When I sat down with Kelowna School Trustee candidate Dr. Norah Bowman last week to chat about the election and inevitably the hot button anti-SOGI 123 issue, I was initially reticent to jump on divisive and minimizing wedge issues. You just have to look at those campaigns stigmatizing the homeless as criminals rather than addressing wider poverty concerns in the mayoral race, to see how these tactics work for those wishing to maintain their comfortable position by blaming the vulnerable. Why, I thought, should we waste our breath re-litigating human rights for LGBTQ that were rightfully enshrined in our BC Human Rights Code years ago, just because a vocal special interest group isn't comfortable with what this looks like in an educational setting? Can't we move on to issues like effectively implementing the new curriculum in improved buildings with enough support staff, to rapidly growing enrolment numbers?
As it turns out, talking about SOGI 123 and the attempts of those that want it eliminated in favour of a school environment that would keep traditional parents comfortable at the expense of LGBT students and their friends' pain, gets you thinking about some pretty basic human stuff. Perhaps just formally protecting LGBTQ rights in statutes doesn't necessarily mean it's all good yet. And so, when Norah said that going all-in for the LGBTQ community, secular education, and already enshrined Charter rights is a cause worth fighting for, I pretty much became Wedgie McWedgerson from Wedgelowna.
I want to get all up in it for a few reasons. (1) There's quite a lot of confusion over what SOGI 123 actually is, turning this into an inflammatory debate rather than a rational one. (2) There are indeed Kelowna candidates who oppose SOGI or hold views that do not support the LGBTQ community. (3) The rise of right-wing extremism in BC is too real – and connected to anti-SOGI folks, and finally, on a more philosophical note, (4) the creation of a false dichotomy of religion versus schools is not a useful way to look at this issue and really diminishes the discussion. And of course underlying all of this, is what message are we sending to our kids?
1. What SOGI 123 Is and Ain’t
There is a lot of misinformation out there, and you may even have heard some of it first hand: that families with two mummies or two daddies are discussed to the exclusion of hetero-parented families. That SOGI actively promotes gender non-conformity. Or even the outright weird: that the government will eventually encourage kids to explore homosexuality and gender fluidity, or that SOGI 123 talks about sex acts like anal sex.
While these are all patently false and hopefully they read as clearly inflammatory and politicized, what is a common misunderstanding is that SOGI 123 is a mandatory curriculum. It's not. It's a set of materials for teachers to use as aids when issues of gender and sexual orientation arise in the curriculum (i.e.: K-1 social studies will talk about families, and of course issues of reproduction come up in Life Sciences, and identity in Language Arts and Social Studies) created by the ARC Foundation based on peer-reviewed, evidence based research. From the bc.sogieducation.org website:
There is no "SOGI curriculum"; SOGI is a thread that can be addressed throughout many subjects and topics. Teachers choosing to address SOGI in the curriculum is NOT about students developing a particular set of beliefs around sexual orientation and gender identity. It is about building understanding of the diverse society that we live in and learning to treat each other with dignity and respect regardless of our differences.If I were a teacher I would sure appreciate some materials based on studies by the educational and medical fields and involvement from the LGBTQ community to go over so that I don't make anyone in my class feel excluded. Or worse, stigmatized as deviant, by ignoring their reality and assuming they are just like my straight cis-gendered ass. Also since trans issues are pretty new to mainstreamers like me who have not been paying attention to much discussion outside of a mostly hetero culture, I'd find talking about sex and gender issues I'm not familiar with pretty awkward at first (without the SOGI 123 materials). And nothing beats awkward fear like shining a light.
2. Local Intolerance, Lack of LGBTQ Support and How It's Communicated
Of the four school trustee seats available for Kelowna, it is frightening to think that two of them could be held by people who have publicly opposed the implementation of SOGI 123.
Present school board trustee Lee-Ann Tiede was accused of electioneering on the job when she broke with the board position in support of the SOGI 123 materials – a decision each trustee's job it is to uphold once decided – in an open letter against it on the ultra right-wing Canadian Council for Faith and Family's (hereafter CCFF) Facebook page (it is also reprinted in the Kelowna Courier here). While she pandered to that community in the Facebook post, saying that SOGI 123 has created a tremendous division in our communities under the banner of “inclusiveness” and that “Christian” ideology somehow takes precedence over what has been enshrined in the BC Human Rights Code since 2006, she is not as overt in her campaign materials, preferring the dog whistle of being anti-bullying FOR ALL (emphasis hers) students. The subtext: no consideration of difference please.
