For years, Kim Foultien hid from her parents the abuse she suffered. “I felt like I could deal with it on my own,” she says of her life at school, fighting off bullies.
Now 19 years old, Kim recalls the difficulties she faced as a gender non-conforming pupil in the Western Cape town of Caledon. “Dit was baie, baie moeilik [It was very, very difficult]”.
“There was once, when I just got to high school, I was on my way to the shop to buy some chips. On my way there, there was a group of boys from my school and the one shouted, ‘Daar loop hy’ [there he is].
“They were really rough with me. They forced me into a rubbish bin. After that, I kept myself to myself or walked with girls.”
Last weekend trans and gender rights organisation Gender Dynamix held a symposium to address the problems faced by pupils in schools, particularly for transgender persons.
“Many of these spaces usually discuss sexual orientation — with gender identity and expression only forming part of those conversations. But with this symposium we don’t form part of the debate; we are the focal point of the debate,” said Liberty Matthyse, Gender Dynamix’s national advocacy officer.
Participating in the symposium were representatives from the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and national departments of basic education, the department of social development, nongovernmental organisations and the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). According to the HSRC’s presentation, 61.2% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth had experienced discrimination in school as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Steve Letsike, director of Access Chapter 2, placed the figure higher, saying 77% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people experience discrimination and violence at school.
The differing figures could be a result of what a Gender Dynamix report found to be “a paucity of global and local research” into the lives of young transgender people.
The report said bullying and the resultant drop-out rates affected transgender and gender-nonconforming youth for the rest of their lives. Trans and gender-nonconforming pupils also raised gendered uniforms and toilets as problems.
“Disturbingly, some young trans persons spoke about not using the bathroom at school for fear of other learners’ reactions. This means that they, unnaturally, contained urinating, defecating and changing menstrual items such as tampons and sanitary towels to avoid mocking and discrimination.”
There was a need for “consciousness-raising and education within the curriculum”, said the report. With proper support from school governing bodies, teachers and parents, it was possible to provide a more conducive school environment for young trans learners, it noted.
Although Kim went through being bullied without involving her parents, it was not because she did not enjoy their support. “They were always very, very supportive. They still are. En dit beteken vir my alles [And that means everything to me].”
Nicolette Fouldien, Kim’s mother, says that, although “bullying happens to children everywhere”, there were many occasions when “they took things to another level”, because her daughter is transgender.
She took it upon herself to discuss the matter with the school, which “was very, very difficult for me”.
“There needs to be a lot done to educate teachers and children at schools about these things,” she adds.
In 2016, Gender Dynamix published a guide for educators, titled Gender Identity in South African Schools: Understanding, Supporting and Including Transgender and Gender-nonconforming Children.
Matthyse said the Gender Dynamix team would train life orientation teachers in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape and, “for 2018, we have partnered with the University of Western Cape in terms of training final-year, pre-service teachers on the manual”.
Western Cape department of education’s Catherine Langenhoven says: “Teachers need to be equipped to deal with the issues that the LGBTI learner experiences. Gender is complex and not just about bodies; it is also about identities. Teachers are gendered beings and may encounter difficulties when dealing with matters of gender diverse learners.”
Langenhoven adds that teachers may often not be aware of pupils wrestling with their gender identity or having to deal with bullying. As a result, “learners do not feel safe to ‘come out’, which may lead to grave unhappiness, inappropriate behaviour and psychosocial pathologies”.
Her school years of being bullied now a thing of the past, Kim is studying office management at a local college. “Dis baie nice [it’s very nice]. I can grow my hair and wear what I want. I can be me.”
Her mother says: “I always told her she is perfect the way she is. You see, I didn’t ask God for a girl or a boy. I asked for a child.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the M&G