School District 27 (SD27) said it is committed to ensuring students feel safe, accepted and included.
The need for safety, acceptance and inclusion encompasses 2SLGBTQIA+ students, a whopping 62 per cent of whom feel unsafe at school, according to SOGI 123, a sexual orientation and gender identity education resource website. Suicide attempts amongst queer and gender-diverse youth are also seven times higher compared to heterosexual youth (28 per cent to four per cent), according to the B.C. Government.
Studies have shown that anti-bullying policies specifically addressing sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) inclusion directly improve the lives of queer and gender-diverse students, including suicide reduction.
To help with inclusion, all schools in B.C. must include SOGI in their anti-bullying policies.
So, what exactly is SOGI-inclusive education?
As B.C. schools and educators continue to find ways to teach kids about the importance of diversity, respecting those differences and how to respond to discrimination, SOGI resources are components within education to ensure representation and the health, safety and well-being of all students.
“There isn’t a SOGI curriculum,” said Chris van der Mark, SD27’s superintendent. “There are resources that can be taught at appropriate ages, but there are no mandates. What is mandated is that we make sure kids are safe, feel a sense of belonging and can see themselves in the environment they’re in.”
SOGI-inclusive education is a set of diversity resources ensuring SOGI identities are recognized within the curriculum provided by the B.C. Ministry of Education. This includes topics like name-calling, family diversity, bullying, stereotypes and the use of pronouns, discussed throughout subjects such as social studies, English and arts education.
Van der Mark quoted Alexander Pope, who said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” and encouraged people not to cherry-pick when it comes to education.
“If you’re going to learn about something, maybe you should learn a lot of it.”
Parents still unsure or wary of the education can visit sogieducation.org to learn more, including the lesson plans educators can use as guides. They can also reach out to a local group called Cariboo Gender Support (CGS) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mikara Pettman, who helps facilitate CGS, and also works as a youth counsellor, said CGS provides up-to-date researched information on gender diversity, especially useful for parents who grew up in a time where gender and sexuality weren’t discussed much within education or culture at broad.
“It’s a myth that there’s more (gender diversity) happening now when actually, it’s just that we’ve created dialogue around it.”
Pettman co-founded the group in 2016 and, since then, has seen it evolve from a resource for youth to a resource mainly for cisgender parents (cisgender being those whose gender is the same as what they were assigned at birth). She explained that understanding and acceptance of gender-related issues will only help families thrive.
“It’s interesting that when you’re in with kids that are gender creative — a term I like to use — there’s nothing to be feared. It’s very joyous. We talk about worries and their mental health, but actually … the mental health concerns for gender-creative kids are really from their reaction to the culture and world around them … Who they are is a source of joy.”
When asked to explain what it means to be gender creative, Pettman said that similar to how no two snowflakes or fingerprints are alike, it’s the same with gender.
“When it comes to humans, we demand they fit into one of the two categories,” she said, noting gender goes beyond this.
Dr. Devon Mitchell, who is in his fourth year of residency at the University of British Columbia, said something similar, comparing gender to one’s height, and that just as there aren’t only two heights amongst people, there are people who have always existed all along the gender spectrum.
“We can’t make them not exist. We can decide how we treat them,” said Mitchell. His work focuses on making the emergency departments more culturally safe for gender diverse and queer patients.
Mitchell also explained while some people are born with XX chromosomes or XY chromosomes (females and males), not everyone is born with these chromosome combinations. They may be born with one X, half an X, XXY or other combinations. While sex is a biological term, gender is a social construct where certain traits are associated with feminine or masculine qualities.
Another example Mitchell gave was children born intersex, which, according to experts such as Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling, is in the millions. When a child is born intersex, doctors will pick the baby’s gender based on how they physically appear, regardless of any chromosomal testing. The child’s gender, therefore, may not necessarily match the child’s biological sex.
SOGI-inclusive education ensures full representation of people so that they feel belonging and acceptance.
“Having a supportive family and growing up in a supportive community is the most protective factor when it comes to suicide, self-harm and substance use,” said Mitchell.
There is no medical research or data that shows that teaching children about a certain topic will make kids more or less likely to identify with the topic, he added.
“It doesn’t teach a kid to be gay, it just teaches love and acceptance,” said Mitchell. “The more kids are taught about their own bodies, about consent, about different people living in the world, the better equipped they are to live in the modern world.”
Mitchell also noted that most people have probably met someone, spoken to and cared about transgender or gender-diverse individuals without even knowing it.
“There are people (gender-diverse) trying to decide if you are a safe and supportive person, and I’d hope everyone would want to be safe and supportive of people.”
For those looking for more information, Pettman encouraged additional resources like phsa.ca/transcarebc and wpath.org as helpful tools for learning, as well as face-to-face interactions with people in the community, where people are more likely to connect with one another and feel safe asking questions.
“We want our children in our care and communities to be safe, respected and included,” said van der Mark. “That’s what we expect and expect other people to respect. I think most people would agree on that premise.”
The Ministry of Education and Child Care also has a SOGI-Inclusive Education Myth Busting document clarifying any confusion.
Foundry Cariboo-Chilcotin in Williams Lake provides support for youth and their families by drop-in at 51 4th Avenue South or by phone at 250-398-2185.