In South Africa’s still largely conservative schools, answers to questions about sexual identity seldom go beyond the signs outside the girls’ and boys’ toilets, but that was far from true at Riverside College in Burgundy Estate last week.
During a lively workshop at the private school on Wednesday March 29, members of the Gender and Sex Project (GASP) from UCT and NGO Gender Dynamix challenged 42 Grade 7 to Grade 12 pupils on their awareness of gender identification and sexuality, perceived social taboos and gender prejudices.
For some it was uncomfortable and confusing; for others it was a chance to ask questions, talk about their own experiences and offer insights on an issue that has come to the fore in recent years, challenging the way many identify themselves in a world where the LGBT community continues to battle extreme persecution.
“The fear of rejection by friends and family often prevents many young people from being who they are or loving whom they want to love. Learners who do not identify as either a girl or a boy can feel invalidated or invisible,” said Sihle Kunene, head of Gasp, adding that schools were one of the best forums in which to start the conversation.
Siv Greyson spoke about how not everyone fits into the gender pigeonhole that has for so long defined the human experience.
“Gender identity means we categorise a boy or a girl, but people can be androgynous or pan sexual or non binary, meaning not a man or a woman,” said Ms Greyson.
“There are many ways you can express who you are and you can fit in between. Gender identity is what the doctor calls you, related to your physical biology. But the way gender and sexualities work is fluid,” she said.
“We don’t know everything, and we’re still learning. There are many gender identities, like if you are attracted as a man to men or a woman to women you are gay. With pan sexuality – a new term – there are no limits to whom you are attracted to.”
Ms Greyson took issue with the once commonly-held assumption that children born intersex or with extra genitalia should be “corrected” by doctors at birth, calling it a “violent” decision often taken by parents.
“What absolutely should happen is that the decision should be left till later for the person to decide for themselves.
“And if a girl wears suits and looks masculine, well, that’s cool. What we’re trying to get across is that it’s all up to you,” she told the pupils.
“Anything that makes your heart feel good is okay. When you see someone, be careful not to put labels on them. In the end, gender expression is how you represent yourself.”
Kopano Maroga dealt with homophobia and said fear and ignorance were to blame for much of it.
“People often either run from what they fear or destroy it,” said.
When a pupil asked what she should do if her religion condemned who she was, Ms Greyson advised her to leave that religion.
Afterwards, school principal Dave Swart said the workshop had left everyone with lots to think about.
“It’s a conversation we are going to have continually. The world is changing, and we need to open ourselves up.”
He added: “Understanding doesn’t mean you need to agree, but please give those who identify with this their space and mutual respect, while we go on their journey.”
Grade 10 pupil Natasha Blackead, 17, of Table View, said she had enjoyed the session. “I came out as a gay person two years ago, and my parents were really accepting. I feel my gender identity is really fluid, although I have had girlfriends and use the word ‘queer’ more as a bracket term.”
Her close friend, a 16-year-old Grade 11 pupil, said he is also gay. “But I am not out to everybody yet, but it will happen.
“At school, everybody knows, and it’s not a problem. This workshop was really, really nice in the sense that it explained a lot and was an affirmation of being who you are.”
Their friend, Grade 11 pupil Tara Africa, 16, of Table View, said she is “straight”, and she thought it was good to have the workshop, although she knew a lot about some of the issues discussed.
Western Cape Education Department spokeswoman Millicent Merton said school curricula for public schools covered “gender orientation and acceptance and tolerance, gender identity terminology, misconceptions and perceived taboos.”
Topics in the life orientation curriculum included development of the self, democracy and human rights.
Workshops were also held for teachers and pupils to promote empowerment and equality and ensure pupils knew about policies relating to gender, bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination.