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Vernon teacher explains what SOGI is, and why it’s needed

‘No one is telling kids to be anything other than what they are’
Protesters and counter-protestors share their polarizing views on the contentious SOGI 123 curriculum at the B.C. Legislature. (Keri Coles/News Staff)

Anti-SOGI protests that took hold throughout B.C. last month begged the question: what exactly is SOGI 123?

Speaking to The Morning Star, a Vernon teacher offered clarification on what the resource is, how it manifests in classrooms and the anti-bullying benefits it produces.

SOGI stands for sexual orientation and gender identity, and as Grade 6/7 teacher and SOGI lead Robyn Ladner explains, it’s not part of the school curriculum. Rather, it is a set of resources and tools that teachers can use when needed to create more inclusive classrooms.

SOGI 123 has been around in B.C. schools since 2016 and has been adopted in all 60 B.C. school districts. SOGI policies and procedures are designed to align with the Canadian Human Rights Code, which protects against discrimination based on gender identity and expression.

So why is SOGI needed?

According to the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (BCCPAC), 19 per cent of B.C. high school students identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or otherwise non-heterosexual, and 42 per cent of LGBTQ+ high school students in the province report being victims of cyberbullying compared to 14 per cent of heterosexual students. In the past 12 months, according to the BCCPAC, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth were seven times more likely than heterosexual youth to attempt suicide.

The Ministry of Education has stated that policies and procedures that explicitly reference SOGI have been proven to reduce discrimination, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts for all students, noting that even heterosexual students experience bullying based on the kinds of homophobic or transphobic ideas that SOGI aims to dispel in youth.

According to the ministry, studies have shown that SOGI anti-bullying policies improve the school environment for both LGBTQ+ students and heterosexual students, reducing discrimination, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts for all students.

“Because homophobia and transphobia can be directed at anyone (e.g., such as a boy wearing a pink shirt being called homophobic slurs), it often has a negative effect on school culture, emotional well-being, and academic success,” reads a SOGI guide from the ministry.

Ladner says one of the primary goals of SOGI is to reduce bullying, and the resource outlines age-appropriate concepts that can help achieve this goal. In elementary school, that can mean encouraging students not to say “that’s so gay.” For older students, inclusive language such as they/them pronouns can be included in math problems, for instance, to help normalize all forms of gender identities.

Some people, including those who took part in last month’s anti-SOGI 1 Million March for Children protest, have expressed beliefs that SOGI pushes students towards becoming transgender, or is pushing content in schools that is inappropriately sexualized.

Ladner says this is far from the reality in schools. In her 31 years as a teacher, only two students have chosen to use they/them pronouns in her schools, and in each case it was with the support of their parents.

“I’ve also had students who were out as gay and their parents were involved, and that has only been in the last four years,” she said. “I think that as kids mature, more are coming out and feeling safer being out in their high school years. I’m not saying it’s new, we just have better language and safer spaces for students to explore and have safe supporting adults around them.”

And for those who are concerned that SOGI is some sort of indoctrination tool, Ladner assures that SOGI principles in fact rarely come up in the classroom.

“I had a well-meaning friend ask me how many times SOGI-related topics come up in a typical school day, and my answer was almost never,” she said. “They’re resources to use to prevent bullying, slurs and create understanding among our students. It’s not a subject that we put after math, it’s resources that help us to create a better school environment where all students see themselves.

“No one is telling kids to be anything other than what they are.”

Much of the way SOGI manifests in classrooms has to do with choices in language that are more welcoming to all students. By way of example, Ladner says instead of saying “boys and girls,” teachers can say “students” or “team” to be more inclusive. Teachers can also use the word “partner” instead of “husband and wife” with the goal of reflecting the home life of all students.

“We still use all of those words, no one is being erased, but we also have more words to describe relationships,” Ladner explained. “We want every student to see their version of their life and home reflected in what we teach.”

A central debate about SOGI is whether students should have the right to confidentiality with regards to their gender or name, should they come out to a teacher as transgender or non-binary. According to the SOGI resource guide, if a student does not have support at home, they have the right to confidentiality from the school regardless of age, “although informed consent will look different depending on the age of the student.”

If a student speaks up at school before doing so at home, the guide offers follow-up questions that teachers can ask students, which encourage students to broach the subject with their parents.

Ladner says that when a student comes out to a teacher, “what that tells me is that I’m a safe trusted adult in their life.”

She understands it can be upsetting to parents “if they’re the last to know,” but there can be fear and hesitation among students with regards to how their parents might react.

“Many students find safety in school, they tell their friends or teachers things they might not be ready to tell their parents, and I can understand it must be hard for parents to know that their kids might not trust them to do that,” she said.

“But there’s something parents can do to fix that; they can make sure that their kids know they’ll love and support them no matter what.”

Ladner emphasized that SOGI is not replacing what parents are doing in their homes. Rather, it helps teachers support kids through their childhood and adolescence — a challenging time when kids are “exploring all kinds of things and we are there to help them navigate that and make good choices for their physical and mental health.”

Ladner reports that while SOGI has been swept up into the culture wars and some parents have voiced their strong opposition to it, the students themselves are comfortable with measures to make their classrooms as inclusive as possible.

“It’s not a big deal to this generation,” she said. “Because people are people.”

READ MORE: Hundreds turn out in clash of support over SOGI in Vernon

READ MORE: It’s about inclusion: North Okanagan-Shuswap trustees primed on SOGI in schools

Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started at the Morning Star as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
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