I'm used to it now': experiences of homophobia among queer youth in South African township schools

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I'm used to it now': experiences of homophobia among queer youth in South African township schools
  This article was downloaded by: [UNIVERSITY OF KWAZULU-NATAL]On: 16 January 2013, At: 02:06Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK Gender and Education Publication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cgee20 ‘I'm used to it now’: experiences of homophobia among queer youth inSouth African township schools Thabo Msibi aa Faculty of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Private BagX03, Ashwood, Pinetown, South AfricaVersion of record first published: 31 Jan 2012. To cite this article: Thabo Msibi (2012): ‘I'm used to it now’: experiences of homophobia amongqueer youth in South African township schools, Gender and Education, 24:5, 515-533 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2011.645021 PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLEFull terms and conditions of use:http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditionsThis article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Anysubstantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing,systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden.The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representationthat the contents will be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of anyinstructions, formulae, and drug doses should be independently verified with primarysources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss, actions, claims, proceedings,demand, or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directly orindirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this material.  ‘I’m used to it now’: experiences of homophobia among queeryouth in South African township schools Thabo Msibi ∗  Faculty of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Private Bag X03, Ashwood, Pinetown,South Africa (  Received 26 October 2010; final version received 7 November 2011 )This paper explores how sexually marginalised black high-school students fromconservative schooling contexts in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, experienceschooling. It draws on queer theories through life narratives in presenting findingsfrom a small-scale interventionist project designed by the author. The project involved 14 participants comprising teachers, school learners and pre-serviceteachers. The study found that queer youth have negative experiences of schoolingwhich range from punitive actions expressed through derogatory language tovicious reactionary hate, often expressed through violence and often perpetrated  by teachers. This paper also found resist-stances from queer learners in portrayinga positive self-image for themselves as a mechanism for coping with homophobia.As a way of looking forward, it locates teachers at the centre of bringing about change for the queer learners and argues for a re-education of teachers in order totackle homophobia in schools. Keywords: heteronormativity; homophobia; queer theory; difference and diversity;sexualities and education; narratives This paper addresses a neglected area in educational research, particularly in the SouthAfrican context. Studies detailing the experiences of queer learners in South Africahave been very few compared with a growing body of knowledge from countriessuch as the USA and the UK. Deeply entrenched ideas of patriarchy together withignorance have rendered queer learners in South Africa invisible. This invisibility ismediated by race; the experiences of black queer learners have remained largely undo-cumented, with very few scholars daring to research what is perceived to be a danger-ous terrain. This paper is, therefore, a direct response to this silence. It uses narrativesfrom learners and teachers who participated in a MAC AIDS-funded interventionist  project known as the We All Count Educational Project (WECEP), geared towardschallenging homophobia in South African township schools, in order to represent theexperiences of South African queer learners. This paper argues, based on the prelimi-nary findings of the project, that a meaningful change in addressing homophobia inSouth African township schools can only be achieved through teacher-focused and context-specific interventions. It uses Grace and Benson’s (2000) queer life narrativeresearch so asto ‘builda knowledgebase wheredescription, interpretation, andanalysislead to critical dialogue and “resist-stances”’ (89). ISSN 0954-0253 print/ISSN 1360-0516 online # 2012 Taylor & Francishttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2011.645021http://www.tandfonline.com ∗ Email: msibi@ukzn.ac.za Gender and Education Vol. 24, No. 5, August 2012, 515–533    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   U   N   I   V   E   R   S   I   T   Y   O   F   K   W   A   Z   U   L   U  -   N   A   T   A   L   ]  a   t   0   2  :   0   6   1   6   J  a  n  u  a  r  y   2   0   1   3  First, this paper seeks to answer a broad question as to how South African queer township learners (as well as those perceived to be queer) experience schooling.These are learners whom Morrell (2002) characterises as living ‘at a knife’s edge’due to the violence that gets perpetrated around and against them. Townships inSouth Africa still largely remain poor and black, with violent masculinities regulatingsexuality (Selikow, Zulu, and Cedra 2002). These masculinities exclusively support and uphold compulsory heterosexuality. Second, this paper seeks to deconstruct some of the long-standing