A concern came to us from a teacher recently suggesting that we may be reinforcing the gender binary when we divide boys and girls into different groups for our iGirl and iGuy workshops. That is, are we imposing gender on students by having different programs for boys and girls?

Inclusivity and Gender Identity issues are a focus in education right now, partly do to a new initiative launched in 2016 called SOGI 123 (www.sogieducation.org). SOGI 123 was created by ARC Foundation in partnership with the BC Ministry for Education, BC Teachers’ Federation, UBC Faculty of Education, and local, national and international LGBTQ community organizations. Its purpose is to support marginalized LGTBQ students by providing policies, resources and lesson plans to school districts, schools and teachers that promote more inclusive environments for all students.

To be honest, when I first heard this teacher’s concern about our programs I felt defensive. How could someone think that our programs could be anything other than inclusive when we spend so much time in every one of our workshops encouraging youth to celebrate their unique sexual and gender identity? And how could a teacher even suggest that our approach to empowerment isn’t consistent with SOGI 123 principles? We live and breathe this stuff!

The truth is, though, this is a question that I and my team of educators have grappled with for a while now: Is it still relevant to have gender specific workshops? After a lengthy discussion, we concluded that yes it is. And yes, we can still promote the celebration of our differences and inclusive school environments within this structure.  Here’s a summary of our views:

As an organization, Saleema Noon Sexual Health Educators wholeheartedly supports the principles and policies of SOGI 123. We celebrate diversity of all kinds and our educators work hard to create safe, respectful and inclusive environments for all workshop participants. Although iGirl and iGuy are gender specific workshops, they are not designed to assign or impose gender on kids. Rather, they are designed to deconstruct the gender binary in a kid-friendly way while acknowledging the context within which our society currently functions. Because of the power dynamics created by the gender binary, we have found that, for now at least, we are able to provide the most effective and meaningful, opening discussions about gender with young people while within gender specific spaces.

In all of our workshops, we acknowledge that everyone’s gender identity is beautifully individual to them. For this reason, we work with school personnel to assure that students participate based on the gender with which they identify. For many elementary-aged LGBTQ+ kids, participating in iGirl or iGuy may be the first time they have heard their personal, internal identities even acknowledged out loud, or learned there might be others that feel like them. We believe that this is a crucial step in creating a culture that celebrates all people.

You’ll find this statement on our website as a pop up in the iGirl and iGuy sections because it’s so important to us that people understand where we’re coming from.  We’re also proud to have added a rainbow heart logo on our website as well as on our marketing materials to share that (in an informal way) we are a proud “SOGI 123 Ally”. Thank you to this teacher for asking an important question and for giving us the opportunity to become crystal clear on why we structure our programs the way we do. Our hope is that sometime in the near future we won’t need gender specific workshops. In the meantime, we’ll continue to support kids to live their truth no matter who’s in the room.