Sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) is a hot topic in this fall’s school board elections, dividing parents and causing havoc.
Shaun Kalley, chair of the Vancouver District Parents’ Advisory Council, urges voters to pay attention to candidates’ views on the controversial SOGI policy.
Some may wonder what all the fuss is about.
In 2016, the B.C. government said school districts must include specific references to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in anti-bullying policies. The intention is to help LGBTQ2S+ students feel safe at school.
About 19 per cent of B.C. high school students identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or not exclusively heterosexual, the government says. One per cent of B.C. high school students identify as transgender and five per cent of Aboriginal students identify as two-spirit, government statistics show.
Here’s where it gets heartbreaking.
Students who are gay or bisexual were seven times more likely than heterosexual youth to attempt suicide, based on 2017 statistics. They’re also at greater risk for eating disorders, depression, absenteeism, tardiness, lower graduation rates, homelessness and bullying, Vancouver School Board SOGI material says.
But anti-bullying policies that specifically address sexual orientation can reduce both discrimination and suicide attempts for all students, studies show. Vancouver has had such a policy since 2014, but Richmond just introduced one in June and it proved extremely controversial.
In Chilliwack, school trustee Barry Neufeld has drawn attention by saying allowing children to choose their gender amounts to “child abuse.”
Last month, parents protested at the B.C. legislature, both for and against SOGI. Those protests led the minister of education and 12 education organization leaders to release a rare joint statement in support of SOGI.
“…There is no room for any type of discrimination in our schools,” the statement says. “Students have the complete support of teachers, administrators, support staff, trustees and parents as we create learning environments where all students are free of discrimination so they can thrive and live authentic lives.”
All of the province’s school districts and independent schools now have policies in place to safeguard students from being bullied for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“SOGI is important because we believe in inclusion for all children,” Kalley said. “We want there to be an environment where all children will feel safe and supported.”
But still, there appears to be a group of parents organized against the policy. They are determined to elect representatives onto the district parent group’s executive, Kalley said. But also, there are candidates running for trustee who oppose the provincial policy, even though school trustees would be powerless to change it.
“It creates a lot of turmoil for no effect. SOGI is a ministry directive, so the school board’s role is in implementation, not in policy setting,” Kalley said. “It creates a lot of havoc within schools. It actually causes tension within the [parent committees], which need to be strong advocacy centres at schools.”
The district parent group is not political and does not endorse candidates, however as a group it does hold a formal position supporting SOGI.
“Having recognized that this an issue that we actually hold a position on, we’re concerned that there are candidates coming forward who would be against it,” Kalley said. “I think it’s going to be a major issue on the school board if there is opposition to it.”
It may be tough to determine which candidates are for SOGI and which are against. At a recent trustee forum, all candidates indicated they were in support of SOGI. Vancouver 1st mayoral candidate Fred Harding said in a video “with SOGI, they’ve got it all wrong.”
“Vancouver 1st is opposed to its high-handed roll out. We will advocate for parents who feel alienated by it,” he said, promising to “push back against an over-reaching province.”
Although it will be too late to affect the election, Kalley’s group is organizing an event to start a conversation about SOGI. On Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. at the Vancouver School Board office, parents will have a chance to talk to the district’s diversity mentor and the principal responsible for implementing the SOGI materials.
SOGI is a provincial mandate, backed up by strong evidence that lives will be saved. All parents want their children to be happy, healthy and safe, things that should come before sexual orientation. It just makes sense to support SOGI — so pay attention to who gets your vote.
Tracy Sherlock writes about education and social issues for the Courier. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.