Unicorn helps Ontario schools be inclusive of gender diversity

A unicorn named Gegi is now helping Ontario public and Catholic schools welcome gender diversity.

Gegi.ca is the creation of Queen’s University researcher, Dr. Lee Airton, Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies in Education, and Dr. Kyle Kirkup, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law (Common Law Section) at the University of Ottawa.

“Gender expression and gender identity are still new concepts to many people, let alone new areas of legal responsibility for school staff,” explained Airton. “Gegi.ca is intended to fill this gap by supporting Ontario’s K-12 students and their loved ones in the kind of self-advocacy that changes schools for everyone.” 

“Gegi will offer students and their loved ones a comprehensive toolkit for situations where they are experiencing gender expression or gender identity discrimination at school, whether the source is another student, staff member, rule, or common practice that hasn’t been updated to reflect changes in the law of the province,” they said.

This online resource targets elementary and high school students and educators seeking more information about gender identity and gender expression human rights protections.  With “Gegi” – a beautiful/handsome nonbinary unicorn – as their guide, K-12 students across Ontario can acquire information and tools to self-advocate within their school and school board. 

“Right now, Gegi has two main components. The first one is a primer on what gender expression and gender identities human rights are. And that’s very important, because those are two separate grounds of protection that function in different ways. So clearing that up and making that accessible is one of the things that the website does,” they explained.

“Gegi.ca is a place where Ontario K to 12 students and their families and their teachers can go to find out how to advocate for their gender expression and gender identity human rights at school,” Airton continued.

They went on to explain, “The second thing that Gegi does — and this is this took hundreds of hours for a bunch of graduate students — it brings together all of the information, or indicates the absence of that information, in every single school board policy collection in Ontario.”

“Students, their family, or their teacher can go to Gegi.ca and navigate to their own school board’s website and they can find out whether their school board has even updated their policies at all, to include these two new grounds that came into Ontario law in 2012,” said Airton.

Sadly though, they noted, “In many cases, the answer is ‘No,’ the policy has not been rewritten to include the new legislation.  In that case, the site directs students to who they might contact to address that.”

Gegi.ca targets both students and teachers, providing access to knowledge and skills that are typically only held by legal professionals. Skills fostered by Gegi.ca’s resources include legal self-advocacy (i.e., correctly identifying governing laws, past legal precedents, policies and procedure; and maintaining written records and conducting correspondence), and identifying key actors and levers of power within their own school and school board. 

Next fall, Airton said, a new phase of Gegi will include “creating a suite of tools that will help students or family members or their teachers to actually advocate in a way that aligns with how a lawyer would advocate when they’re representing a client.”

Airton explained, “We have created something called the Gegi curriculum that’s available on the website, that includes a list of five strands, kind of like the Ontario curriculum, they are competencies or expectations that if a student meets them, then they will be a successful self-advocate. So this is going to include a sort of self-assessment template, tools that students can use to make notes to write emails to keep track of their advocacy protests, things like that.”

A typical message from Gegi.ca on Instagram.

The main target audience of Gegi.ca is students, Airon expressed, noting, “Everything we’re doing is pitched about grade six or seven reading level. And we’re working hard, especially for the next phase of what’s going to be there and these tools we are creating, to provide examples for students (and if they are lucky their supportive adult) to be able to use the tools effectively.”

Airton said the project did not require them to partner with any particular school board, because all of the policies they engaged with are publicly available. Some boards have excellent up-to-date policies, while some are struggling to keep up. In the Kingston area Limestone District School Board is a great example of a board with policy dedicated to “Supporting & Protecting LDSB Transgender-Spectrum and/or Gender Non-Conforming Students,” the expressed. 

Algonquin Lakeshore CDSB on the other hand, does not refer at all to transgender-spectrum or gender non-conforming students in their “Policy Statement on Equity And Inclusive Education.”

Airton said this is a reason they hope teachers will use Gegi, too.

“Even though the primary audience is kids, we know that teachers have a huge role to play in making things available, making them visible and bringing them into schools. We also know that every single board has at least one or a few people who have diversity, equity, and inclusion as their mandate,” they said. 

The launch of Gegi coincided with Education Week and Catholic Education Week. “We sent out a special invitation on the morning of the launch to all the folks in those roles whose contact information we gathered. We are also doing a hardcopy mail out to all the directors of education, in August or late August,” said Airton.

Aside from teachers actively promoting Gegi, Airton said, “Our primary tool for raising awareness with kids is actually social media. We have an Instagram account and we are also considering moving into other platforms this summer, we’re beginning to create Tik Tok.”

“We’ve also designed the campaign so that it has a really seamless, easy interface on a mobile phone. That was a huge priority, because our primary audience will be looking at it on a phone. So the user interface was really important,” they explained. 

“And of course,” said Airton, there’s “Our ridiculous mascot, Gegi, whom we don’t take very seriously. We find the Unicorn really campy and he always makes us laugh. So we hope the personality of that mascot, especially as we move into other media platforms like TikTok, will become something that kids can take and remix and play with.”

Gegi.ca was created following a study by Dr. Airton and Dr. Kirkup of how Ontario school boards were responding to their new legal responsibilities to offer an environment free from two separate forms of discrimination: for who you are gender-wise (your gender identity), and how you let others know through things like your clothing, grooming, and behaviour (your gender expression). 

The resource aims to translate and mobilize findings from their recent Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant (2018-2020), which identified that Canada is going through a gender human rights law revolution and that action was needed to directly address the incremental and uneven rate at which K-12 school structures and practices are changing in response. 

Each Ontario school board (public and Catholic) will have two dedicated student and staff web pages on Gegi.ca. The site will also host a series of downloadable and accessible resources, both in French and English. These resources contain the most up-to-date law- and research-informed guidance on the changes required to fulfill every school’s duty to create a learning environment free from discrimination on the basis of gender expression or gender identity. 

For school staff who face gender expression discrimination, Gegi.ca’s board-specific pages connect to local school board policies and advocacy resources, as well as union policies. 

Lastly, teachers and school administrators who recognize the presence of gender expression or gender identity discrimination in their school can access Gegi.ca’s collection of tip sheets and curated resources, all of which prompt proactive change. The Gegi.ca team will also share the resources with equity leads in Ontario’s school boards and work to engage all directors of education as part of the rollout. You can visit www.Gegi.ca or follow Gegi the Unicorn on Instagram.

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