/ 8 September 2022

Teen suicides are a clarion call to protect queer children

Tragic: Lukhanyo Jongqo was just 14 when he committed suicide after being bullied at school in the Eastern Cape

The queer community is still reeling from the tragic death of Tiro Moalusi. The Soweto teenager took his own life on 16 August after he was allegedly humiliated by a student teacher because of his sexuality. The Gauteng department of education has suspended the accused student teacher amidst an investigation by a South African Council for Educators officer.

This is not the first time a student has committed suicide this year after being bullied at school. For example, Lukhanyo Jongqo, a 14-year-old learner in the Eastern Cape, committed suicide in August after being bullied at school. Similarly, in June, Mpho Falithenjwa took his life after being constantly bullied at school. These deaths highlight the continued lack of safety and inclusion in South African schools for queer youths.

A pattern of queerphobic discrimination

Stories about queerphobic discrimination in schools continue to be far too familiar for a nation that prides itself on an inclusive Constitution. Unfortunately, there is limited data on the prevalence of LGBT discrimination in South Africa, particularly within schools. However, a 2016 report by OUT LGBT Well-being reports that 56% of LGBTQI+ South Africans experienced discrimination based on their queerness. Verbal bullying and threats of violence are the two most common forms of discrimination.

A quick survey of media headlines over the past few years confirms the accuracy of these statistics as schools remain shameless about the extent to which they’re willing to discriminate against queer children. Occasionally, this discrimination culminates in tragic deaths, while others are the persistent forms of systemic violence which dehumanise and demonise queer children. Our schools have become sites for silencing and exclusionary policies which denigrate sexual and gender diversity.

For example, earlier in August, Hoërskool Rustenburg punished a student for attending a drag show by finding the student guilty of “immorality”. As a result, the student was stripped of her role as the chairperson of a school society. However, after social media outrage, the school eventually reversed their punishment.

The entire saga shows how schools continue to cling to their conservative values. In a different time, before Gauteng high court’s decision in Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie v Laerskool Randhart (“Ogod”), schools would ramble about how queerness does not align with their “Christian” ethos. After the Ogod case, public schools could no longer promote a single religion or brand itself. 

In turn, we’re now seeing formerly Christian public schools appeal to vague notions of immorality to punish the actions of queer children. For example, Hoërskool DF Malan, a high school in Belville, Cape Town, denied a request by pupils for a celebration of Pride Month in 2021. The school claimed that they were trying to preserve their morality code and prevent the creation of tension and division within the school.

I grew up in Durbanville and attended an English “Christian value” high school nestled in the heart of the northern suburbs. The experience was a masterclass in crafting elaborate narratives to smother any attempt by the student body to create a sense of queer community. Seeing DF Malan replicate this through their appeal to “unity” reminded me of when our school newspaper wasn’t allowed to run a story on queerphobic bullying because it might upset the parents. 

The school was complicit in fostering a deeply queerphobic schooling environment while claiming to be “liberal” and “inclusive”. In the early months of my transitioning, at the age of 24, I realised how my repressed upbringing stemmed from how my schools did the bare minimum to teach us about sexuality and gender identity.

Diagnosing the cause of queerphobia

Queerphobia oozes from a lecherous wound born from the psychological damage wrought upon our nation by fanatic evangelicals and the poisonous barbs of masculinity. Thabo Msibi writes about the links between masculinity and homophobic violence in South Africa. They describe how homophobic violence is rooted mainly in the patriarchy. The acts of violence, like calling queer children “sissy boys”, are based on the notion that effeminate gay men betray the superiority of masculinity. 

At the same time, masc lesbians challenge and try to usurp this constructed sense of masculinity. As a result, violence is enacted against them as punishment for betraying the “natural order”. These ideas of masculinity and adhering to the natural order of things created by the patriarchy are responsible for the levels of violence enacted against transgender people.

Queer people have been constructed as folk devils for our tortured conservative nation brainwashed into believing that queerness is a social ill. Children are a vulnerable group that needs to be protected from the brainwashing of the “gays”. Any exploration of gender or sexuality at a young age needs to be stamped out for fear that children might grow up to question the rigid boundaries of “socially acceptable” behaviour constructed by the gatekeepers of the patriarchy. 

The irony is that the attempts to suppress rebellion in the youth are antithetical to our national identity. South Africa was born in rebellion, yet the gatekeepers of our cultural identity are arrogant enough to think that their patriarchal structures will ever be able to constrict the vibrancy and beauty of queerness in this country. You can’t kill us in a way that matters.

Gauteng teen Mpho Falithenjwa suffered a similar fate as Lukhanyo Jongqo.

Fixing the problem

Looking at our current cultural landscape, there’s no silver bullet to fix queerphobia in South Africa. The only way we get there is through an aggressive form of exposure therapy which reconfigures our national psyche to abandon its violent attachment to the patriarchy. Unfortunately, such a cultural change is unlikely in our lifetime, which is the dystopian reality of queer activism – we probably won’t be alive to see the changes we fight for.

However, the problems within schools are a much simpler fix. First, there are existing measures, such as the School Safety Framework, which must be applied more strictly against homophobic bullying. While critically flawed, the proposed guidelines by the Western Cape department of education are an essential first step to constructing a school environment inclusive of gender and sexual diversity.

However, the national department of education also needs to put in place more stringent measures to hold schools accountable and to ensure that South African schools are safe and affirming spaces for all learners. This will require robust policy reform to reconstruct how schools view sexual and gender diversity, which constitutes a complete rejection of homophobic and transphobic violence. 

Our schools must adopt inclusive learning and teaching resource materials, particularly those developed by civil society organisations such as Gender Dynamix. At the same time, teachers must be trained to teach about and affirm sexual and gender diversity in the classroom.

A significant part of protecting queer youth is ensuring they can inhabit inclusive spaces that promote diversity in identity. Cultivating a strong sense of gender and sexual orientation diversity is an essential step to dismantling the oppressive structures of the patriarchy. 

The main takeaway from this epidemic of violence is that we need to protect queer children.

Cassandra Roxburgh is a Cape Town-based transfeminine freelance journalist. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.