New US-sponsored LGBTI teacher-training curriculum

Homophobia is a grim reality in much of Africa. Not only are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex – LGBTI – rights nonexistent in many countries, but penalties (including death and imprisonment) and more intense crack-downs (in Nigeria and Uganda, for example) are a harsh fact of life.

In South Africa, while the Constitution was the first in Africa to explicitly recognise the rights of gay and lesbian individuals, many who self-identify as LGBTI or are assumed to be LGBTI continue to be denied rights and citizenship through forms of homophobia.

These rights abuses include hate speech, exclusion, marginalisation and violence, according to a report titled Teaching about Sexual Diversity and Challenging Homophobia-Transphobia in the South African School System, released in Durban recently.

The United States Diplomatic Mission to South Africa sponsored the University of KwaZulu-Natal project, which focused on LGBTI issues and has resulted in a curriculum resource pack for teacher-educators in schools.

Lethal evidence of homophobia in South Africa is perhaps most blatantly expressed in the prevalence of the violent and often deadly so-called ‘corrective rapes’ that black lesbians – and in some cases black gay men – are subjected to.

The intent of the perpetrators is to enforce conformity and to ‘cure’ those who “challenge the dominant heterosexual identity”, to quote Professor Cheryl Potgieter, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, or UKZN, and head of the college of humanities.

The curriculum project

Potgieter was principal investigator for the LGBTI curriculum project launched in Durban this month – in a collaboration with Dr Finn Reygan, a postdoctoral research fellow in the faculty of education at the University of the Free State and Dr Thabo Msibi, senior lecturer in curriculum studies in the school of education at UKZN.

“It is not uncommon for gay pupils to suffer verbal abuse by peers as well as teachers who make homophobic and derogatory remarks,” according to Potgieter. “One has to decide how to intervene and change the attitude of teachers and provide them with knowledge and skills to teach sexual diversity in classrooms.”

Potgieter, Reygan and Msibi developed training materials to assist teachers and student teachers deal with their own homophobia, in some cases, as well as homophobia in the classroom.

“We worked to sensitise and conscientise plus-minus 800 trainee, postgraduate and in-service teachers — all students at UKZN’s Edgewood campus — around lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex issues through interactive workshops,” Potgieter told a report-back, panel discussion and curriculum launch in Durban earlier this month.

“They were trained to teach about sexual diversity in an attempt to challenge homophobia in the South African school system. We also developed teaching material, which we hope will be mainstreamed into the curriculum,” Potgieter said.

The curriculum they developed will be made available to educators in tertiary institutions and ‘life orientation’ teachers working in schools across South Africa.

Knowledge problems

Potgieter, in introducing the research, quipped that she’d been told she was committing academic suicide when she completed a PhD thesis at the University of the Western Cape on 1 April 1998, titled “Black South African, Lesbian Discourses of Invisible Lives”. For her work back then, she received a grant “also from the US” – from the Mellon Foundation.

“People said to me, you’re graduating on the first of April – is your title a joke?" As a psychologist there were many other topics I could have researched. And in fact, 16 years later, we can wonder how much has changed.

“One has to understand that many of our students’ knowledge of gay issues comes by way of culture, religion and socialisation,” said Msibi. “We have to engage from a point of view of understanding we’re dealing with something a lot broader than homophobia.

“Teaching about and advocating around these issues is no easy task. The resistance that comes in is strong. It’s far more complex than homophobia. We’re dealing with intersections between race, gender and sexuality.

“Our research showed us that it’s important to understand that South Africans can relate to issues of racism – but they find it more difficult to see how this fits in with gender and equality and homophobia. The team really had to unpack this intersectionality.”

Panelist Nonhlanhla Mkhize, manager of the Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre and an associate on the project, told a story of two girls in a rural area of KwaZulu-Natal.

“They were being accused of practising witchcraft and the community was threatening to stone them to death. We went there and it turned out the girls were being called witches because they had said they were lesbians. Someone in the community saw the term ‘lesbian’ as meaning ‘witch’.

“When we went explained what the girls meant, the families and the community were in fact happy with the idea of them being in a relationship. It was the term they didn’t understand. We told these girls just not to call themselves lesbians. There is a lot of misunderstanding and confusion.”

Teaching the teachers

“The target in designing this project was higher education,” said Msibi. “Namely, teachers who teach teachers. Our hope was that in training higher education practitioners to be able to be comfortable teaching about LGBTI issues, that would transfer into the schools, to the pupils, and filter out from there.

“One of the things that emerged was that teachers themselves were not prepared, did not have the information, to teach competently and confidently about these issues. So part of the curriculum is to ensure the higher education practitioners have the right type of information to teach teachers going into the schools.”

Professor Gregory Kamwendo, dean of the school of education at UKZN, acknowledged the project for its scope. “We are after educating and building teachers who are sensitive, knowledgeable and committed to creating a society that is inclusive. We believe that this project will go a long way in helping us to achieve that goal.”

Project associate Crispin Hemson, director of the International Centre of Nonviolence at Durban University of Technology and former head of the school of education at UKZN, said that even when young people are not themselves LDBTI, shame, fear and disinformation were “the South African way”, rooted in apartheid.

Bringing in such a radical curriculum could begin to systematically dismantle this.

Taylor Ruggles, US Consul General in KwaZulu-Natal and a keynote speaker at the curriculum launch, stressed that gay rights is a human rights issue. “I hope the curriculum finds its legs among the broader umbrella of human rights,” he said.

“As your former president and global icon Nelson Mandela once said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’.”