Ours is one of the few African countries that acknowledges different gender and sexual identities, but we’re still far from an accepting society. Schools, especially former Model C schools, continue to enforce heteronormative behaviours, and alienate queer students. This needs to change.
According to research conducted by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala), a queer civil rights movement, schools in South Africa continue to be unsafe spaces for LGBTQIA+ folks, who were victimised, bullied and harrased. Many queer learners still drop out of school or struggle to accept their queer identities because they have been socialised into rejecting them.
Many former Model C schools instil hyper masculine and patriarchal attitudes in their boy children; attitudes that implicitly endorse homophobia. I went to a school that endorsed this very same culture, a culture that made it difficult for me to navigate and embrace my sexuality.
Townships are often seen as spaces where queer bodies are subject to hatred and violence; they’re considered to be more homophobic, and people are perceived to be less informed about genders and sexualities outside what is considered the norm. Although crime against LGBTQIA+ folks is still a major challenge in townships, that wasn’t my experience.
I grew up in a township in the Eastern Cape, where everyone believed in accommodating and welcoming their neighbour. Growing up, I knew I was different from the other boys in my neighbourhood. I always found interest playing onopopi (dolls), ugqaphu (skipping) and upuca (a dexterity game played with stones) while the boys played soccer and intonga (stick fighting).
I don’t ever recall anyone in my family ever questioning why I played with girls and not boys, or why I behaved in ways that were associated more with girls. There were a few instances were my peers or a few older people asked me why I “acted like a girl” or said I should stop playing with girls or else I would get raped. But these remarks never bothered me because my grandmother and mother always reaffirmed their love for me and told me there was nothing wrong with the way I was.
During primary and secondary school, boys and girls played together and shared everything. I never felt out of place. I had already came to terms with my sexual identity and was starting to accept it. But this changed when I started Grade 10 at a former Model C school, where all the boys played either rugby or soccer. It was a shock for the boys and girls in my class when they found out that I was not into any sports. Valentine’s Day was the worst. It was a big event at the school. My classmates kept asking me why I didn’t have a Valentine’s date and I started to question my sexuality. I knew that my sexuality was not welcomed in this toxic environment that endorsed heteronormative behaviour. So I decided to adapt.
The last three years of my high school career became a living nightmare. I felt out of place. I started approaching girls just to hide my sexual orientation. I dated girls who I had no romantic interest in. I sat at the back of the class with the rest of the boys during Life Orientation and pretended to be fascinated when the teacher spoke about the vagina or sex between a man and a woman, just to make sure that no one suspected that I was gay. I pretended to be interested in hip-hop music that over-sexualised women, when all I wanted to listen to was Beyonce’s “Run The World”. I distanced myself from my queer friends and made homophobic remarks when I came across a gay person because I didn’t want to risk people at school thinking I was gay. I adopted heteronormative behaviours as a means of survival and slowly lost sight of who I was. Later, at university, re-establishing my identity became a major challenge for me.
There are days when I still struggle with embracing and owning my sexuality in public spaces; I still fear how people will react to it. While the constitution legally protects me, society still views my queerness as a threat to masculinity – and it started at school.
A staggering 56% of queer people say they have experienced discrimination in schools. This is a clear a sign that the education department needs to intervene and find ways to better educate children about gender and sexual fluidity. Subjects like life orientation should focus more on sex education and curriculums should include and make space for queer identities. Schools that encourage sports participation need to find ways to avoid alienating those who aren’t sporty and to shield them from victimisation and mockery. Our schools have to do more to help dismantle the negative perceptions society has towards LGBTQIA+ folks. They need to be more inclusive and more queer friendly.