Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) learners often feel isolated and depressed because of how their schools handle different sexual orientations.
"The problem is a combination of teachers not knowing enough about LGBTI issues and not wanting to know about them," said one student in a group of six who spoke to the Mail & Guardian last week at the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala) offices in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
Now the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), in collaboration with Gala, has produced a booklet titled Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Rights in Education, which was launched on Friday last week.
The students, aged 19 to 21, attend Wits University, UJ and Unisa. They compared their experiences at school — private, model C and township — in Gauteng. The consensus: they felt let down by curriculums that did not engage meaningfully with LGBTI issues and by teachers who did not have enough awareness of them and were bullied by fellow learners who had heard only one thing — not being heterosexual is "wrong".
"Walking down the corridors was hell," said Dumi, who wanted his surname withheld. The learners at the public school he attended often called him "stabane", a disparaging phrase in most South African languages meaning gay.
"Immoral and evil"
"I didn’t come out at school but people just knew," he said. "Kids can be vicious. Some said being gay was immoral and evil."
The only support he received was from his art teacher and his aunt.
"There were no support structures in place at my school. I figured it out myself."
Tish White, who went to a public school, said being lesbian in early high school was "very scary". She did a project at school on same-sex marriages "and it was assumed that I was not heterosexual. I presented the project in assembly so I basically came out to the whole school."
Now the national vice-convener for the Kaleidoscope Youth Network, a coalition of student-run societies for LGBTI people, White said she had the support of teachers but not of learners. "People in high school are scared of what is different. I was bullied by some classmates and lost some friends when I came out," she said.
By contrast, Zanele Makhubo said there was a trend at her convent school to experiment with one’s sexuality. "It was fashionable at my school to call yourself a lesbian or bisexual … coming out was nothing to be bullied about."
She remembered girls kissing in the library and the bathrooms. The nuns warned the girls about "no hanky panky" and "no bringing girls to the matric dance".
She said the girls wore tunics in summer but in winter they could wear tracksuits "and we loved it as the lesbians".
The ‘it’ girls
"We would wear our ties in all different ways. We were rebels. We were the ‘it’ girls," Makhubo said, although there was "zero support" from the "conservative" nuns.
For Makhubo being lesbian was "real and not just a trend".
"It was a personal struggle. I didn’t know there was a gay flag until I went to varsity and found out there was actually a gay movement. I only knew the crazy group at school," she said.
White agreed the trend existed in all-girls’ schools. "Every school has social cliques and in some groups it was trendy to be a lesbian. I remember when an older girl cut her hair and dated another girl she made it okay [to be lesbian]."
The group attributed the trend to "the times" and the schools being in the city. During the first decade of the new millennium, "some media started showing it was okay to be gay", said one student.
The students referred, during this period, to The L Word, a TV series about lesbians in the United States, being flighted, Angelina Jolie dating a "hot Asian girl" and the song I Kissed a Girl by Katy Perry being released. In South Africa the same-sex marriage Bill was passed.
Zazi Dlamini, who attended both public and private schools, said life-orientation classes "briefly touched on" sexual orientation and gender identity but "teachers just read out what the government gave them and didn’t get down to the nitty-gritty".
A need for material
"In my library there were five shelves full of cricket books but not even one book that dealt with sexuality," she said.
Thandikile Mathambeka, who attended an under-resourced school in Soweto that had a poor matric pass rate, said that in township schools "you are worrying about getting food on the table, not your sexual identity".
"And they focused on academics and that’s it. They don’t engage with politics. There is no intellectual interaction. We didn’t have the opportunity to talk about sexual orientation stuff."
The attitude at these schools was: "Who wants to read books when you’re struggling with your academics and you can’t even understand your textbooks or English even?" she said.
The group agreed learners should be able to talk openly about LGBTI rights in class. "There is a misconception that if you give that information then you are encouraging kids to have sex or to be gay," said Makhubo. Teachers shouldn’t "whip out a Bible when you go to them for help about your girlfriend", she said.
Dumi said awareness should be a collaborative effort between schools, parents and community leaders because you can’t "feel safe at school and then go back to your neighbourhood and be prejudiced against".
Characters in foundation-phase textbooks such as "Kathy and Mark" perpetuated gender stereotypes, the group agreed. "Mark helps dad in the garden and Kathy helps mom in the kitchen. Get rid of Kathy and Mark. What about Thandi and her two dads?" Makhubo said.
Publications for the people
On Friday last week the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation launched a booklet titled Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Rights in Education.
Another two new titles, Environment and Education: Rights and Responsibilities and Facilitating Literacy: A Handbook for Community-based Literacy Workers, were also launched last week under the rubric of the Education Rights Project, an initiative launched 10 years ago and now driven by the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation. The project’s many previous titles have addressed school rights issues including costs, admission policies, disability, language rights, sexual violence, refugees and racism.
"These booklets are not just a once-off thing," said Salim Vally, the co-ordinator of the project. "They are part of a series whose worth in communities has been tried and tested. Communities ask for them. The suggestions for these topics came from communities.
"It’s not just learners who use them … teachers and government officials also use them."
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Rights in Education, written by researcher and writer Patricia Watson, aims to provide "educators, parents and learners with a basic understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity to overcome discrimination and prejudice".
At Friday’s launch, Watson, who has a background in applied linguistics, told the M&G her research showed that teachers had the attitude that "learners are too young to know [about their sexual orientation]".
"Teachers say they are not at school to engage with a learner’s private life, that they are there to teach, but this is why we have the problem of teenage pregnancies and making LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex] learners ‘the other’," she said.
Schools had to engage learners on sexual orientation issues otherwise "learners don’t bring their whole selves to school", Watson said.
The booklet urges schools to "consciously cultivate an inclusive culture in which LGBTI people feel they are valued members of the school community". It provides suggestions for how schools can do this by celebrating diversity. Learners from sexual minorities must be allowed to form social clubs to educate the community about diversity and share LGBTI experiences. They should be encouraged to participate in school sports free from intimidation and teasing. School leadership should make an effort to educate the whole school community about sexual orientation rights and invite members from LGBTI organisations to share information.
A transgender person should be given the choice to use the toilet facility that he or she feels most comfortable using. Learners should feel free to bring any partner to the matric dance regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Also at the launch, Linda Chisholm, adviser to the minister of basic education, said the booklet reinforced messages in the school curriculum about the protection of LGBTI learners’ rights. "The policies are there but it depends on the schools and teachers about what programmes they implement," Chisholm said.
A previous version of this article stated that the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation had produced the booklet titled Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Rights in Education with Gala’s "participation". It was actually produced "in collaboration" with Gala. This has been amended.