There are plenty of issues to occupy trustee candidates leading up the Oct. 20 school board elections in British Columbia: an overreliance on portable classrooms; the 104 schools that still need seismic upgrading or replacement plans; bus woes; and, shortages of both French immersion teachers and education assistants for students with special needs.
But the rally held in front of the B.C. Legislature last weekend didn’t call attention to any of those problems. Instead, ralliers gathered in protest of schools using government- and district-approved and endorsed lesson plans, teacher professional development materials, and policy development tools that discuss sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms, collectively known as SOGI 123.
To be clear, SOGI 123 is not curriculum. It is one possible lens teachers are free to use — or not use — to filter the kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum through.
For example, when kindergarten students learn about different kinds of families as per the B.C. curriculum, there are SOGI 123 lesson plans available about some families having two moms or two dads. When students learn about sexual and asexual reproduction in Life Science 11, there’s a SOGI 123 lesson plan available about intersex conditions.
The idea behind SOGI 123 is to promote in schools the inclusion and respect of lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirited, transgender, asexual and other queer students and their families. Studies of similar efforts in the U.S. and Canada have shown benefits to mental health and overall wellbeing for straight, queer and trans students.
But the use of SOGI 123 materials has divided communities and confused a lot of people who fear the materials will undermine their families’ beliefs and values, teach their children about age-inappropriate sex acts, or even convince their kids to switch genders. (None of this is true).
Several dozen trustee incumbents and candidates in the Lower Mainland alone have included their opposition to SOGI 123 in their platforms, though some of have been less explicit, saying vaguely that the materials violate parents’ rights.
And some have expressed it as their sole issue; one candidate in Burnaby wrote just one line in his candidate profile: “A dad of a three-year-old boy who is very concerned with sex education in school.”
SOGI 123 is not the same as sex education though it is often confused with it because of the discussion and acknowledgment of different sexual orientations.
Yet the backlash to SOGI 123 is very similar to that which followed the 2015 update to Ontario’s sexual health curriculum: rallies held in front of the provincial legislature, rampant misinformation about what the materials covered, and political platforms — albeit on a provincial, not municipal scale — that endorsed rolling back the changes, which is what recently elected Premier Doug Ford has done.
But there were (and are) Ontario parents and educators in favour of the updated sex-ed curriculum, as there are those in B.C. who support SOGI 123 learning materials in schools.
The Tyee spoke with three people who have fought sex-ed misinformation campaigns in Ontario about what advice they would give to those fighting to keep SOGI 123 materials available in schools.
Find your allies
Angela Kennedy, a nurse and practising Catholic, was chair of Toronto Catholic District School Board, Ontario’s largest Catholic school board, two years ago when she famously changed her position from opposing to being in favour of the updated sex-ed curriculum.
While she received both push back and positive reactions from parents, Kennedy’s biggest source of support were her colleagues in healthcare, from the hospital where she worked to the professional associations and unions representing healthcare workers.
“The people in the healthcare sector, they believe in it and they know that scientific facts are really important,” she said.
“Also [in health care] we have experience with actual people who are undergoing sex changes or they need that emotional support as well as the healthcare support on the gender identity side. It’s real for us. These are real people who are genuinely affected and working through gender identity.”
Students are another source of support, Kennedy added. Over 40,000 high school students in Ontario staged a walkout last month to protest of the planned rollback of the updated sex-ed curriculum, a move that made national news.
Religious organizations have also proved to be valuable allies for sex-ed and the inclusions of people of different sexual orientations and gender identities. “It’s just to find those people and to have someone give a voice to it. That’s the difficult part because they’re silent,” Kennedy said.
It is possible to roll out comprehensive sexual health resources successfully if you reach out to community members in advance, build strong relationships, and give communities some say, added Rabea Murtaza. A community advocate and Muslim parent who advocates for Ontario’s updated sex-ed curriculum, Murtaza said parents accept the information when it comes from people they know and trust.
“I heard through the grapevine in the [Greater Toronto Area] there was a South Asian Muslim auntie who was not a community worker at all but happened to have a care and interest in [the sex-ed issue], who was knocking on doors and explaining it to people and bringing it up at parties. That’s exactly what we need — finding the people like that and supporting them.”
Murtaza described successful programs where organizations working in sexual health education — for example, Planned Parenthood — hire outreach workers and recruit diverse advisory boards which include parents from communities who might be resistant to material about sexual health education and gender identity.
“It just requires that kind of pounding the pavement, relationship-building kind of work, it seems to me,” Murtaza said.*
Keep it simple
Explaining SOGI 123 is complicated. This is the second Tyee article on the topic, and both required sidebars to fully explain the concept. That needs to change if you want broader support, says Jess O’Reilly, a Toronto-based sexuality counsellor better known by her moniker “Dr. Jess.”
“It would be really useful to release some plain language documents, so for instance, a comparison chart that states some of the alarmist claims in one column, and then in the other column what the [materials] actually say and what that might look like,” she said.
For example, for parents who fear SOGI 123 materials will encourage children to change their gender identity, a response that states SOGI 123 is about the “inclusive representation of the gender spectrum” is meaningless for people unfamiliar with the concept, O’Reilly said.
“It might be helpful just to offer a picture of what that might be, a reminder that you can be assigned male at birth, have a penis, and want to play with dolls,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a much simpler concept than people realize.”
Another option, said O’Reilly, is to follow the work of Nadine Thornhill, a Toronto-based sex educator who since September has been publishing a series of YouTube videos going over what children will learn in school under the updated sex-ed curriculum, so parents can see exactly what would be discussed with their children. So far there are videos on what the different age groups will learn about consent, puberty and anatomy.
“That’s some good advice for schools, to invite parents in and actually host the lesson with them, so that they can see is that what we’re trying to do here is provide accurate information,” said O’Reilly.
“And that we’re trying to equip young people with the tools and skills to, number one, feel confident in their own bodies, two, advocate for their own safety, and to cultivate healthy relationships.”
Parents must take some responsibility
Parents who are concerned about SOGI 123 have options available to them, too. Every person The Tyee spoke to for this article advocated talking to your child’s teachers if you’re worried about what they’re learning in school.
“Develop a relationship with your teacher. Get to know them and you’ll trust them,” Murtaza said.
Kennedy added that parents should take the time to familiarize themselves with the SOGI 123 materials their kids are exposed to in school, as well as the overall curriculum, so they know what’s coming and can prepare for discussions with their child at home.
“Parents have rights and responsibilities, and I think their responsibility is to know what’s in the curriculum, to know what they want their child to know around their religious and family values, and be in touch with the teacher,” Kennedy said, adding that classroom discussions can be followed up with conversations at home about your family values and beliefs.
“It’s a lot of work for parents, but that’s the responsibility that they have for their children.”
Both Kennedy and Murtaza rejected the notion that teaching sex-ed or about sexual orientation and gender identities undermines families’ values and religious freedoms.
Murtaza added there is basis in some majority Muslim countries for respecting and recognizing different gender identities. Like in Pakistan, which recognizes a legal third gender, and Iran where sex reassignment procedures are subsidized by the government.
But the bottom line, said O’Reilly, is that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected under B.C.’s human rights code. Like the hard road to recognizing equal rights for women and people of colour, it’s not about making people comfortable.
“It’s not anybody’s job to make you comfortable,” she said. “There are going to be moments in time where you’re uncomfortable, and sitting in that discomfort is where you grow.”
*Story clarified Oct. 5 at 2:05 p.m.