Mallory Tomlinson and her family are waiting until the night of the Chilliwack school board election on Oct. 20 to decide whether they need to leave town.
The mother of two elementary-school aged children, one of whom is transgender, is worried about the election of the so-called “hate slate”: five of the 17 trustee candidates vying for seven seats who are vocally against the use of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) policy and teaching materials, more commonly known as SOGI 123, in their district. (For more about what SOGI 123 covers, see top sidebar.)
“If they get in, I don’t think we’ll be staying,” said Tomlinson. The family lives across the road from the Chilliwack school district offices, where rallies both for and against SOGI materials have been held since fall 2017.
That’s when incumbent trustee Barry Neufeld published his incendiary Facebook post against SOGI 123 lesson plans used in district schools, mislabeling them as curriculum and saying that “allowing little children to choose their gender is nothing short of child abuse.”
Curriculum, which is established and mandated by the province, dictates prescribed learning outcomes for each course and grade offered in British Columbia. Whereas lesson plans like those aggregated on the SOGI 123 website are optional class plans for helping teachers reach these prescribed learning outcomes. And whether or not school trustees have the power to dictate to teachers what resources they use is unclear enough that it likely would need to be settled by a court case (see second sidebar).
Still, despite other pressing issues in a district with overflowing enrollment, SOGI 123 has turned into the defining fight of the Chilliwack school board race, dividing the community and raising anxieties.
The Tyee reached out to the five candidates opposed to SOGI 123, including incumbent Neufeld and former teacher Erma Vietorisz, who did not respond by press time.
The three candidates The Tyee did speak to — Darrell Furgason, incumbent trustee Heather Maahs, and Kaethe Jones — deny their opposition has anything to do with hate or not supporting trans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and two spirited students.
“I do not hate people who are part of the LGBTQ community or who are transgendered,” said Jones, a retired special education teacher.
“But I believe that is something between the child and their parents. They need to go to a professional to deal with this. I don’t think you need to bring that into the classroom and teach everybody about it. I think you can teach respect for all kinds of children, and you don’t have to bring all the sex ed into it.”
‘The twisted things I’m hearing’
Since their son began openly living as a boy, Tomlinson and her husband have been called child abusers by a neighbour both online and in person.
Accusations of “child abuse” regarding the implementation of SOGI 123 are a frequent line from many anti-SOGI campaigners in the community, who Tomlinson says hold up posters on overpasses and hand out flyers.
Tomlinson, a peer facilitator for the Chilliwack Gender Support Network helping trans kids, adults and families in the region, has been attending the pro-SOGI 123 rallies in the district with her children since fall 2017. Tomlinson doesn’t expose her kids to the anti-SOGI rallies, but they know about the opposition.
Tomlinson told The Tyee her son “takes it at face value: he knows these people are wrong, he knows what they’re spreading is wrong.” Nevertheless, she’s concerned about the anti-SOGI message her son is being exposed to out in the community: “It just really sucks. It kills me.”
Five of the current seven members on the Chilliwack school board released a letter last January in support of SOGI 123, and called on Neufeld to resign the next day.
But Tomlinson blames the school district for not sending out information to parents explaining that SOGI 123 is about recognizing and respecting a diversity of gender identities and sexual orientations to prevent bullying and help LGBTQ2S+ students feel safe in schools.
Instead, in absence of communication and education from the district, parents and community members have been conducting their own research, which she says results in a lot of misinformation.
“The twisted things that I’m hearing that people think SOGI 123 is teaching, it’s just astounding. People think that kids are being taught about anal sex,” she said.
There are no mentions of sexual health, sexual education or anal sex on the SOGI 123 website. BC Teachers’ Federation President Glen Hansman notes that the SOGI 123 site came online in the fall of 2016, but there have been no substantive changes to the provincial sexual health curriculum since 2006. Sex ed lesson plans are also available on the teachers’ union’s Teach BC website, although teachers are not required to upload their own lesson plans to the site.
If parents are concerned about what their children are learning in class, however, Hansman advises them to talk to their teachers. “Every teacher is going to do things in a completely different way,” he said.
Elizabeth Beacom, a transgender woman and mother of two children in the district, adds, “There is nothing inherently sexual about sexual orientation or gender identity. Especially for kids who may be gay or lesbian, that attraction is no different than another child’s level of interest in terms of ‘I think that boy’s cute’ or ‘I want to hang out with that girl.’”
‘Kids are not guinea pigs’
Trustee candidates Furgason, Maah and Jones told The Tyee they are running on platforms that prioritize academics.
In Furgason’s case, he’s concerned about the lower test scores and graduation rates of boys compared to girls. Maah talks about the poor math and reading scores of the district’s middle school children, which she says are below the provincial average.
Jones wants to implement recommendations from a 2013 report on improving special education services in the district and hire more teachers on call.
But their campaigns also focus on their opposition to the SOGI 123 materials.
“This has no realm in the hands of teachers who aren’t qualified to be teaching non-scientific or morally bankrupt views outside of parental concerns. So I want inclusivity, alright, but I want everybody’s views understood,” said Furgason, director of Christian education groups Worldview Studies Center and the local chapter of Summit Ministries.
“Let’s ask the Muslims and Sikhs what they think about this genderism.”
Furgason, who has a PhD in Religious studies, has a three part-lecture series “Understanding the Challenge of Islam” for sale via the Worldview Studies Center website, which focuses on “showing that Islam has never been a religion of peace, and that it produces terrorism and violence as a result of Mohamed's commands for his followers to be involved in Jihad.” In fact, study after study has debunked that characterization.
Furgason is also director of the Chilliwack branch of Summit Ministries, whose 2016/17 board of directors included incumbent candidate Maah.
Maah says SOGI 123 advocates a particular lifestyle that is against the values and morals of many parents in the district. But also she maintains it isn’t based on peer-reviewed studies.
“We don’t know what the long-term effect of presenting all these gender options to students are,” she said. “Kids are not guinea pigs.”
But Hansman and others The Tyee spoke to, including Elizabeth Saewyc, professor and director of UBC’s School of Nursing and executive director of the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre, say many of the materials backing up the SOGI 123 materials are peer reviewed and evidence-based.
“There actually is a body of research on this specific topic and the need to ensure that all students, including LGBTQ youth, have safe and inclusive school environments,” Hansman said.
This includes a report from McCreary Centre Society and Stigma & Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre on the evidence surrounding school-based interventions aimed at reducing health inequalities for LGBTQ2S+ youth, which says evidence from other studies shows the mental health of all youth, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender, improves with the presence of school-based interventions.
And a 2011 national survey of Canadian high school students on homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in schools, conducted by EGALE Canada and researchers from the University of Winnipeg.
Hansman adds that no lesson plans in the province are peer reviewed: “I think people are imagining that there is some sort of consortium or a panel out there that adjudicates teachers’ lesson plans, and there isn’t,” he said, adding teachers are trained in pedagogy and how to work with the age-levels they specialize in.
Jones, who previously served as a BCTF union rep, says she was completely unaware of SOGI 123 until trustee Neufeld’s post last year.
“Since then I have done research online and discovered a few things about the resource,” she said. “Early on they talk about gay and lesbians, they talk about two mummies, two daddies, and they don’t mention that there could be a family that has a mother and a father.”
The SOGI 123 website disputes this, saying “SOGI 1 2 3 provides tools and resources for creating a welcoming, inclusive environment for ALL students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
A Google away
All three candidates maintain parents are excluded from decisions about whether SOGI is used, that they weren’t consulted.
“Another one of my platforms is parents’ rights,” said Furgason. “Parents have been excluded — if you look at the sex ed class and the SOGI platform — parents are not to be told if a child expresses a point of view about male or female and the teacher happens to be pro-SOGI.”
But Tomlinson disputes this, pointing out that the SOGI 123 lesson plans are online for parents to see.
“SOGI 123 won’t change any kids’ minds about their sexuality or gender identity — kids are smart and some books or lesson plans aren’t going to be enough to change a child’s sexuality or gender identity— but it will help those who feel anxious about their safety and well-being at school to feel better,” she said.
When asked how they would respond to LGBTQ2S+ students or their parents who say opposition to SOGI makes them feel unsafe, the candidates against SOGI 123 had reactions ranging from “that would make me very sad” from Maah, to Furgason, who dismissed the question as a hypothetical.
“We don’t know this demographic, that’s hypothetical, we don’t know these people. And from talking to them and seeing them at rallies — all humans are insecure at some time in their life,” he said.
Furgason added that transgender people are like those with anorexia in that it is a psychological disorder. However, the American Psychiatric Association, which produces the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that defines gender dysphoria, which had previously been defined as “gender identity disorder,” denies that it is a disorder.
“Part of removing stigma is about choosing the right words. Replacing ‘disorder’ with ‘dysphoria’ in the diagnostic label is not only more appropriate and consistent with familiar clinical sexology terminology, it also removes the connotation that the patient is ‘disordered,’” reads a fact-sheet from the American Psychiatric Association.
Furgason also argues that transgender people are such a minority in Chilliwack the attention afforded them is unwarranted.
“Where are these people? How many of them live in my town and go to these schools? Less than one per cent,” said Furgason.
Data from the 2013 BC Adolescent Youth Survey conducted by the McCreary Centre Society did find less than one per cent of youth surveyed in the province identified as transgender. The report on Fraser East, which includes Chilliwack, Abbotsford, and Fraser Cascade school districts, found so few trans students the number was too small to report.
However, SOGI 123 materials also focus on sexual orientation, and 19 per cent of youth province-wide and 17 per cent in Fraser East identified as non-heterosexual in 2013. It’s worth noting that 2013 was the first year the survey asked students if they identified as transgender or two-spirited, and the 2013 report states students were less likely to report identifying as “completely straight” that year versus the surveys in 2008 and 2003. The results of the 2018 survey are expected next year.
‘You’re on one side or the other’
Neufeld’s attacks on SOGI 123 have ignited reaction beyond Chilliwack’s borders. Education Minister Rob Fleming has called on the incumbent trustee to step down, while the BC Teachers’ Federation and CUPE local 411 have filed a human rights complaint against Neufeld.
Beacom believes it is unlikely a majority of trustees elected next month will be anti-SOGI 123. Nor does she feel unsafe living in Chilliwack, but acknowledges she is likely in the minority among the local transgender community.
“I feel like they would probably say they don’t feel like they have that same level of assurance of their safety,” she said, adding beyond the anti-SOGI and transphobic flyers handed out in the community, and the online comments that “borderline on what I would consider to be threatening,” she hasn’t heard of incidents where someone’s safety has been compromised.
Tomlinson does feel her family is unsafe in the face of SOGI 123 opposition. She calls the anti-SOGI 123 demonstrations in the Lower Mainland “hate rallies,” noting that members of the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigration group, have attended, and that one organizer invited the Hells Angels to participate.
“It has really divided the city between pro and anti,” she said. “Either you’re on one side or the other, and [there] doesn’t seem to be an in-between.”