Bid to shift the ‘movable middle’ — working to change harmful views of queer people

“I remember once, I was walking alone and a bunch of guys started whistling and calling me ‘baby’. When they saw I was ignoring them, they started going on about how the Bible condemns me and how they were going to rape me because that was what I really wanted.

“They called me terrible names like stjuzana, which basically means ‘sissy’, but in a really offensive way. I’ve had so many of those kinds of experiences.”

This years-long bullying was what led Njabulo Makhubo to attempt suicide: “All the bullying and homophobia just became, I don’t know, too much.”

His suicide bid shook his aunt, student activist Lindiwe Dhlamini. “For years, I’d been fighting for the rights of others but here was something so close to home. It hit me really, really hard,” she says.

Dhlamini decided to establish the Injabulo Project, a nonprofit organisation that aims to teach schoolchildren about the issues that face people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI), providing a safe platform for them to share their experiences.

The project takes its name from Makhubo, who, having survived his suicide attempt, is now a second-year psychology student at the University of Johannesburg.

Patrick Solomons, the director for children’s rights nongovernmental organisation Molo Songololo, says: “Despite constitutional guarantees not to be discriminated against, LGBTI youth experience severe pressure to conform and be ‘normal’, or heterosexual. Their peers often tease them, mock them, bully them, call them names, bribe them, beat them, sexually abuse and rape them.”

Progressive Prudes, a report produced by the Other Foundation and the Human Sciences Research Council, found that a significant percentage — 16.1% — of South Africans neither agreed nor disagreed that LGBTI people deserve the same human rights as all South Africans. Another 27.4% did not care whether or not the sexual orientation protection clause remained in the Constitution. Because of their ambivalence, these groups have been named the “movable middle”.

The report, which sought to ascertain South Africans’ attitudes towards LGBTI people, emphasises the role of “LGBTI-sensitisation initiatives” as a means to stem negative perceptions of this group of people.

It notes: “In terms of reaching the ‘movable middle’, it is clear that there is a need for more information and engagement, not only about sexual orientation and gender identity, but also about the Constitution itself.”

One of the report’s authors, Pierre Brouard, who is the deputy director of the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Sexualities, Aids and Gender, says: “Reinvigorating the life orientation curriculum in schools — and building a cohort of teachers who enjoy this area and are competent in it — seems an opportunity to influence attitudes from a younger age.”

Influencing this “movable middle” from a younger age is vital. According to the report: “The youngest age group (16–19 years) were more likely to report that homosexuality and gender nonconformity is ‘wrong’ or ‘disgusting’. Of most concern is that young people, 16 to 19 years old, are up to three times more likely than any other age category to report on the use of violence, especially towards gender non-conforming women.”

Through a series of LGBTI-sensitisation workshops funded and facilitated by the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala) and the Triangle Project, the Western Cape South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) is hoping not only to improve the wellbeing of LGBTI schoolchildren and teachers, but also to shift the “movable middle” towards the more accepting side of the scale. The union has already held workshops at 55 schools across the province.

“Because more and more cases of victimisation of LGBTI learners are being reported to management of schools, we realised the need to relook our existing policies in Sadtu and in our schools to try and make sure that all policies promote equality of treatment and are free of discrimination,” says Sheryl Hendricks, the union’s provincial gender convener.

Out!ology is another organisation working to spread awareness among schools, predominantly in the poorer areas north of the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality.

Like the Injabulo Project, the organisation was born out of a painful past. “During high school, I faced a lot of bullying and verbal abuse because of my sexual orientation. It was very hard for me to cope with this and led to severe depression. This motivated me to start this organisation,” says the organisation’s founder and executive director, Alain Redcliffe.

Given that the areas in which his organisation works have, according to him, never even “heard of what a transgender person is, or even what gay and lesbian people really are”, Redcliffe has his work cut out for him. “Not many schools were accepting of our work. This is an issue we are always having to battle,” he adds.

Elsbeth Engelbrecht, director of the Triangle Project, concurs: “There is huge resistance from many different sectors. Many parents, teachers and others are resistant to any kind of frank discussion around sex and LGBTI-sensitisation is inevitably caught up in this mind-set.”

Brouard adds: “If we were to think of patriarchy, religion and tradition as the Bermuda Triangle of conservative values, where diversity remains becalmed, these forces have to be confronted. I would argue that confronting this conservatism would be good for all South Africans — not only LGBTI people.”

The effective promotion of LGBTI rights in schools is something that young people such as Makhubo are desperately in need of. Saturday marks World Suicide Prevention Day and the statistics are frightening: 31% of South African LGBTI youth say they have thought about committing suicide and 21% admit to attempting suicide.

“We have to give kids who might feel different a sense of belonging. Like, it’s okay that you’re a bit different,’” says Makhubo.

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation‘s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

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Carl Collison
Carl Collison
Carl Collison is a freelance journalist who focuses primarily on covering queer-related issues across Africa

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