Beware the One Trick Pony: Let’s Talk About School Trustee Elections and Anti-SOGI Platforms

So, it was kind of inevitable that a post about municipal elections would be forthcoming – particularly as it relates to candidates for School Trustee.  News of high profile Anti-SOGI candidates in districts across the province has bumped this topic to the front of the line.  You can refer to the Burnaby Now article for the specifics of her candidacy and her platform.  (From a lot of social media posts I’ve seen in the past few hours, I’m going to guess that a lot of people are already aware – and I’m thinking that Tamara Taggart is looking downright heroic at the moment.)

This is not a new topic, and we’ve certainly been here before. Back in 2011, when some districts were investing time and energy in exploring Anti-Homophobia policies, there were very vocal, and adamantly opposed groups of parents who stepped forward into the spotlight, some who eventually formed political parties and ran a slate of candidates in subsequent elections.  Sadly, these opposition groups continue to feel entitled to an audience and claim they are not being considered or listened to.  What they fail to recognize is that their concerns have been heard. School districts are not unaware of the issues.  They’ve heard the voices.  They’ve considered the arguments.  They’ve seen the protest signs.  They simply recognize that the issue is complex, and that, after considering the perspectives of many stakeholders, human rights and legal perspectives, they have made deliberate choices to proceed with SOGI inclusive education.  Anti-SOGI Extremists have difficulty recognizing the difference between being consulted on issues and having control over them.

In many ways, I owe that small, vocal group of extremists a debt of gratitude because it was their rhetoric and the coverage of their dissent in the local media that prompted me to initiate conversations in my classroom about Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. The louder the Anti-SOGI sentiment, the clearer it continues to be to me how important and necessary SOGI is.  As a witness to the volatility of their perspective, I experienced, for the first time, an obligation to communicate a different message than the negativity that was highlighted in headlines.

I would like to acknowledge that this was years before SOGI 123 was an available resource.  Even without the resources available through SOGI 123, there are a multitude of ways in which SOGI is already present in schools, classrooms, and communities.  I have trouble understanding why Anti-SOGI Extremists invest so much energy in a tool that is simply a way to equip teachers with examples, vocabulary, and understandings to inform their decision making and enhance their implementation of curriculum in classrooms.  But, I’m guessing it stems from the same kind of mentality as repeatedly attempting to have LGBTQ+ books banned in schools.

In the Burnaby Now article, Thompson suggests that teachers aren’t qualified to support gender-creative or gender non-conforming children.  That’s certainly a questionable way to ingratiate yourself to the teachers in a district you want to represent.  Ultimately, her statements demonstrate that she clearly has no idea what goes on in classrooms or what teachers do.  So, here’s a bit of a primer on what teachers do.  Hopefully, this will assist in avoiding being misled by someone who routinely inserts herself into the conversation, misrepresenting what SOGI is, fear mongering to garner attention, and then claiming victimization when marginalized groups (and their allies) advocate for themselves.

So, as a trustee candidate it might be helpful to understand that what teachers do is LISTEN.  We consult with parents.  We engage in team meetings with a diverse representation of staff, all invested in supporting students.  We make referrals so parents can get support from the agencies and networks specific to their family’s needs.  We defer to experts, including physicians, psychologists, occupational therapists, and other clinicians.  We engage in professional development to assist us to become more equipped to respond to the diverse needs within classrooms.  We listen to and observe our students and we ambitiously take on the task of attempting to address their unique needs.  (Notice that I am not limiting this to the needs of LGBTQ+ students).

We seek to find the best ways to support our students with autism, with learning difficulties, students who don’t speak the language of instruction, students who are refugees or new immigrants, students who are anxious or traumatized, students with physical impairments, students with behaviour issues, students with mental health issues, and all other types of students who appear in our classrooms and contribute to the unique communities therein. What teachers do is accept the learners that appear before us and create classroom and school communities that foster comfortable, and inclusive spaces for students to engage in learning.  We are in the industry of getting students to understand and appreciate that they BELONG, they are valued, they are accepted, and they matter.  Whether we are talking about SOGI or any other aspect of school, what we are talking about is creating safe, inclusive environments that empower students to learn.   The most important issue in schools is NOT what Thompson refers to as gender ideology – it is whether or not kids feel welcomed and ready to learn when they walk through our doors.