assumptions about homosexuality in African contexts bytelling narratives on the experiences of queer learners in South Africa. Unlike the domi-nant narratives from African leaders which seek to silence the lives and existence of queer people in Africa by rendering them invisible (see Epprecht 2004; Msibi 2009),this paper shares the stories of those most affected by heterosexism and homophobiain South African schools. By using queer theory, it counters dominant African narra-tives which construct queer individuals as simply powerless, disgraced and in need of empowerment. It seeks to demonstrate ways in which these learners resist and chal-lenge homophobia. Youdell (2010, 88) notes that  queer is about interrogating how discourses of sex and sexuality are implicated in the process of subjectivation that constitute subjects who are sexed and sexualised in particu-lar ways . . . A central project of queer in this framework is resisting these processesthrough practices that unsettle the meanings of these discourses and deploy other dis-courses that have been subjugated or disallowed’. This paper, therefore, sees queer learners as being implicated in the discourses of iden-tity construction and looks at ways in which these learners resist and challenge suchdiscourses in the school setting. Terminology: who are queer learners? Defining who queer individuals are is indeed a very difficult exercise. This is largely because ‘queer’ seeks to radically shift away from fixed notions of identificationwhich position people’s sexuality on the basis of sexual practices or some perceived or constructed gender identification. This paper positions gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people under the ‘category’ of queer so as to escape labels of identificationthat tend to fix individuals. The use of queer is an attempt not to essentialise identifi-cation. This is in line with queer theory which sees identification as shifting and fluid. The use of queer also acknowledges the complexity of identification. For instance, the experiences listed here are of learners who self-identify as gay or lesbian. While most of the learners are already ‘out’ in their communities and schools, others are not. Those who are not ‘out’ are largely involved with both maleand female partners; some are not even engaged in relationships but understand their own sexual identification as gay or lesbian. The fixed political ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’labels, therefore, do not fit all the participants in the study as their sense of identificationranges between sexual practices and their own sense of sexual identification or both. I,therefore, intentionally refrain from using ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ as there essentially is noone way of fitting into these labels. The use of queer simply acknowledges that the par-ticipants are sexual beings, whose sexuality is fluid and multiple depending on space,time and context. Morris (2000) puts this more succinctly. She notes that ‘queer announces more than “lesbian”, “gay”, or “bisexual”. Queer refers to anyone who 516 T. Msibi    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   U   N   I   V   E   R   S   I   T   Y   O   F   K   W   A   Z   U   L   U  -   N   A   T   A   L   ]  a   t   0   2  :   0   6   1   6   J  a  n  u  a  r  y   2   0   1   3  feels marginalised by mainstream visions of sexuality’ (21). In short, this paper is not concerned about defining sexual categories. These have little meaning as gender identi-fication itself is a social construction.While this paper is framed on fluidity, the findings reported in the latter part of the paper may not appear to be keeping with this frame. This is intentional. Instead of high-lighting the multiple ways in which the participants in the study ‘perform’ their sexua-lities, this paper focuses on how the participants have experienced homophobia and theways in which they subvert and collude with discursive constructions of sexuality. Thefindings may, therefore, appear to be holding on to fixed notions of identification. Thisis not the case. My intention is to present the participants in the ways they see them-selves. People, for instance, do not think of themselves, and are not seen by others,as fluid beings, but rather their actions and behaviours may support fluid conceptionsof sexuality. Sexuality is often viewed as representing the self, instead of beingabout what one does. These are the limitations of queer theory in that it does not fully take into account the structural restrictions that limit agency. Youdell (2010,88) highlights this point well when she notes that  We might assert bodies and pleasures and refuse the binaries of penis/vagina, man/ woman, hetero/homo, and yet prevailing discourse presses these upon us, like it or not.We might struggle to refuse these subjectivities, but subject-hood is dependent on our intelligibility and so we might have to take them up; we might find them put on us;and we might be attached to them politically, socially, relationally, psychically,orgasmically. As Youdell suggests, and as we are about to see in the ensuing sections, while the par-ticipants of this study did not see themselves operating outside discourse, theyemployed fixed ways of identification and represented themselves as such. The useof queer theory in this study, therefore, may appear like an imposition on the partici- pants who are caught up in a world of structure and subjecthood. While clearly under-standing that ‘queer’ is not itself a form of identification, this paper intentionally alsouses queer to bring all forms of alternative sexual expressions together – expressionsthat