Emmet Gebhart was a 16- or 17-year-old W. J. Mouat Secondary student and reading online about asexuality and non-binary gender identities.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, that makes sense. I guess that’s me.'”
Gebhart didn’t learn about different sexual orientations and gender identities in school. Before that day, Gebhart hadn’t processed the idea that there were people who did not feel sexual attraction or identify as either male or female.
Now 18 and studying business at the University of the Fraser Valley, Gebhart says new school policies teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity can only help the next generation.
“I probably would have come out in middle school because it was something I was aware of but I thought something was wrong with me.”
In February, the Abbotsford board of education passed a provincially mandated anti-bullying administrative procedure spelling out gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes. A set of education materials, known as SOGI 123, is now available to teachers across B.C. to help them address the topics.
“It’s kind of painful to watch,” Gebhart said of coverage of anti-SOGI activists and online commentary.
“I don’t think education is going to change your child’s identity, unless they were already questioning,” Gebhart said. “And it’s OK to question sometimes. It’s good to kind of learn more about yourself and if it’s for you, it’s for you, and if that’s not who you are, then you pretty quickly figure that out.”
SOGI policies are more than theoretical words on district documents; they can keep kids safe when executed properly, says Gebhart’s friend Kaleb Boulter.
While a student at Abbotsford Senior Secondary, Boulter, who also identifies as non-binary and asexual, was not yet “out” to their parents when a teacher nearly did so without Boulter’s consent. (Boulter prefers the gender-neutral pronouns “they,” “their” and “them.”)
At Boulter’s request, teachers were using their preferred name – Kaleb – but did not have permission to use that name on an interim report card sent home.
“Luckily, my parents’ initial response was. ‘Oh, [the school] must have a mix-up in the files. That’s totally fine.’ “
But if Boulter’s parents were more transphobic and learned about their child’s identity that way, they could be put in danger, Boulter said.
Boulter, 17, transferred to Mouat and eventually to studying by distance, in part to escape a difficult social environment for a queer kid.
Ashes Hansen, another non-binary, asexual-identifying member of the friend group who also uses gender-neutral pronouns, said they have looked over the SOGI material.
Hansen said students, starting from a young age, will now essentially be taught that there are a variety of gender identities and sexual orientations and identifying with them is OK.
“God, I wish I had those resources,” the 19-year-old said, referring to their time as a younger student.
The resources will also help teachers better understand sexual orientation and gender identity, and be able to support their students, Hansen said.
Hansen was asked what they would say to community members concerned about the effects of SOGI education in Abbotsford schools.
“You’ve definitely met queer people before and it was definitely OK,” they said.
“Your grandkids, your kids, they’re going to be fine; they’re going to learn about other people or maybe about themselves and, all around, they’re going to be more educated and maybe happier and better people because it’s easier to empathize and be kind to people when you have a better understanding of them.”