The country’s LGBTI pupils are being abused and bullied to the brink of suicide, activists warn.
South Africa’s schools are a hostile environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex pupils, said gender activists this week. Because these LGBTI pupils do not conform to prescribed male and female gender roles, they get assaulted and bullied. A fifth have attempted suicide and a fifth have been raped or sexually assaulted, according to research.
Anele* and Stacey* told their teacher that they were not comfortable wearing their school clothes. As in most schools, they had to wear the skirts prescribed for girls. They wanted to wear non-gendered clothing.
The teacher mentioned this to another teacher, who then told Anele to “pull down your pants so I can see what’s behind there”. Stacey was hit on the back of the head by another teacher. “Now go and call your lawyers. Let them put up a shack for you and teach you there,” they said.
Anecdotes like this have been collected by the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Network, and reflect the daily reality for LGBTI pupils, the organisation said.
The community is marginalised and its problems are overlooked, and there has been a “sharp increase” in bullying, said the network. Pupils therefore have to suffer in silence.
Events such as Women’s Month need to be extended to include debates about “queer youth, to whom educational institutions have become a hostile environment”, the organisation said this week.
Gabriel Hoosain Khan, from the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action centre in Johannesburg, said although South Africa’s laws have changed and are progressive, basic sexual differentiation is still an intrinsic part of the system. Pupils who do not conform are therefore left out. “A student in our education system is forced by the system to fit into one of two gender categories.”
The entire schooling experience is segregated, from curriculum to sports and uniforms, he said. “Pupils who do not conform stick out, making them a target for abuse.”
A study in 2006 by the centre found that 20% of gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers had been raped or assaulted in their lives. The same percentage had attempted suicide and a third had thought about committing suicide, it said.
Unisa’s Centre for Applied Psychology conducted similar research in 2012 and found that “the victimisation of LGBTI learners is widespread”. Two-thirds of the bullying came at the hands of fellow pupils, 22% from teachers and 9% from headmasters. This was a reflection of society’s attitude towards the LGBTI community, it said.
“Despite having one of the most progressive constitutions in terms of equality and human dignity for all, the social climate in South Africa is still largely homophobic,” the research noted.
In Limpopo, a headmaster told pupils in 2010 to follow Mpho* to the toilets to “check” her genitals. This was after she refused to wear a gender-specific uniform. This year seven lesbian pupils were suspended in Tembisa, with the deputy principal allegedly saying their desire to wear trousers instead of skirts was “satanic”.
Also this year, in Pretoria, a transgender pupil tried to commit suicide after other pupils threatened to sexually abuse and undress the pupil at school.
Newspaper reports at the time said the pupil left a suicide note saying: “I feel so small. I just want to die and get over this.”
Things are getting worse, which is why the alarm needs to be sounded, said Busisiwe Deyi of Gender DynamiX in Cape Town. Pupils arrive at school with the baggage of what their peers and parents have told them about people who are not seen to conform, she said.
Deyi said that pupils from the LGBTI community face an onslaught that reflects the abuse the community faces in society at large. The country may offer them legislative protection but it is not enacted, she said.
First legal framework
In 1996 South Africa became the first country in the world to provide a legal framework that constitutionally protects the LGBTI community from discrimination and human rights abuses. Several court cases since then have continued the precedent.
The Bill of Rights places the onus on the state to protect these rights. This came after decades of banning under the apartheid regime and its Immorality Act of 1927. In the 1960s, it went to such extremes as to criminalise any “male person who commits with another male person at a party any act which is calculated to stimulate sexual passion or give sexual gratification”.
But a 2012 report by the South African Human Rights Commission said the violence faced by the LGBTI community is exacerbated by government inaction.
The state needs to implement “laws that provide pupils with explicit protection from discrimination”, the report said. It also found “increased reports of violence” targeted at the community.
The extreme end of this violence has been seen in so-called “corrective rapes”, where a person is raped in the belief that this will make them conform to heterosexual norms.
As a result of several high-profile cases, the department of justice set up a task team to investigate the perceived increase in violence against the LGBTI community. It found that LGBTI people were “often targets of physical violence, labour discrimination and derogatory or threatening speech”.
‘Deeply entrenched homophobia’
Public services are failing the community and are guilty of “deprioritisation, marginalisation, exclusion and targeted victimisation” of LGBTI people, the report said. The commission has established a team to investigate hate crimes, and started circulating pamphlets to help people to understand more about the LGBTI community.
Nthabiseng Mokoena of Transgender and Intersex Africa said bullying results in many pupils dropping out of school. The organisation’s research found that 32% of LGBTI pupils do not have a matric certificate because they face “deeply entrenched homophobia and transphobia”.
This means they are further ostracised and are forced to be dependent on the state throughout their lives, she said. “The one place where pupils should be safe and gain an education has become a nightmare.”
* Not their real names