Imagine a student with Tourette’s Syndrome who is prone to verbal outbursts.  We teach other students what Tourette’s is, and we teach them how to respond to behaviours that might be distracting.  Understanding that Tourette’s is a condition and that verbal outbursts or physical tics are not intentional choices helps students empathize and understand the individual.  It encourages students to avoid passing judgment, to recognize that differences don’t have to divide us, to be accepting, and to include that individual into the social fabric of their daily lives.

If we have a student who is gender fluid or identifies as non-binary, or transgender, we help students understand what that means.  We equip students with strategies to interact or respond to others, so that everyone can be treated with empathy, compassion, respect, and kindness.  Sometimes this is as simple as understanding what name or pronoun to use when referring to someone.  We try to eliminate the experience of rejection, ridicule, or exclusion, because we know that students who experience shame, feel insecure, or lack self-esteem, struggle to belong and to learn in ANY environment.  SOGI inclusive education is simply about creating the conditions where students who bring different experiences of gender identity or sexual orientation are able to be their authentic selves.

It appears that Thompson is under the impression that that when we talk to students about gender as a spectrum, that we are attempting to make ALL students gender fluid.  That is not the intent, nor the outcome.  The majority of students will identify as male or female and no one is trying to eliminate anyone’s right to identify in that manner.  SOGI inclusive education is simply about asking students to recognize that SOME people have a different experience of gender that is not adequately understood within binary restrictions.

Many who listen to Thompson’s narrative are left with the impression that the topic of transgender identities will come up in a classroom on a Tuesday, that a child hearing that conversation will experience confusion about their gender identity, announce their new names and pronouns when they come out as transgender at the dinner table that evening, undergo hormone therapy to postpone puberty on the Wednesday, and then have surgical intervention to affirm their gender identity on the Thursday.  You likely know how ridiculous that is if you’ve tried to get an appointment with your GP on short notice, and I’m pretty certain that getting in to see a specialist requires a lot of patience.  At no time, during this process are teachers making decisions or recommendations about these plans.  We simply engage in fostering an environment where kids feel safe and can, subsequently, engage in meaningful ways in the learning process.

Thompson’s proposed solution to the complexities of transgender students is to simply “love them to pieces.”  For someone who uses her social media platforms to criticize parents for supporting trans identities, and to misgender trans students, I question if she understands what love is.  If you want to see great examples of what love is, watch a teacher invest in a difficult student.  Watch them attempt every solution possible to engage a learner and to make them feel connected.  Take notice of the money they spend on their classrooms to enhance learning and to make kids feel welcome. Document the hours of reading, professional development, consultation, and the time they spend in meetings.  I am fortunate to work among a group of highly dedicated, well intentioned, innovative, compassionate professionals who do the daily work of making kids feel like learning is a worthwhile endeavour, and that they are an integral part of it.  I wish that Thompson could convince me that she understood this and wanted to support those efforts as a trustee.  She claims to be full of love.  I think she’s full of something, but I’m not convinced it’s love.

Part of me would like to see this particular candidate win a seat on the board, because she would have to promote a district which has an active and robust SOGI District Committee which includes Trustees, DPAC representatives, Teachers, Administrators, School Board Executives, Counsellors, SOGI District Leads, Teachers’ Association representation, Support Staff representation, and Student Voices.  It has several well-supported SOGI events.  Wouldn’t it be divine justice for her to have to work in a context where her District SOGI Leads provide leadership in the province via the Provincial SOGI Educators’ Network?

The other part of me, hopes that she doesn’t gain any traction, because the negative attention, and the fear-mongering will only waste time, energy, and resources that could be put to much better use.  It will provide distraction, distrust, and interference to the important work of supporting the unique needs of all our students that needs to be done.

We are more powerful teachers when we honour the diversity of our students, and encourage students to accept others as authentic beings.  We are more compassionate as a species when we seek to understand the experiences of people who are different from us, rather than negate them.  If we could recognize that all experiences, regardless of how foreign or different they may be from our lived experiences, contribute to an understanding of the human experience, we’d all probably get along a lot better.  If we could just step back, reflect, and acknowledge that everyone is entitled to their happiness, we’d be a much more enlightened species.

Sadly, these things that seem so obvious to me, apparently need to be said.  And they need to be said loudly, and repeatedly.

 

 

 

 

 

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