Similarly blowing that whistle is mayoral hopeful Tom Dyas, who when asked at this week’s UBCO mayoral debate his opinions on diversity, he was quick to lump the oft-marginalized LGBTQ community in with any ole common interest grouping (like a "sports group"), denying the fact that those are based on choice, and are more likely a result of their access to resources and institutions in town, rather than being shut out from them. He let it be known that he is not exactly in support of the LGBTQ community, when he stated that he has not participated in the Pride March (despite being head of the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce), and would only do so as mayor out of responsibility. Not support. (Speaking of support, let's hope, if he becomes mayor, he'd still want to fund that event that has finally put Kelowna on the cultural map). His team also let it be known to the CCFF, when they reached out to him to compile their list of which anti-SOGI candidates to vote for, that he held "conservative views" but didn't specifically state that he was anti-SOGI. He made the list.
And perhaps a little less subtle with his communication strategy is Kelowna school trustee candidate, Terry Giesbrecht, who honestly deserves no more analysis than a quick scan of his personal Facebook page where he posts wack-a-doodle junk science videos that elide trans folks with the mentally ill, alongside QAnon and chemtrails conspiracy theories.
It is no less heartening that of the 10 candidates running for trustee, only half have come out in support of SOGI 123. Questionnaires sent to all candidates, from The Kelowna LGBTQ2+ Coalition revealed only Norah Bowman, Rolli Cacchioni, Julia Fraser, Joachim Nierfeld and Peter Pagliocchini wished to voice their opinion on SOGI 123 – which they were all in support of. Provincial organization, Sex Ed is Our Right (a campaign started up by youth affected by HIV, including students, educators, parents, and policymakers for safer schools and sex education) originally only had a pro-SOGI response from Norah Bowman, but Julia Fraser eventually added her supportive responses there as well. When I spoke to Norah about supporting SOGI, it was clear that it’s also an issue of integrity: it is impossible not to take a stand. After all even anti-SOGI candidates are claiming a position. Bystander candidates that remain silent to hopefully pull in more votes, homophobic and transphobic or not, are not sending a clear message to our kids where they stand. You'd think they'd learn from Taylor Swift that staying quiet on the big issues to sell more product didn't really work out in the end anyways. And honestly this is not really a middle ground issue – you either want kids to feel included, or you disagree with their identity and feelings and are cool with not affording them an understanding environment. Honestly candidates, we're supposed to know where you stand so we can vote accordingly.
3. Right Wing Extremism is Alive and Well in BC
Sure Terry Giesbrecht may seem like a bad apple example, a MAGA guy straight out of central casting, but the connections to right wing extremism run deeply through the anti-SOGI community.
The CCFF, on whose Facebook page Tiede wrote her screed against SOGI 123 is run by Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson, a former 700 Club broadcaster, Burnaby trustee candidate, and the organizer of numerous Lower Mainland and Victoria anti-SOGI protests. These protests' message drew the likes of the controversial anti-immigrant vigilantes, Soldiers of Odin to help them support a group they call the "Culture Guard". This group (also known by my Fraser Valley friends as the Hate Slate) has put forth a slate of anti-SOGI trustee candidates who have come to the fore alongside the former televangelist and the now infamous and embattled Gary Neufeld. Neufeld is a Chilliwack school trustee who claims SOGI tells kids what beliefs they should have, and that SOGI 123 actively promotes telling kids to choose their gender, has been asked to step down following a joint complaint to the BC Human Rights Tribunal by the B.C. Teachers' Federation and Chilliwack Teachers' Association. The complaint alleges that his statements and social media posts have been "discriminatory," and are likely to expose transgender individuals to hatred. (BTW, not sure if you want to go down this hole, but he's into some ghastly theories about women and Jews as well).
Back in Kelowna, Tiede aligns herself very closely with this group when referring to “law suits being launched towards individuals that have publicly stated that they oppose SOGI 123” as bullying*. She is preferring to recognize Neufeld as a victim of bullying rather than trans students – a group that, not incidentally, are far more likely to attempt suicide than any other youth.
