How does SOGI 123 show up in Cowichan Valley schools?

“We know that SOGI-inclusive schools have positive mental health outcomes for all students, no matter how they identify,” says SOGI 123 national program manager Scout Gray.
Youth holding signs and waving rainbow flags are pictured from behind, lining a sidewalk along the left of the photo. Meanwhile, another youth walking with their bike and wearing a helmet walks to the right of the line, towards the camera. The photo focus is on a rainbow flag held by someone on the left. The background, including the person with the bike, is blurred.
Youth hold signs and wave rainbow flags at the Love Is The Way pro-inclusion rally that was held on April 29, 2019 in response to a speaking event by anti-SOGI advocate Jenn Smith. The rally was organized by Warmland Women’s Support Services. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

It’s been a little over six years since the B.C. provincial government made it mandatory for school districts and independent schools to include explicit references to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in policies. This was in response to a B.C. Human Rights Code amendment in 2016 which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and expression. Discrimination based on sexual orientation was already prohibited under the code.

Since then, SOGI 123 — an optional resource that provides schools and educators with grade-level appropriate materials that help create safe, inclusive learning environments for all students — has been made available for use in schools. All 60 school districts in the province are now part of a SOGI 123 Educator Network, which brings educators together to co-design programs that make schools a safer place for all students.

While this work has been ongoing, confusion and misinformation about what SOGI 123 actually looks like in schools continues to percolate in communities and was a topic that permeated local election dialogue both recently and four years ago.

But school-based interventions such as clubs, policies and curriculum that support 2SLGBTQ+ students have been proven to improve their health outcomes, according to a report from UBC and the McCreary Centre Society. 

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Locally, Corina Fitznar, secondary district co-ordinator of instruction and innovation and SOGI 123 lead with the Cowichan Valley School District, says she has seen first hand how creating inclusive environments in the school has had a positive impact on student health and sense of belonging.

“It’s like our Human Rights Code in action; our values in action,” Fitznar says. “We know that mental health and individual success is very much tied to a sense of belonging. Well, in order to accept something, we need to see it.”

Fitznar says she knows of many local students who previously identified feelings of depression and a poor sense of self, and who have expressed gratitude for efforts to improve visibility and inclusion in school spaces. 

“So many felt they had to hide and they were ‘the only one’ who was like them,” Fitznar says. “Then with SOGI clubs and inclusive language, they finally felt a sense of belonging.”

What is SOGI 123?

At its core, SOGI 123 is a set of resources and tools that schools can use at their discretion to support the creation of inclusive spaces for all students. It is not a curriculum, but can be used to inform policies and procedures, learning environments and more. Educators determine which resources are age appropriate for their classes and can use teaching resources to help guide lesson plans.

Sexual orientation is a characteristic that relates to who a person is attracted to in romantic and sexual relationships. Sexual orientation is separate from gender identity, which isn’t about who you choose to love, but is about how you identify with and express gender individually. Everyone has a sexual orientation and a gender identity, even if it’s not something they’ve thought about or labelled. Sexual orientations and gender identities can also be fluid and changing; they don’t always fit in easy boxes or stay the same through a person’s lifetime.  

While SOGI 123 supports health outcomes of 2SLGBTQ+ students, the website is clear to say that these resources aim to benefit everyone in the school environment. 2SLGBTQ+ is an acronym and umbrella term that encompasses Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and other identities. In general, it refers to sexual orientations that are not strictly heterosexual, as well as gender identities that are not cis-gendered. A cis-gendered identity is when you generally identify with and express the gender that was assigned to you at birth. 

“Every student understands and expresses their gender differently, with interests and choices that are common or less common for their gender,” the SOGI 123 website says. “Some students may be unsure of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Others may identify specifically as lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, queer, two-spirit, transgender, cisgender, or other. A SOGI-inclusive school means all of these experiences and identities are embraced and never cause for discrimination.”

The nonprofit Arc Foundation worked in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, provincial education organizations including the BC Teachers’ Federation, nonprofits and the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils to create SOGI 123.

Scout Gray, national program manager for SOGI 123 with the Arc Foundation, says this set of resources came about in response to an expressed need from educators who were seeking more support to create inclusive learning environments for all students.

“All the resources that we have available have been created in collaboration with educators and for educators,” Gray says. “We always make sure they’re age appropriate and they are aligned to the provincial curriculum.”

Gray says that children are also able to thrive when parents and schools work together to create safe and inclusive environments, so some of the SOGI 123 resources have also been developed by parents, for parents.

Work to adjust and improve SOGI 123 is ongoing, Gray says, and is a collaborative process.

“We need to make sure we’re including all schools and all district staff, [but] not everyone has access to the tools and resources that they need,” Gray says. “So I think that absolutely change for the better has been happening in terms of making sure that all students feel safe at school. And, of course, there’s still work to be done.”

Putting SOGI 123 in practice

Since SOGI 123 isn’t part of the curriculum, it can show up in different ways in schools. SOGI can be included in the same way that educators and schools talk about and include race, ethnicity, religion and ability in classes and policies. SOGI 123 provides resources and tools for teachers to put this into practice.

“It’s about including and understanding all members of our diverse society,” Fitznar says. “So the lesson plans and resources that are offered support discussions around themes such as gender stereotypes or family diversity. They’re offering it in a way where teachers choose what is the best fit for what they’re teaching at the time.”

The SOGI 123 website says teachers are best equipped to decide what is age appropriate for their students. In the Cowichan Valley School District, Fitznar says some examples of SOGI-inclusive education include ensuring that art hung on walls is representative of everyone in the community, or inviting guest speakers from diverse backgrounds to classrooms.

Primary students could see picture books that include diverse families with a mom and dad, foster parents, grandparents, two dads or two moms, Fitznar says. In intermediate grades, teachers may be a little more direct in talking about how values are reflected in language. 

“There’s a great resource on [SOGI 123] called ‘Why “That’s So Gay” Is Not OK’,” Fitznar says. “So that lesson is: using our words with intention.”

In secondary classes such as law or social studies, students may learn about 2SLGBTQ+ human rights through debate, a mock trial or literary analysis. Teachers can use SOGI 123 resources outside of lesson plans as well. For example, they may choose to organize teams by athletic intensity or ability instead of gender, or they may support a Gay Straight Alliance club at the school that is inclusive of everyone.

“It’s about awareness and inclusion,” Fitznar says. “It’s about … those values of compassion, empathy and acceptance in a very open way.”

The SOGI 123 website says SOGI-inclusive policies in schools could address topics like safety, anti-harassment, dress guidelines, self-identification and confidentiality. Schools could also consider accessibility, such as ensuring that single-stall washrooms and change rooms are open and available, or considering what student supports look like and how they can be improved. Rainbow displays, such as crosswalks or murals, can also be included on school grounds to signal that students are supported and that the school is inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

“It’s the set of tools and resources that apply to all sorts of aspects of the school community and district,” Gray says.

Gray notes that SOGI 123 can sometimes be confused with sexual health education in schools, but says they are two different things. Sexual health education is part of the school health curriculum, set out by the province. While SOGI 123 has been created in collaboration with the province and many other education organizations in B.C., it is not part of the curriculum and is not an additional requirement for graduation.

Outcomes for students

“In an environment of judgement, individuality is suppressed. People close off, they disengage and they don’t live authentically,” Fitznar says. “But the opposite is also true. So when we see active acceptance and advocacy, we feel welcome to be our authentic selves. We engage and we thrive … it kind of gives permission to all groups of people to exist in their own way.”

Two youth are pictured in the photo. The one on the left is wearing sunglasses with one hand in the air as if waving and the one on the right holds a large sign above their head that says "Voice for everyone" as they smile.
Cowichan Valley youth raise signs at an April 29, 2019 rally in response to a speaking event by anti-SOGI advocate Jenn Smith. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

Results from the second national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in Canadian schools were published in 2021. The survey found that 2SLGBTQ+ students experience a disproportionate amount of harassment and bullying, which “negatively impacts their personal sense of safety, school attendance, school attachment and connectedness, wellbeing and academic achievement.” The harassment also increases their emotional distress and social isolation.

When it comes to feeling safe, 62 per cent of 2SLGBTQ+ respondents said they feel unsafe at school, compared to 11 per cent of cisgender, heterosexual students. This finding hasn’t improved much since the first survey in 2011 and even more trans and gender non-binary students reported feeling unsafe compared to the first survey.

“Our results also show that the mental health and wellbeing of 2SLGBTQ students is influenced by their school climate, as the number of participants flourishing was inversely affected by the absence of staff support, the presence of discrimination and harassment and feeling unsafe at school,” the survey results say.

But a more positive finding from the survey is that schools can support positive outcomes for 2SLGBTQ+ students by creating supportive school environments through policy, offering support and respecting, including and validating students — something that SOGI 123 aims to support.

“We know that SOGI-inclusive schools have positive mental health outcomes for all students, no matter how they identify,” Gray says. “SOGI 123 really helps ensure that all students are seen and welcome and included in their schools and that has a lot of positive benefits … If they feel connected to their schools, they’re so much more likely to thrive in so many ways.”

Learning more about SOGI 123

Two youth hold placards and smile at the camera while a group of people, forming a rally, are seen behind them. The person on the left holds a sign that says "We call bull" while the person on the right holds a sign that says "My suffering is not a trend. - Sincerely, a trans man."
Jac and Cade Whelan raise placards at a rally on April 29, 2019 to speak out against controversial anti-SOGI speaker Jenn Smith. Photo by Jacqueline Ronson/The Discourse

SOGI 123 is not without its critics, and some groups have organized in opposition to its inclusion in local schools. In 2019 anti-SOGI advocate Jenn Smith planned a public appearance in the Cowichan Valley. Community members responded by organizing a rally to share a message of love and inclusion.

If someone is curious or critical about SOGI 123, Fitznar encourages them to go to the source to learn more. 

The SOGI 123 website provides resources for parents and educators to better understand what it is. Teaching resources are made publicly available so visitors to the website can see first hand what students may be learning about in school when it comes to SOGI. There are also guides for creating inclusive environments in schools and key components of policies and procedures, with examples from B.C. school boards.

Gray says it’s also important that students and parents talk about SOGI together and that parents are also working with schools to create safe environments for students.

“You listen to some of the messaging out there about what SOGI is and a lot of it isn’t true,” Gray says. “So be open, be curious, check out our resources. Talk to your schools, teachers, talk to the school principal … and they can probably be a bit more factual and clear about what SOGI inclusive education looks like in their schools.”

Fitznar emphasizes that SOGI 123 is a way to honour human rights and give voice to diverse stories without taking away from anyone’s lived experiences.

“There is an infinite amount of space for compassion and for understanding; it’s not a limited supply,” Fitznar says. “I deeply believe that everyone has a place in this world and it does not take anything away from me to amplify others. On the contrary, by amplifying others and empowering others, we have a healthier environment all around us. We have a healthier community.”

Links to learn more

SOGI 123 national website

SOGI 123 B.C. website

SOGI 123 for parents

SOGI 123 for educators

SOGI-Inclusive Education Resource Guide

“Still in Every Class in Every School”:  Final report on the second national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools

Cowichan Valley School District SOGI Page

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