would otherwise not be captured through the fixed labels of ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’. Review of literature There is overwhelming evidence in the literature of the negative experiences that queer learners are faced with in schools across the globe (Greene 1986; Nichols 1999; Renold 2000; Athanases and Larrabee 2003; Graziano 2004; Sears 2005; Richardson 2006; Nixon 2010). Mac an Ghaill (1994) notes that the negative experiences experienced  by queer learners range from verbal abuse to physical violence. Martin and Hetrick (1988) further note that the challenges faced by queer learners are social, emotionaland also cognitive. Gross, Aurand, and Addessa (1988), cited in Rivers (2000),found that 50% of gay learners report having experienced threats or having been per-sonally harmed in US high schools. Similarly, Pilkington and D’Augelli (1995) found that ofthe194 queeryouthsurveyed,30%ofyoungqueermenand35%ofyoungqueer women had been harassed in schools, with many living in fear of violence or sexualharassment. Equally, several scholars (Ramafedi, Farrow, and Deisher 1991; Rivers2000; Russell and Joyner 2001) have found that queer learners are at greater risk for suicide, school dropout and alcohol abuse than their ‘straight’ peers. More or lessthe same data were discovered in the UK in a study that involved 416 young queer  Gender and Education 517    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   U   N   I   V   E   R   S   I   T   Y   O   F   K   W   A   Z   U   L   U  -   N   A   T   A   L   ]  a   t   0   2  :   0   6   1   6   J  a  n  u  a  r  y   2   0   1   3  individuals (Trenchard and Warren 1984). The UK results showed that queer learnersare not only bullied in schools, but also verbally harassed and even physically harmed.While much has been achieved in combating homophobia in UK schools since thiswork, such as repealing Section 28, studies suggest that homophobia and heterosexismstill continue in UK schools today (Nixon 2010).Among the key mechanisms used to discriminate against queer people is language.Smith (1998) has reported the extent to which language can be used to discriminateagainst queer individuals. He writes that  Everyday practices of ‘fag-baiting’, such as poking fun, teasing, name calling, scrawlinggraffiti on lockers, insulting and harassing someone, produce the ‘fag’ as a social object.The language intends a course of action isolating the gay student and inciting to physicalviolence. Verbal abuse both is and initiates attack. (310) Verbal abuse appears to be a prevailing theme across all studies detailing the experi-ences of queer learners. What is particularly problematic is that this abuse comesfrom both students and teachers. Smith (1998) notes that teachers are not only complicit in their silence when queer learners receive this abuse, but also equally active partici- pants contributing to the stigmatisation, ostracisation and discrimination of queer learners.When one focuses on the negative experiences that queer learners are exposed to inschools, it becomes very easy to view this group as a helpless, powerless group that isvictimised in schools and in society. However, I wish to caution against such a view asit simply serves to reinforce stereotypes that our work wishes to shatter – it removesagency from queer learners. There is, for instance, literature that portrays queer learnersas highly resistant and positive. Denborough (1996), citing Foucault and Kritzman, for example, reminds us that sexuality is a means of exercising power and that where thereis power, there is bound to be resistance. Similarly, Mac an Ghaill (1994) shows that even with the negativity, queer learners are able to resist and also find ways of navigat-ing themselves within the repressive schooling environments by subverting the nega-tivity into positivity. This, therefore, constructs queer learners as actors in their ownenvironments and not just as helpless, powerless victims.Given this evidence of the experiences of queer learners around the globe, what arethe experiences of such learners in developing contexts such as South Africa? WhileSouth Africa has adopted one of the most progressive constitutions in the world byaccording full rights to queer people, it remains true that a great disconnect between policy and reality exists. First, it is important to note here that very little exists in theform of literature that seeks to explain the experiences of queer learners in SouthAfrica. Of those studies that exist (see Richardson 2006), little has been written on black queer learners from township contexts. Richardson (2006) explains this as beinglargely due to issues of access. Townships are deemed dangerous places by researchers,and additionally queer learners remain largely hidden due to the fear of being exposed.On a positive note, the freedoms that have come with a progressive constitutionhave meant a greater number of learners claiming a gay identity from an earlier age.Reid and Dirsuweit (2002) note that the democratic dispensation has allowed for greater visibility of queer people. However, even with this visibility, experiences of queer youth, and those of queer people more generally, remain bleak (Reddy 2001;Reid and Dirsuweit 2002). Walker (2005, 227) attributes this to hegemonic masculi-nities and what she refers to as ‘constitutional sexuality’. She argues, writing about  518 T. Msibi    D  o  w  n   l  o  a   d  e   d   b  y   [   U   N   I   V   E   R   S   I   T   Y   O   F   K   W   A   Z   U   L   U  -   N   A   T   A   L   ]  a   t   0   2  :   0   6   1   6   J  a  n  u  a  r  y   2   0   1   3
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