For those who’ve been confused by the ever-growing acronym LGBTQ, there’s a new acronym in town that’s got the Qualicum school district and others across the province moving on gender and sexual orientation issues.
SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identification) is the base of a new plan created by the Ministry of Education (MOE), the University of British Columbia, B.C. teachers and a foundation for the disenfranchised called ARC.
The SOGI acronym represents an inclusive way of describing issues around those identities: not just gay or transgender but female, male and straight as well.
It’s also a term used by the B.C. Human Rights code describing another basis upon which discrimination is prohibited.
All B.C. boards of education and independent school authorities were required by the MOE to reference SOGI in codes of conduct by Dec. 31, 2016.
Though School District 69 (Qualicum) has long been working on making schools safe and inclusive for the LGBTQ community, there was no specific reference to sexual orientation or gender identity in codes of conduct, said Ballenas Secondary School’s principal and one of SD69’s SOGI leads, Rudy Terpstra.
“The principle that we are operating under is creating safe and caring, inclusive schools. We’ve always done that,” he said.
However, according to a report referenced on the SOGI 123 website, explicit references to SOGI in policies and procedures “have been proven to reduce discrimination, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts for all students.”
Accurately representing people who aren’t male, female or straight through the use of language is a major part of SOGI policy.
One of the benefits of the SOGI plan is that it helps to reduce confusion around those terms and what is acceptable.
“The positive thing here has been… the language of LGBTQ was completely evolving and confusing everyone, so SOGI made it really simple,” said Terpstra.
“We all have a sexual orientation, and we all have a gender identity, and everybody gets to place themselves where they want on those two spectrums. That’s as simple as it is.”
Now, using SOGI information and policies as a sort of shared rulebook, administrators, teachers and students are better able to educate themselves about genders and sexual orientations that exist in addition to male, female and straight.
That education is underway, with SD69 administrators and counsellors already receiving training. The goal for this school year is to have a SOGI lead in each school in the district.
“They just become a resource leader for all the other staff in the school,” said Terpstra.
That training includes learning sexual orientation and gender language — what it means to be transgender, bisexual, cisgender, etc. — as well as learning to use gender-free phrasing (“Good morning everyone,” instead of “Good morning boys and girls”) because that doesn’t address the fact that not all people identify as either a boy or a girl.
“It’s work,” said Terpstra, admitting that he still finds himself saying “Hey, boys and girls,” but said it’s about being inclusive.
“Let’s address people by their name and who they want to be called, and then if we have to describe them, we don’t use race or who you’re sleeping with or all of those things. That’s not what we do. So this is about letting people know everybody has a right to be who they are, and be called who they are.”
In addition to language, other changes at SD69 include having non-gendered, single-stall bathrooms available to students, with the goal of having one in each school.
Other suggestions from the SOGI plan include allowing students to join groups that they feel represent their gender identity, and extra-curricular activities that don’t discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation.
Another big piece is accepting how students self-identify, including what pronouns and name they want others to use,” said Terpstra.
“One of the big pieces is we acknowledge that all people get to present themselves how they want, and we respect that, but it’s also just making people aware of the different ways that people can present themselves or consider themselves.”
Overall, students have been accepting of these changes, though there has been some pushback, said Terpstra.
“Students are much better at accepting each other as peers. These things don’t seem to affect students as much as the adults,” he said, noting some community members have voiced concerns over the restriction of language, or the policies being too politically correct.
Students also took the lead on the rainbow crosswalk installed in front of Ballenas last year after Ballenas Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) members lobbied the city to do it. The school also raised the rainbow flag.
“There definitely was some small opposition,” said Terpstra. “Most students just embraced it, or were neutral or fine with it… and then… I had students coming into my office saying, ‘Thank you.’” Terpstra said all he had done was to not stand in the way, but rather facilitate of the effort.
Check upcoming editions of The NEWS for a story with SD69 students after they return from the B.C. GSA Youth Forum.