When Brad Dirks sent his eldest child to Grade 9 in Langley, B.C., two years ago, he was afraid that his son would be misunderstood and excluded: “This was always about just having our son attend school, where he was accepted for who he is, so he could have a normal school year, the same as everyone else.”
Mr. Dirks’s son is transgender. And after Mr. Dirks spoke with the principal, the school brought in a speaker for staff and students, helping educators foster a more inclusive environment for his child.
Today, parents such as Mr. Dirks and their kids have an easier time navigating the school system. Last fall, the government required every school district in British Columbia to include sexual orientation and gender identity in anti-bullying policies. Teachers are equipped with resources to support children, including LGBTQ students, and a redesigned curriculum means educators can focus on diversity and respecting differences.
Yet, Mr. Dirks faces a new challenge. Late last month, Mr. Dirks, holding a sign that read “Love Wins,” rallied, along with dozens of other parents, outside the Langley school board. They were squaring off against a conservative group of parents and activists who feel threatened by the very policies that are meant to protect Mr. Dirks’s son.
Mr. Dirks's hometown of Langley and nearby Abbotsford have become a battleground between supporters of an inclusive school environment that directly names and addresses homo- and transphobia, and those who oppose introducing topics such as gender identity and sexual orientation to students. The small, but vocal group of counterprotesters label an LGBTQ-friendly curriculum and policies as a "sex activists agenda" that "abuses" children.
"Why would anyone be against such a thing that actually creates an environment that is safe and secure for students?" said Mr. Dirks. "How could anybody be against that?"
The issue began in summer of 2016, when the BC Human Rights Code was amended to include gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination.
In response, the government last fall directed all school districts to include sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in their anti-bullying policies and codes of conduct. The Ministry of Education, along with the teachers' union, the Vancouver-based ARC Foundation and others, collaborated on SOGI 123, an initiative that shares resources on how to support students and create more inclusive schools.
Teachers in the classroom, under a revised curriculum currently being rolled out in schools, may explore the various components of the human rights code, including sexual orientation and gender identity. Lessons on family diversity, for example, may include mentions of same-sex families and LGBTQ rights.
That doesn't sit well with a conservative group called Culture Guard. Its spokeswoman, Kari Simpson, has described SOGI curriculum and policies as a "dangerous agenda."
On its website, the group said it works to protect the "natural family, parental rights, [and] the sanctity of life." It claimed that there is an agenda in schools to "undermine societal values and to sexualize your children."
Ms. Simpson's group has held so-called information meetings on SOGI, the most recent one earlier this month at a retirement home in Abbotsford.
"It is a political agenda that abuses children and violates the role and purpose of public education," Ms. Simpson said in an e-mail. "The consequences of this political indoctrination will be destructive to children, our culture and our nation."
Education Minister Rob Fleming said he was "disappointed" that some parents are opposed to SOGI-inclusive schools. "It is crucial that we help to ensure all students feel welcome in B.C.'s schools, regardless of who they identify as," he said in a statement.
Mr. Dirks's school district in Langley sent a letter home to parents in March outlining the curriculum changes and the district's stand on inclusion.
The letter stated that Langley schools would ensure gender-neutral washroom facilities exist for students, and that provincial curriculum expectations included the "integration of inclusive education, including gender orientation and expression beginning in kindergarten."
This prompted criticism from some parents at a June school board meeting, where they voiced their concerns to trustees around what they called a SOGI education and how it was being presented to students, board spokesman Ken Hoff said.
Mr. Hoff said an individual had applied to address trustees again at the most recent, Sept. 26, board meeting but withdrew the request a week before the meeting.
But as word leaked that an anti-SOGI activist was appearing, local parents organized a loosely-formed group, Langley Parents for Inclusivity. About 100 of them, including Mr. Dirks and his sons, rallied outside the school board office in support of SOGI education and policies.
"The fear-mongering and hate needs to stop," said Mr. Dirks of why he attended the rally.
This is not the first time in Canada that changes in education that involve sexuality or LGBTQ rights have been a flashpoint. In 2010, former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty gave in to pressure from religious fundamentalists and cancelled an update to the health and physical education curriculum that would have included teaching on same-sex relationships and sexuality. The Ontario sex-ed curriculum was released two years ago, under current Premier Kathleen Wynne. The education minister at the time, Liz Sandals, vowed not to cave to pressure from fringe religious groups. Some parents pulled their children out of public schools, but many have since returned.
Glen Hansman, president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, acknowledged that these conservative groups create a "chill" in schools. Educators, though, are keen to teach a curriculum that is inclusive of all students, he said.
"Regardless of what Culture Guard or others think, we do have the legal and professional responsibility to be doing this work, and we are proud to do so and we're going to continue to do so," Ms. Hansman said. "It's good to see the majority of the community in Langley and Abbotsford … aren't supportive of this [behaviour]," he added.
When asked about accusations from SOGI-supporters that her group was presenting false information about how the changes to policies and curriculum would affect students, Ms. Simpson was blunt in her response.
"If anyone is gullible enough to believe that SOGI 123 is about anti-bullying or creating 'caring and safe schools,' they need to go and take a Grade 6 propaganda course," she said.
On the Culture Guard website, Ms. Simpson writes: "There is an active agenda within BC schools … to undermine your relationship with your children, undermine societal values and to sexualize your children.
"Your children are being used as political pawns."
Ladner parent Michelle Wilson said Ms. Simpson's response and the support she has gained simply reinforces the work that still needs to be done to educate people on SOGI issues.
Her daughter, Tru, was behind a human rights complaint against her Catholic school district because it could not accommodate her request to be treated as a girl. In a resolution in 2014, the Catholic Independent Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese approved a policy designed to allow transgender students to use pronouns, uniforms and washrooms that match their gender identity.
Tru, 14, said that she was always afraid to be herself in her former school.
The changes to the curriculum and SOGI school policies help children like her, she said. "It's so ridiculous," she said of those who oppose SOGI. "I have no words. It sounds so ridiculous to me."
Ms. Wilson added: "If anything, [the opposition to SOGI] brings to light how necessary this is for our kids, because there are people out there with messages of hate and fear and we need to stand around our kids even more."
Mr. Dirks, a long-time resident of Langley, echoes the sentiment.
His son came out to him before he started Grade 9. Mr. Dirks said they listened and supported their son.
Mr. Dirks remembered being nervous about sending him to school. But, he said, school staff believed in the principles of SOGI before it was introduced.
His son is now in Grade 11.
Mr. Dirks said many families may not support their children, who are transgender. SOGI policies and resources, as well as a more inclusive curriculum, allow these students to find support in schools, he said.
"I go to bed every night with this pit in my stomach because of this group of nasty people who are saying such horrible things and spreading so much misinformation about kids like my son," Mr. Dirks said.
“It bugs me. Our kids need a safe, secure and inclusive school to go to.”