all my other degrees and licenses lapse. I have a nursing license and a lactation license.”

These experiences with ODH, and similar attitudes at county-level public health where Warner worked prior to ODH, have left her feeling disillusioned with government health institutions. As she is pursuing wrongful termination arbitration against ODH, Warner’s dream of teaching sex ed remains fully intact. 

“Not talking about sex, or only talking about sex with a negative or traumatic light, causes a lot of harm to us. My collective contribution to our society is to help guide folks to have a more pleasurable existence,” Warner said. “I’m dedicated to this cause, I’m good at it, and I hope to continue this journey in my life and career going forward.” 🔥

About Author

Mandy Shunnarah is a nonbinary, bisexual, Palestinian-American writer living in Columbus, Ohio. Their first book, Midwest Shreds: Skaters and Skateparks in Middle America, will be out soon. Read more at mandyshunnarah.com.

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