For many LGBTQ2S+ children, going to school can be a terrifying, even traumatic, experience. Some SD23 staff members and educators are advocating for more representation for queer and trans students.
Tyson Cook is a certified education assistant within the school district. He mainly works with younger kids, and this year he’s seen a lot of students coming out as non-binary. While he doesn’t have much say in the school district as an education assistant, Cook says he works with teachers and educators to make sure his non-binary and trans students feel safe in the classroom.
“Every teacher I’ve worked with has always had the same mindset that gender doesn’t really need to have a place in the classroom. We try to have the least gendered things as possible,” said Cook.
One way to remove gender from the classroom is to replace the bathroom signs with non-gendered symbols. In Cook’s classroom, there are two gender-neutral bathrooms and one emergency bathroom. Cook and his teacher will also hand out non-gendered emergency bathroom passes for kids to use.
But Cook stresses the importance of using non-gendered language in the classroom. “We’re making sure that we’re not saying stereotypical things, like how someone’s mom is at home or dad’s at work. Gender is not a good descriptor, really,” he said.
Many educators and staff members are also advocating for district-wide change. Adam Kern, a teacher on-call within SD23, was heavily involved in implementing SOGI 123 (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) at his school. SOGI 123 is a set of resources and policies for teachers, school staff and administrators to make schools a safe place for LGBTQ2S+ students.
“Being a teacher is a very busy job, and you need to take time to learn something and want to do it… We wanted to make (learning about SOGI 123) nice and easy, and get it out and make it accessible,” said Kern.
And this work is important. According to a 2021 study by Egale Canada, 62 per cent of LGBTQ2S+ children report feeling unsafe at school. Homophobic, biphobic and/or transphobic language is still both frequent and widespread, and LGBTQ2s+ students are still physically and verbally harassed more frequently compared to their cisgender and heterosexual peers.
“Within our schools, it can be as simple as putting a Pride flag on our doors and having honest conversations when something happens, like if someone is using a homophobic or transphobic slur in class,” said Kern. “I also try to use resources that don’t conform to traditional gender norms.”
“All these things are trying to teach inclusivity, especially in the early primary ages, then we’re able to build on that and cover more complex and deeper issues,” he added.
LGBTQ2S+ representation should not be confined to the classroom, however. Cook, also known as Freida Whales, is one of the founders of the Drag Queen Story Time program at the Okanagan Regional Library in Kelowna. The program was first launched in 2019 and has been a popular library staple ever since. Cook said Drag Queen Story Time is a great way for children and their families to connect with the queer community and experience queer activities for the first time, even if he doesn’t focus solely on LGBTQ2S+ stories.
“Drag Queen Story Time doesn’t need to always be about queer folks. I love the kind of stories where you get to discover what’s special about yourself and really celebrate it. I want families to know that there is a community out there that does support them. I also want kids to know that if their family doesn’t support them, there is a family waiting for them to support them when they’re ready,” he said.
LGBTQ2S+ voices must also be heard and represented on the administrative level. SD23 school trustee Wayne Broughton said he listens to concerns from LGBTQ2S+ parents and parents with LGBTQ2S+ children. As a trustee, Broughton engages with his community and brings those conversations to the school district to set plans, policies and the annual budget. Although he doesn’t have the power to police the school board, Broughton works with the superintendent to make sure LGBTQ2S+ youth and their parents are heard.
“Looking to the future, I would certainly expect people to feel that they could talk to me directly or other trustees if they needed to. I’m available on social media, and I’m connected with groups like Kelowna Pride. My wife started a group in town called Trans Parent Okanagan Peer Support, and that’s another avenue as well,” he said.
“There’s a lot of people who want LGBTQ2S+ youth to feel respected and included… As long as I’m a school trustee, I’m making sure that senior staff know about that and that they’re all on board with making sure that happens,” he added.
But there’s still a lot of work the school district needs to do, especially for trans youth.
“I would like to see some new policies to protect trans youth in the district, especially some policies around deadnaming trans students, for instance. We need to make sure we have those policies in place,” Broughton said.