Sex education and gender identity in schools rife with controversy

Sexual health education and gender identity policies in schools have prompted heated debates across Canada.


In B.C., a sexual orientation and gender identity program for educators, called SOGI 123, has drawn some opposition. Credit: Jon Gilbert Leavitt/Flickr

Sexual health education and gender identity policies in schools have prompted heated debates across Canada.

The Ontario government faces a human rights challenge over the scrapping of its new 2018 sex-education curriculum in favour of a version developed in 1998. In B.C., a sexual orientation and gender identity program for educators, called SOGI 123, continues to draw protests as school boards across the province vote for its adoption.

Steve Mulligan, coordinator of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) inclusive education in the UBC faculty of education, helped develop the SOGI 123 inclusive schools model and teaching resources. He and Wendy Carr, teacher education professor at UBC, discuss the importance of SOGI and sexual health education in schools, and what’s at the root of the protests.

Steve Mulligan
Steve Mulligan

How are sexual orientation and gender identity currently addressed in B.C. schools?

SM: Gender identity or expression was added to the B.C. Human Rights Code in 2016. In September of that year, the B.C. Ministry of Education announced that all school districts needed to have sexual orientation and gender identity policies in place, but the ministry wouldn’t dictate what those policies were. We created the SOGI 123 website, a one-stop shop where teachers can get lesson plans, and also developed the SOGI 123 model, which has since been adopted by 55 out of 60 school districts in the province.

Is sexual orientation and gender identity fully integrated into the curriculum?

SM: It is and it isn’t. The redesigned curriculum gives teachers quite a bit of autonomy and flexibility. It emphasizes competencies and things that students can do, rather than specific kinds of content. That’s a good thing generally, but when it comes to human rights, it poses a challenge because teachers who don’t want to talk about it can just avoid it.

Wendy Carr
Wendy Carr

For instance, the K-1 social studies curriculum places a big emphasis on families, and same-sex families are listed as a sample topic. But if it’s a sample topic, it’s not mandatory. I think the ministry was hoping school districts would take the lead—for instance, that librarians would put more books in the library that include different kinds of families.

Updating sexual health curriculums is often controversial. Why do you think that is?

WC: Education can be a very conservative domain. Certain traditions are reproduced generation after generation. I think the fear is that some of this information could introduce some topics to children at too early an age, and that sort of thing. Wherever there’s that fear, there can be a desire on the part of some parents and others to pull back, and I think that’s what we’ve seen in Ontario.

But if you look at the Ontario sexual health curriculum, it’s based on knowledge, not moralizing. It also includes digital literacy, making safe choices in terms of using the internet, and all sorts of things that weren’t as prevalent 20 years ago. It also has some very good professional development information for teachers. That’s really important, particularly if teachers aren’t as comfortable teaching this material because they themselves were not taught it. This is what happens in education—we often perpetuate these gaps. Trying to address it, as the new Ontario curriculum was trying to do, was a really positive step forward.

Where do misconceptions about the sex-ed curriculum come from?

WC: It’s often from individuals who haven’t had factual, age-appropriate sexual health education themselves. Typically, if you address the strongest critics and ask them a few questions, you start to notice a lack of knowledge, and the false notion that kids are going to be “converted” or drawn into different choices or patterns of behaviour.

When a province such as Ontario says we don’t value what’s being taught here, that sends a powerful message to the education system, families, educators and kids. It keeps vulnerable people vulnerable. School districts must ensure that all families, children and staff can feel safe and included.

How does the controversy over sex-ed and SOGI policies affect teachers?

SM: I think a lot of teachers feel caught in the middle, and it can lead to them avoiding the topic, which is unfortunate. On the other hand, over my career I’ve seen many gay and lesbian teachers who are increasingly comfortable being out to their students and families. Many of them feel that it’s important to be out, in the same way that it’s important to have Indigenous educators in schools as role models for Indigenous students and the general public.