Being called devil worshippers, overlooked for promotions, instructed to buy gendered underwear and clothes, and asked how they have sex – these are some of the testimonies queer teachers shared at an LGBTIQ+ workshop hosted by the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) in Durban last weekend so that they could share their experiences in the workplace and come up with solutions on how the problems could be addressed.
The teachers shared horrifying experiences of how they were treated by colleagues, principals, parents and communities where their schools were based.
Professor Deevia Bhana, National Research Foundation chair in gender and childhood sexuality, declared in her paper titled Understanding and addressing homophobia in schools: A view from teachers, that South African schools were homophobic.
At the workshop, queer teachers said there were sometimes overlooked and not given tasks because of their sexual orientation. One teacher shared that when he came had out as gay, his colleagues would not sit at the same table as him. He said he was once meant to invigilate exams, but was sidelined and the work was done by other teachers.
Another teacher shared:
There was a staff meeting for men at my school and the principal said I must stand [outside] in the passage because I am gay. I felt disappointed because the image was that I was not welcome.
Another, who is lesbian, said she had been shamed by her colleagues who had told her that she had got married, had children and then “decided” that she was going to be lesbian. The teacher said her colleagues had insinuated that she was mistreated by men so much so “that I decided to be lesbian”.
“My former employer forced me to buy new female clothes because, I was told, I did not understand myself. He told me to buy a new set of underwear and new shoes so that I could identify myself as a female and not as a male,” said a teacher who is lesbian.
Teachers from village schools said they were not accepted because parents said they would “transfer being gay” to their children, while other parents called them “devil worshippers”.
Other teachers said that they were afraid to come out because they feared being discriminated against at their schools, while some said they had faced discrimination while they were pupils and were later discriminated against in the workplace.
As a pupil, every teacher used to ask me whether I was a boy or a girl. Other pupils would laugh at me and I would be chased out of the class. Every time a new teacher came to the school, I would be called to the staff room and they would tell her or him about my being a confused gender.
“As a college student, it was very difficult for me to get accommodation because they used to say they could not accommodate me with female students because they did not understand whether I was male or female. In the workplace, even though I [am no longer] called confused because of my dress code, I still experience a challenge when it comes to promotions.
“During interviews, I am expected to wear a dress. A school governing body, which sits on the interviewing panel, told me that it would not promote a lesbian in its school because, in doing so, it would be promoting evil spirits in the school.”
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A student teacher who identifies as pansexual said homophobia was as bad at university. She said her university had an office that dealt with issues faced by queer students. However, she said that there was an incident in which a lecturer had discriminated against queer students in class.
“My lecturer came to class and asked that people who were part of the LGBTIQ+ family raise their hands, and we raised our hands. The lecturer then asked: ‘What are you going to teach our children?’ I responded, saying: ‘Right now you are teaching me economics, so that is what I am going to teach.’”
She also said that she had observed while doing practicals that schools did not have knowledge about the queer community and that derogatory terms were used loosely even by pupils.
The teachers also spoke about the treatment of queer pupils and how they were discriminated against for not wearing gendered uniforms.
The basic education department has a booklet called Challenging Homophobic Bullying in Schools, which has guidelines on how schools can prevent homophobic bullying. However, the booklet is mostly a guide on how schools can create a safe and inclusive environment for queer pupils. Regarding queer teachers, the only thing the booklet addresses is debunking the myth that they promote homosexuality.
The booklet says:
What LGBTIQ+ teachers can do is to create a safe space in schools for LGBTIQ+ learners and to teach all learners about respect for diversity.
It also addresses teachers’ attitudes towards homosexuality and says that, regardless of a teacher’s views on sexual and gender diversity, they have a responsibility to reduce homophobic bullying in schools and to create a safe environment for all pupils.
The department did not respond to questions about whether it has policies that address matters related to queer teachers.
SA Council for Educators (Sace) CEO Ella Mokgalane, who also attended the workshop, said queer teachers were not speaking out about the bullying and abuse they encounter in schools. She said she had checked all the cases before the council and none of them spoke to the issues queer teachers had raised at the workshop.
“These issues are covered 100% by the Sace code of conduct on ethics and professional standards. I am yet to come across a complaint from the LGBTIQ+ community reporting this to Sace. I checked all the cases, more than 10 000 of them, and the two that I came across were withdrawn,” she said.
“So the issue of speaking out is very important. We need to step up the game, we need to claim our space and begin to challenge the status quo.”
Sadtu KwaZulu-Natal secretary Nomarashiya Caluza said the next step for the union was to educate its members about the legislation that protects the rights of queer teachers in schools and possibly do advocacy workshops with Sace. She said it was important to take the workshops to other regions and branches in the province to educate more members of the union about the rights of queer teachers.
Transgender teacher uses school to educate pupils about diversity
Mlungisi Mhlongo matriculated from Old Mill High School in Empangeni, KwaZulu-Natal, in 2009. Six years later, in 2015, he returned to the old school as a teacher.
But it was last year in May when she not only stunned her former teachers, who are now her colleagues, but also her pupils when she came to work presenting as a woman.
The school community also had to stop calling her “Sir Mhlongo”, but rather “madam Nomalizwi MC Mhlongo”.
Mhlongo told City Press this week that her pupils were amazed at her transition in the first week when she arrived at school wearing dresses, a weave and make-up.
They were like: ‘Hayibo kwenzakalani, what is happening?’ They would ask those who are really close to me what was going on with me, and I would tell them that this is the new me now.
Mhlongo was one of the speakers at the LGBTIQ+ workshop hosted by the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) in Durban in KwaZulu-Natal last weekend.
She says she always knew she was different, but could not explain it. That’s why she lived as a gay man for most of her life. “[That was] until I embraced the woman inside me.”
When she started her transition journey, she approached her school principal and told him.
The first day she came to work as a woman, the principal called a staff meeting to address her colleagues about her transition.
“He told them about my transition and the pronouns I wanted them to address me by – she/her, or that they could either call me by my initials or my surname,” she says. “I remember at the staff meeting, after sharing the process with them, one male teacher raised his hand and asked: ‘Which bathroom are you going to use now?’” she laughs.
Mhlongo says her colleagues and the school community have been supportive of her journey, and not once have they ever made her feel like she does not belong.
However, she does not expect that they will quickly adjust to addressing her by the correct pronouns, especially her former teachers at the school. She does not hold that against them.
“They do quickly correct themselves when they call me sir. Even my pupils will say ‘sir’ and quickly say ‘sorry, I meant madam’,” she chuckles.
Mhlongo says even the parents at the school do not have a problem with her, and in fact love her.
She is friends with some of them on Facebook, where she shares a lot about her transitioning journey. This has made it easier for them to understand what is going on.
Mhlongo teaches English in grades 10 and 11, and says that at the end of the day, what matters is whether she does her job or not – her sexuality has nothing to do with that.
“At school, I am a teacher, I am an English teacher. When I go to class, it is not a [transgender woman] who is going to class.
“We went to university, we studied, we studied content. So, when I go to class, it is not my sexuality that goes there – it is MC Nomalizwi Mhlongo who goes there to deliver content to the children,” she told delegates at the Sadtu LGBTIQ+ workshop.