Statements like this along with Giesbrecht’s claim that "a truly diverse and inclusive society will accept everyone regardless of their opinions or belief and will not expect others to necessarily embrace, condone or celebrate their beliefs and opinions” equivocate hate speech with promoting human rights, and provocateurs and trolls with vulnerable trans kids. They fit right in with the rhetoric of the alt-right Rebel Media videos that are also posted there. Remember how mortified we were when President Trump, speaking of the violent murder of an antifascist counter-protestor by a white supremacist, said that there were bad people “on both sides”? This moral relativism is happening here too Kelowna. "Free Speech is Under Attack", "Religion is Under Attack", "We are Being Bullied Because We Don't Want the BC Human Rights Code Reflected in Our Schools". If you are pro free speech, is it bullying if folks use it to complain that you broke the Human Rights Code? Are these rights under attack if you can use them to organize, disseminate your messaging and spread your gospel in churches?
4. Beware of False Dichotomies Like Religion vs BC Public Education
Speaking of "both sides", let’s not fall into the trap that there is some sort of necessarily adversarial relationship between religious beliefs and the BC education system. While the anti-SOGI agitators see their Christian values as under attack from the schools (see the Western Canada Christian Accord signed onto by over 100 pastors), this black and white oversimplification reduces the tenets of Christianity. In reality, there is just as strong an argument in the Christian community in support of SOGI (see the petition signed by at least 60 Ministers and Reverends) that "reminds Christians that the first communities of Jesus’ followers struggled to live out the inclusive community that Jesus had called for, and we still strive for today". The later part of their statement echoes the secular humanist experiment in democracy which began with white landowning males, and through struggle and protest has been extended to level the playing field to those who have not had the same access to participate freely in society. Of course, Neufeld thinks those churches “by trying to appear tolerant and loving… have been infected with ‘Pink Christianity’”.
Moreover, as Canadians, we are a pluralistic society (not just Catholics and Protestants) and British Columbia maintains secular public schools. Secularism is a feature of modernity, not a bug – basically you can still be as religious as you want and follow your religion's teachings, but a public state institution cannot impose religion. That’s what the democratic revolution, y'know the one that overthrew feudalism and Dark Ages religious rule, was for.
In Conclusion: Educators and the Role of a Trustee
In the end, SOGI opponents are not doing their job** as trustees if they advocate against board decisions after they are voted on. Do we want politicized members who are more attached to promoting their "religious" views than respecting the role they were given by the public to fulfill? Or do we want those who want to move forward, and continue to enrich democratically created board decisions by getting cracking on helping kids learn in supportive environments? When I spoke to Norah, my last question to her was along these lines. I asked what the difference is between an educator and a trustee? I appreciated how similar her response was to the whole SOGI 123 intention: providing support and solid infrastructure so the teachers can do their job as best they can. Working hard to procure resources, and put them where they're really needed. SOGI 123 is just that – a part of the support system that lets good educators do their job.
We Endorse Dr. Norah Bowman for Kelowna School TrusteeNorah was the only candidate to stand up for SOGI 123 in a strong way right out of the gate based on principal and not political calculation or being pulled into it by others. While not the topic of this post, after talking with her about her experience on the board for the provincial-level Knowledge Network, and at the local level, Okanagan College's Education Council, as well as hearing some of her ideas about how to procure funds to meet the needs of high enrolments and poor buildings, as well as addressing the needs for more support staff to help teachers deliver the curriculum in a meaningful way (I recommend checking out the nicely to-the-point video Kelowna Capital News did with her) – not to mention her bona fides as a mom and professor – I'm fully convinced that she is a pragmatist as well as a humanist. Norah was a woman after my own local urban development heart when she spoke of Kelowna's future as an interesting, exciting city being in jeopardy if we vote in conservative representatives that don't support a community as vibrant (and imho savvy and productive) as the LGBTQ community. I fully concur, can Kelowna please not shut itself off from the future. We're never going to grow as an interesting and happening city if we are viewed as backward-looking dinosaurs. But at the end of the day, I was most impressed by her statement that she was prepared to lose any votes from those voting against the acceptance of diversity in our community if it means standing up for this community's freedoms. By valuing a clear mandate from the community, especially one on human rights, Norah sounds exactly like someone who will stick up for our values all the way.
* Her anti-SOGI statement is in the comments on this post.
**from the BC School Trustees website: Trustees are a part of a team A school trustee is a member of a team: the board of education. Under the School Act, the trustee’s power lies in membership on the corporate school board. What this means is that the board has the authority to make decisions or to take action; individual trustees in and of themselves do not have this authority. While healthy debate is an important aspect of good governance, once the board has voted, it is the board’s decision and an individual trustee’s responsibility to act in a manner that promotes and upholds it.