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‘Students are worth it’: B.C. teachers stand by SOGI amid threats

B.C. 2SLGBTQIA+ teachers speak out amidst threats
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Mary Lawrence is a teacher in Prince George B.C. that has received death threats for the past two years. She attributes the targeted threats and hate-filled messages to her role as an outspoken advocate for SOGI resources and to her sexual identity as a queer woman. (Mary Lawrence/Submitted)

Every day when Mary Lawrence leaves the school where she teaches, or logs onto social media, she feels she’s walking into a firing line of extreme hate and is constantly looking over her shoulder in fear that someone may decide to act on their violent threats.

In contrast, inside the walls of Lawrence’s pride flag adorned Grade 12 classroom, everyone is safe and celebrated.

The Prince George teacher is speaking out about the personal death threats and hateful messages she has received to raise awareness of the growing divisiveness over the sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) educational resources that were implemented in schools across B.C.in 2016.

The province says that SOGI 123 was implemented to help teachers ensure “that classroom resources show people from all sorts of backgrounds and give teachers opportunities to talk about the experiences and challenges faced by 2SLGBTQIA+ people.”

SOGI resources are intended to help teachers have conversations with students about sexual orientation and gender identity so that children feel safe and better understand their own and other people’s diverse life experiences, reads the B.C. government’s website.

Additional information is available online at sogieducation.org and gov.bc.ca.

In a phone interview with Black Press Media from her classroom, Lawrence said she attributes the targeted threats and hate-filled messages to her role as an outspoken advocate for SOGI resources and her sexual identity as a queer woman.

Black Press Media obtained some of the messages received by Lawrence but has chosen not to republish them due to their derogatory and violent nature.

While the resource was created seven years ago, Lawrence says she has been receiving threats and hateful online messages since 2022. Despite this, Lawrence has continued to work hard to ensure that all of her students feel safe, respected and celebrated.

“The students in our classes are worth whatever these people can throw at us,” she said.

In the summer of 2023, a surge of criticism and outcry against the resource spread across the province, in the form of protests and marches. This included a national “1 Million March 4 Kids” campaign organized Hands Off Our Kids a conservative Muslim activists who have made explicit anti-gay and anti-LGBTQ+ statements and by Family ❤️Freedom a more secular group that claims to accept 2SLGBTQ+ persons as part of their anti-2SLGBTQ+ demonstration, according to The Canadian Anti-Hate Network. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network is an independent, nonprofit organization made up of Canadian experts and researchers on hate groups and hate crimes.

Anti-SOGI protests sharing misinformation, inciting hate: B.C. educators

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Both pro-SOGI and anti-SOGI groups gathered outside the Chilliwack School District 33 office on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

Lawrence said that increasingly common rhetoric being used to target people who support SOGI resources is to call them ‘groomers’ or ‘pedophiles.’

She explained that these derogatory terms have been used against members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community for generations as a way to promote fear. Now the unfounded accusations are being used to target people, like Lawrence, who is queer and an advocate for inclusive education.

“Educating youth about the fact that homosexual people exist is not predatory… Equating 2SLGBTQIA+ people and allies with pedophiles is dehumanizing and puts people at risk. It is terrifying,” Lawrence said.

“If you have any suspicion that a child is being harmed you must report it. If not, you are connecting 2SLGBTQIA+ people with a slur and that is hate speech.”

Lawrence is not alone in receiving threats. Teachers across the province are currently facing anti-SOGI and homophobic hate and threats, said Education and Child Care Minister Rachna Singh.

The minister told Black Press Media that she has spoken to numerous teachers who are also facing mounting levels of hate. Singh said she has also been the recipient of a barrage of violent and hate-filled messages relating to SOGI.

“These are tough times,” said Singh.

Many of the threats Lawrence, Singh and other teachers receive are from anonymous sources on social media or email, making it difficult for the RCMP to pursue. Lawrence admits that compared to the hundreds of hate-filled messages that she has been sent, she has filed relatively few police reports.

Threats, hate messages and misinformation

While it can be difficult to track down those behind anonymous hate messages, police still encourage people to report all threats.

“We know that crimes motivated by hate tend to be under-reported to police, particularly by members of vulnerable or marginalized communities,” the BC Hate Crime unit said in a statement to Black Press Media. “All reports of hate-motivated crimes will be thoroughly investigated to determine if a criminal offence has occurred. The presence of offensive language alone may be a criminal offence. All complaints are taken seriously.”

Statistics Canada data shows that police-reported hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation rose by approximately 169 per-cent from 2018 to 2022.

Clint Johnston, president of the B.C. Teachers Federation, said in a statement to Black Press Media that anti-SOGI protests held at B.C. schools are having a negative impact on all members of the school community, including 2SLGTBQIA+ staff and students.

“We will always stand up for the right of all staff and students to have a safe and supportive school environment where they are accepted exactly as they are.”

Minister Singh said that she has spoken with numerous teachers across the province who are experiencing a barrage of threats and vulgar messaging related to SOGI and is doing all she can to best support them.

She said that there are ministry-level discussions underway to create possible ‘safe zones’ around schools where protests would not be permitted. Singh said that she is working with other government ministries, school districts, principals and superintendents across the province to come up with strategies to support teachers who are receiving threatening messages.

Singh said that she will continue to support inclusive educational resources like SOGI and encourages parents to speak with school staff if they have any concerns about the education that their child is recieving.

READ MORE: Vernon teacher explains what SOGI is, and why it’s needed

How SOGI 123 can be used in classrooms

Lawrence said she understands that the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity can elicit strong emotions, including fear. People are diverse and come from unique backgrounds, religions and cultures, and as a result have varying comfort levels concerning what their children ought to be exposed to.

