By Lyonel Doherty

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Support for and opposition against teaching sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in schools is dividing many communities in B.C. in the form of protests and counter-protests.

Larger cities like Vancouver and Victoria saw their share of clashes and arrests, and even Invermere experienced a bit of protest action last week. A group of people gathered in Pothole Park to rally against the controversial teaching resource. The protest was peaceful, and the Columbia Valley RCMP said they received no calls on the event.

Some B.C. parents have voiced opinions against teaching gender diversity in the classroom, saying they don’t want their children exposed to this “sexualized” and “indoctrinated” education. Placards at anti-SOGI rallies on the Lower Mainland read “Leave our kids alone.” One young boy told Global News that he was at the rally to “stop them trying to make us gay.” Some B.C. parents say they believe that SOGI is an “adult” resource that is not appropriate for students, while others say they fear that teaching it may confuse or unduly influence their children.  

Rocky Mountain School District No. 6 stands behind the SOGI ideology.

Superintendent Karen Shipka told the Pioneer that SOGI is not a curriculum but simply a resource that can be taught to appropriate ages. But there is no mandate, she pointed out.

“What is mandated is that we make sure that kids are safe, feel a sense of belonging and can see themselves in the learning environment.”

Shipka explained that SOGI-inclusive education is a set of diversity resources ensuring that identities are recognized within the curriculum provided by the B.C. Ministry of Education. She noted this includes topics like name-calling, family diversity, bullying, stereotypes and the use of pronouns discussed throughout subjects such as social studies, English and the arts. 

According to the SOGI website, students from K-12 learn about diversity in society and the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect. One K/1 lesson teaches students that families come in all shapes and sizes, while another may discourage students from saying things like, “That’s so gay,” which may be contrary to the welcoming atmosphere in schools. Lessons may be customized by educators as they see fit.

Other lessons may include conversations on phobias, stereotypes, human rights, social justice, and Indigenous perspectives.

Shipka confirmed that the district has received correspondence from parents supporting and opposing the SOGI resource.

(Getty Images)

School board chair Amber Byklum said people have every right to protest or voice their opinion on either side of an issue such as SOGI.

“It is key that these resources are taught at the age appropriate level. As a district our priority is that our students, staff, and families feel safe, welcome and free from discrimination and harassment within our schools,” Byklum told the Pioneer.

She said education is full of many topics that some families don’t agree with, and teachers are considerate of content as well as age-appropriateness when dealing with these subjects.  

“Teachers know their communities best and if parents have issues there is always an opportunity to go to the source and have conversations about what is being taught in the classrooms,” Byklum said.

The BC Federation of Parent Advisory Councils released a statement supporting the SOGI program and the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

“We are here for you. It is imperative you know that we see you, we hear you and you have our unwavering support.”

The federation said the SOGI resource is important to cultivate understanding, empathy and respect in schools where children are educated in an “unbiased” atmosphere.

According to the federation, approximately 20 per cent of high school students identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or not exclusively heterosexual. It also noted that more than 40 per cent of B.C. 2SLGBTQ+ students in K-12 have been victims of cyberbullying.

According to SOGI 123 (resource guide), 62 per cent of 2SLGBTQ+ students feel unsafe at school.

Katrina Chapman, representing the Parent Advisory Council at Eileen Madson Primary, said the SOGI topic “hasn’t become an issue for us at the elementary level as of yet.”

Columbia Valley Pride released a statement, saying “everyone” has a sexual orientation and gender identity, adding that the SOGI program helps people learn about different orientations and identities in an effort to promote safety and inclusivity for everyone in schools.

Chairperson Gemma Beierback said she unintentionally drove past Pothole Park on the day of the protest and observed approximately 15 people, a couple of whom were holding Canadian flags. 

“I am by no means drawing any conclusions from that, but . . . certainly the Pride Festival in June, at the same location, drew a much larger crowd of enthusiastic supporters.”

All that aside, Beierback said it’s time to focus on the positive. “The world would be a far better place if we focused on the positive and sought that out instead of the negative.” She noted that when people are fed fear and hate that is what they know. “That is sad and scary for me, for them, for us!”  

Beierback believes that teaching SOGI will foster a little less fear and a little more love. But she acknowledges that some families don’t want their children exposed to this information, while other families are nurturing and loving and supporting their children who are grappling with their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. “Those families have a right, as great as any other, to have the support in the schools for their children.”  

Beierback said where everyone is aligned is the fact that children matter and their safety is important to us all.

“This isn’t an issue that can be resolved by my opinion on what children should be taught, and by whom or what is age appropriate curriculum. I am not an expert on education or child psychology. I just want to feel safe, I want children to feel safe, and be safe. I want our communities to feel safe, and be safe. Maybe collectively we can strike up a conversation about that.”

One local entrepreneur, Dee Connell from Main Street Fun and Games, tried to make a difference by posting an invite to the public on Cheers and Jeers Invermere on the day of the protest. She stated, “We’re a safe and inclusive space where everyone is welcome and there is no hate allowed.”