Over 200 protesters rallied against BC’s curriculum for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion on Monday, April 23 in front of the BC Teachers’ Federation headquarters. Waving “Don’t mess with our children” signs at passing cars, they were set up directly across from a slightly smaller counterprotest of LGBT youth and organizers in support of the program.
A few minutes past 11am, the two protests converged on opposite sides of the 15-metre crosswalk spanning the intersection — staring each other down while passing drivers honked their support.
The northeast side, under the Centennial Rocket statue, was lined with a thicket of signs reading “Stop SOGI 123” and “Parents have rights!” A visibly pregnant woman perched herself above the crowd with a sign reading “It’s a boy!”
Another sign declared “We support Barry Neufeld,” lauding a Chilliwack school trustee against whom the BC Teachers’ Federation has filed a human rights complaint for comments he made about SOGI 123. The inevitable conclusion of the program, Neufeld suggested in a Facebook post, would be the government seizing children to “put them in homes where they will be encouraged to explore homosexuality and gender fluidity.”
On the southwest corner of the crosswalk, signs interspersed with rainbow flags read “I love my transgender son,” “We all deserve to be understood” and “Protect trans youth.”
Protesters on both sides of the crosswalk paced and stared. A man with a well-worn upraised bible in his hand began shouting across the intersection. “Oh wow, shit is about to get real” a teenager whispered under his breath, but nothing happened.
SOGI 123, a curriculum program that has been rolled out in 51 of BC’s 60 school districts and is in testing phases in Alberta, aims to make schools safer and more inclusive for LGBT students. Elements of the program include teaching respectful language around LGBT issues, and encouraging gay-straight alliance clubs. The protesters, many of them parents, think SOGI (which stands for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) programs are an invasion of schools by an extremist ideology bent on sexualizing their children.
“If we’re going to talk about homosexuality, let’s do it honestly,” says organizer Kari Simpson at the heart of the rally. “Let’s talk about the ramifications of the homosexual lifestyle. Let’s talk about the fact that gender identity is a mental illness . . . Why are we taking little nine and ten year olds and celebrating them transitioning and sentencing them to a life of chemical dependency?”
Simpson is the executive director of Culture Guard, an activist group that organized simultaneous rallies against SOGI 123 in Vancouver in front of the BC Teachers’ Federation offices and in Victoria in front of the provincial legislature. She sees herself standing up against “sex activists” who she says are infiltrating BC schools through the teachers’ union, intent on getting access to children.
Other protesting parents, however, are less interested in conspiracy and are simply baffled by the SOGI curriculum.
“We came to Canada to give our children a bright future,” a father who identified himself by his surname Wang says in Mandarin. “We didn’t know that people would use these incorrect methods to mislead them. What people want to do in their own homes is their business, but they can’t do it to our children.”
Across the street, over a hundred counter-protesters, many of them students who have benefited from SOGI, waved rainbow signs in defiance. Brandon Yan, the educational director for LGBT education group Out in Schools, runs across the crosswalk to hold out a rainbow flag a few feet away from a line of mothers wielding “Don’t mess with our children” signs.
Julia Poole, one of the mothers, engages Yan in an argument about what SOGI is all about.
“We don’t agree with teaching our children that they aren’t created as God has created them to be,” she says. “We don’t think you should teach our children that gender is not binary.”
“We’re teaching them that they’re perfect just the way we are,” Yan responds. “Including people who aren’t on the gender binary.”
“We don’t want you to teach our children that there is not a male or female gender,” Poole replies.
“There are men or women, sure, and there are folks who are in between and on the gender binary,” Yan says.
“But that’s very rare!” Poole retorts.
“I think the issue is . . .” another man cuts in, but Yan retreats back to his side of the crosswalk.
On the southeast side, among the rainbow flags, students tell their stories through a bullhorn with the words “Billy Mays” sharpied on the side. Madison is a Grade 12 student at Burnaby North Secondary, and the president of her school’s gay-straight alliance. She used to attend a private school without a SOGI program, she says, and it felt dangerous to speak out about who she is.
“I transferred to Burnaby North and I immediately found my friend McKenzie,” she says, her friend giggling in bright face paint beside her, “and she brought me to the GSA and showed me all the people there and that I could love myself and that I could be OK with who I am. I feel like because of SOGI and because we had a GSA, I’m happy now.”
Closer to the crosswalk, Emmett Gebhart, who graduated from high school last year, literally jumps up and down in frustration as he listens to an anti-SOGI protester who has wandered over to this side of the crosswalk. After a minute, Gebhart breaks in, “No, wait, this is really important,” and then tears into a series of questions and explanations that leaves the salt-and-pepper bearded protester temporarily speechless.
“If you just see people as people, then why don’t you just use ‘they them’ pronouns for everyone?” Gebhart says.
A few minutes later, looking out past the rainbow flags at the anti-SOGI protesters, Gebhart effortlessly rattled off statistics about the number of BC students who identify as not-straight or gender non-conforming. Gebhart never had access to the SOGI program in school, and says it would have made a big difference to how comfortable they would have felt in school as a queer teenager.
“I feel like the difference is that this,” Gebhart says gesturing to the rainbow side of the crosswalk, “is a happy place. I could go up to anyone here and say hi and we’d probably end up best friends. We’re united in love, and they’re united in hate. It sucks that there are that many people united in hate. And it’s a visual of just what kind of problems we’re facing.”
By noon, the anti-SOGI protesters are less united. Some organizers try to hustle away a man with a sign that reads “Int’l Jews are behind sexual orientation and gender identity in kids’ education.” Three leather-jacketed members of the Soldiers of Odin, a group with xenophobic roots, show up on the front lines and look darkly across the crosswalk, saying that they are there “just in case.”
The Vancouver protests concluded peacefully. At a simultaneous protest in Victoria, two pro-SOGI activists were arrested for stealing signs.