However, she wants to assure all parents that the purpose of SOGI is to prevent bullying through education and to promote inclusion. So too does Dawn Tucker, an educator, community advocate and openly queer person in Vernon, B.C., who has also been subject to defamatory allegations and death threats.

“There is nothing nefarious that is going on in schools. There is no agenda and parents are encouraged to speak with their children’s teacher and ask questions,” Tucker said, adding that students have the most success when parents and guardians are engaged in their child’s learning and are aware of what is going on at school. Tucker encourages families to get involved in their child’s educational journey.

Tucker said that ultimately they want to show all people, including those who oppose SOGI resources, that teachers and educators just want students to be safe and happy. Singh, Lawrence and Tucker all said that parents and guardians are encouraged to speak with school staff and teachers at any time if they have concerns about their child’s education.

“I just want to make the classroom a welcoming and inclusive space,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence utilizes SOGI resources to ensure that she includes work from diverse and 2SLGBTQIA+ authors and artists in her students’ assignments so that all children are able to see themselves represented in society.

She also uses the resources to navigate discussions and respond to questions about gender, sexuality, diverse families and 2SLGBTQIA+ discrimination as it pertains to the topics being discussed in her classes.

SOGI resources include a wide range of lesson plans that can be used by teachers in a variety of topics including biology with lessons on differences in sexual development and history with lessons on historical and Indigenous perspectives on two-spirit, transgender and queer people.

An overarching theme throughout the resources is the importance of addressing all bullying, including homophobia, and name-calling with facts and information.

READ MORE: Crowd of 500 at anti-SOGI protest in Chilliwack chants ‘leave our kids alone’

Anti-SOGI protest groups

Tucker and Lawrence both believe the surge in hate they have been subject to is in direct correlation with the false, fear-based messaging being spread by those against SOGI.

Another group local to B.C. that has taken part in protesting SOGI 123 is the Educational Awakening Open Forum Tour.

The Awakening Forum’s self-declared purpose is to “bring awareness about the SOGI Transgender agenda,” and has organized forums attended by hundreds of people across the province.

The founder of the organization, David Hamilton, has taken aim at those who support SOGI, provide gender-affirming care to youth or oppose conversion therapy.

Upon request for comment, a representative for the group named Tracee Midgley said in a statement that she is not aware of any harassment directed at teachers who are queer in connection to anti-SOGI protests or forums.

“I want to emphasize my stance against any form of hatred directed towards individuals or groups, and I strongly disapprove of threats based on one’s personal beliefs or sexual orientation,” Midgley said.

However, she said that the protests, rallies and public forums held by groups like Educational Awakening are likely to continue until the government “realizes that parental rights take precedence over any government-issued educational resource.”

Midgley wrote that she feels as though those who are advocating for the inclusion of SOGI resources in B.C. public schools are “reluctant to engage in meaningful dialogue and address the valid concerns raised by parents. … Rather than solely focusing on the threats faced by ‘gay’ teachers, it may be more pertinent to question why proponents of the SOGI resource are avoiding conversations with parents.”

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People holding signs that read “SOGI is harming our children,” “If you really understood the LGBTQ agenda you would march with us to protect God’s children,” at a ‘parental rights’ rally in Kelowna on Sept. 20, 2023. (Jacqueline Gelineau/Capital News)

Misinformation and hate-speech

Tucker said that ultimately, the goal of teachers and educators is the same as that of concerned parents and guardians: to ensure that students are safe and happy. However, they said that name-calling, threatening and making untrue allegations against a person is not constructive civil discourse.

While Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows people the right to protest and express their opinions, hate speech that includes threats of violence or defamation is not.

A recent court decision in Ontario found that using a difference of opinion as a vector to spread harmful misinformation, including the term ‘groomer’ without evidence, is not considered protected speech.

In December 2023, a justice in the Superior Court of Ontario made a decision to move forward with a defamation suit involving a drag performer who was labelled a groomer by a protester. They ruled that while freedom of expression is a fundamental right and value, it is “not a ‘carte blanche’ to defame.”

The justice said that the term groomer reinforces stigma and misinformation, is not considered “fair comment” and is not protected under anti-strategic litigation against public participation legislation.

Lawrence said homophobia impacts all people, from the cis-gendered heterosexual boy who is called gay because he wants to sing in the theatre or wear nail polish, to the girl who is made fun of for looking masculine because she has small breasts.

Lawrence has been told by her students that the opportunity to have discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom has been helpful.

One of her students told her “I feel like I’m always walking on eggshells” regarding their experience as a queer youth who is exposed to anti-2SLGBTQIA+ conversations on a regular basis.

The barrage of hate-filled messages can be exhausting and terrifying, said Lawrence. It worries her that stress, burnout and vitriol cause some teachers to shy away from using the resource.

“Prince George has great resources but if teachers are afraid to use them for fear of a smear campaign or violence, they won’t use them. When it is constant, it wears people down.”

Lawrence said she is prepared to stand with other educators to do whatever it takes to ensure that all students have a safe space to learn and express themselves.

Despite the threats and name-calling, Lawrence said she won’t give up. She said that the fight is worth it for her student’s right to learn.

“I’m OK with being the person who takes it.”

Editor’s note: This article previously reported Action4Canada was the organizer of the 1 Million March 4 Kids events. This article has been updated and amended.



Jacqueline Gelineau

About the Author: Jacqueline Gelineau

I'm a reporter in the beginning stages of my career. I joined the team at Capital News in November 2021...
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