The Seshego equality court has ordered the Limpopo education department to pay Nare Mphela, a transgender woman, R60 000 in compensation for discrimination and harassment she endured while at school.
“The principal would do things like ask some of the other girls to take me into the toilet and touch my private parts. He wanted to know what kind of genitals I had. He then told the school that I was actually a boy,” she says.
The case was taken to the South African Human Rights Commission by trans and queer rights organisation Iranti.org.
Her relief at the ruling, handed down on March 10, follows a lengthy court process, which she describes as “exhausting and strenuous”, and two years of abuse at Raselete Secondary School in Limpopo.
The harassment continued to such an extent that “I couldn’t focus. I wrote my matric exams but didn’t make it. It affected me very heavily. I was disrespected so much at that school. So, to win this case is very important for me. Also because it shows other young people that you can report these kinds of things.”
In another example of discrimination, the principal of a school in Mdantsane, Eastern Cape, forced 38 young people to come out as lesbian to their parents.
After discovering two girls kissing in the toilets of Ulwazi High School, principal Nomampondomise Kosani “identified” 36 other girls as lesbians and ordered them to return to the school with their parents.
Thembi Sithole, one of the pupils, says: “All of us were called into the staffroom and the principal started calling us these disgusting names, like rabishikazi (trash) and amagqwirha (witches). She said we were disgracing the school and that the reason we are lesbian is because we come from broken homes.”
Sithole, who chose not to use her real name, says her parents knew she identifies as lesbian. Others were not as fortunate.
“Some of the parents were very, very angry and threatening to beat it out of them. My girlfriend’s parents told her she must choose between a relationship with me and her home, her family.”
Sithole’s friend, Thandiwe Makhoba, who also chose not to use her real name, says: “Teachers at the school now have a bad attitude towards us. We used to be close to those teachers; we used to tell them everything. They were teachers we trusted, but there isn’t that bond anymore.”
Cameron Cordell, the acting executive director of Port Elizabeth-based organisation OUT!ology Network, said: “We approached the school to try to conduct sensitisation workshops with them, but they were not receptive.
“Getting into schools is generally a challenge. We have approached the department of basic education to assist us, but never hear from them. And we can’t just wait around, so we approach the schools individually. While some are open to having us there, we have had phones put down on us and been told to get off the property.”
Cordell adds that, in addition to name-calling and physical violence experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) children, incidents of corrective rape have been reported to the organisation, but not to the police who are seen as “unhelpful”.
A 2016 report by Pretoria-based organisation Out LGBT Well-being found that at secondary schools, 55% of respondents had been subjected to verbal insults, 35% had experienced threats of physical violence, 21% had had objects thrown at them and 18% had been punched, kicked or beaten.
An article titled “Educators’ perceptions of homophobic victimisation of learners at private secondary schools”, by Henk Mostert, Charmaine Gordon and Susan Kriegler and published in the South African Journal of Psychology in 2015, found: “There is no doubt that victims of homophobia are likely to experience major adverse effects concerning their health and general wellbeing. It does not matter how we define the formative — and often traumatic — phenomenon; experiences of homophobia have long-term implications for individuals’ adjustment and functioning in the contexts of their family, school, church and community.
“Most educators and administrators are raised and schooled in a society that considers homosexuality a sickness, and LGBT issues remain largely taboo in school communities.”
The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) in the Western Cape ran a series of LGBTI sensitisation workshops at 40 schools in 2016 in the hopes of breaking this taboo.
“What we saw was a shift in people’s attitudes, a deeper understanding,” says Sadtu Western Cape provincial chair Jonovan Rustin.
René Poole, a teacher at St Raphael’s RC Primary School in Athlone, says: “I attended those workshops because this is something that we don’t really talk about. I got to open my mind and speak to people who face those challenges and ask questions about things I didn’t know anything about.”
Although “having a different sexual orientation or gender identity has become more acceptable”, she says teachers are still in need of education about this.
“The grade R pupils were recently given an assignment in which they had to cut images out of magazines they felt represented themselves and their families. One boy cut out an image of a ballerina, which he said represented him. The teacher told him that he was a boy and the ballerina was girl, but he didn’t see what the problem was. So, you see, a lot of education is still needed.”
Kim Lithgow, founder and director Amanzimtoti-based organisation Same Love Toti works, says: “One of our primary aims is to reach parents, because a supportive parent provides a safe haven for LGBTIQ children. Also, schools will be more willing to listen to them.”
The organisation recently launched its Teachers Sensitivity and Youth Inclusivity Programme, which Lithgow concedes has not been easy to roll out. “Our biggest obstacles are religious and traditional beliefs, so we constantly need to bring home to people that, according to the Constitution, they’re allowed to have their beliefs, but at the same time so are others. The other side of that coin is that, as much as there are fundamentalist views, there are people working at creating a culture of inclusivity.”
Deonay Balie (27) is a transgender woman and teacher at a primary school in the Northern Cape town of Steinkopf. Although she describes the school as “very supportive” of her being transgender, she point out: “As an adult, I can protect myself, but children, all children, need our protection.”
As part of her drive to ensure the protection of the rights of children, Balie serves not only as the school’s project manager (overseeing its inclusive education and school safety projects) but also works in the broader community through the local radio station and workshops.
“There are queer kids in every school, so for me the most important thing is to simply provide that child with a safe space.”
Of the difficulties of her drive in a conservative community, Balie says: “Our dorpie is quite a religious place, but I always say Namaqualand people are not hateful people; they are really loving people. They just don’t understand. All that is needed is education.”
Lithgow counters: “People often say that education is the first step, but I think it’s empathy. Finding someone who is for dignity, equality and human rights. That, for me, is the first step. After that, we can say to that person, ‘right, that is what you believe and that’s good; now look, these kids are human, too’.”
The equality court ruling has underlined that queer kids are human too and nobody is more aware of this than Mphela.
Determined to put her school experience behind her, she wants to go to gender-affirming therapy — but not before rewriting matric and enrolling to study nursing.
“I just want to have a better life and be who I want to be; to be who I really am.”
The department of basic education had not responded to questions by the time this article was published.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian.