A homophobic attack at Centenary Secondary School in Sydenham, Durban, has fuelled an unprecedented campaign against sexual and gender discrimination in schools in KwaZulu-Natal.
Teachers who are members of the LGBTQIA+ community say they have been suffering in silence, made to feel inferior and forced to hide their sexual orientation in schools and communities in the province. But since the assault on Serbash Thumbadoo, 29, at Centenary in May, more teachers have felt emboldened to share their experiences and speak out against the injustices they have suffered at the hands of their colleagues and pupils.
Thumbadoo, a mathematics and life sciences teacher, says they were humiliated and shamed by the school’s principal, who they thought had been supportive after disclosing their gender identity to him.
“Basically, I told the principal that although I was born male, I sometimes identify as a woman,” said Thumbadoo. “I explained that I was going through a transition aimed at finding my identity. He was very understanding and I thought I could count on him for support when I came out of the closet as a bi-gender person. I was mistaken.
“One day I arrived at school dressed in a shirt, a black knee-length skirt, black stockings and flat ankle boots. About 10 minutes later, while I was standing outside the office administration block, the principal saw me and asked what I was wearing. I told him what I was wearing and he became agitated, saying that I am turning his school into a laughing stock and that what I was wearing was a joke.”
Thumbadoo was born in England to a South African father and British mother. They arrived in South Africa as an 11-year-old when their parents relocated. Thumbadoo said they felt shamed by the principal, especially when he started taking pictures with his phone. They couldn’t teach that day because they were sobbing.
Thumbadoo informed the shop steward of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), of which they are a member. The union, which has 260 000 members, then embarked on a picket and launched an anti-discrimination campaign to highlight the plight of LGBTQIA+ teachers. It also demanded that the Department of Basic Education take action against its officials who are discriminating against teachers and other subordinates on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender.
The principal in question has since apologised officially to Thumbadoo and Sadtu, but rights activists say this is not enough and Thumbadoo should consider taking the matter further. Approaching the Human Rights Commission to open a hate crime case has been suggested.
Thumbadoo says they had always felt “different” and were not comfortable to live as a boy since they were very young. After the death of their father in 2017 and grandmother in 2019, they took the time to reflect on life.
“It was then that I realised that I was bi-gender. There are days that I identify as a male and on other days as a female. In August 2020, I told my family I was bi-gender. My family, especially my mother, was very supportive and that gave me confidence to face the world with my new reality,” they said.
Thumbadoo’s case has galvanised many LGBTQIA+ teachers who say they have suffered in silence for years as they faced discrimination in the workplace.
Anele Moli, 28, has been a mathematics and science teacher in Umlazi for the past year. Before that, he was at a school in rural Jozini. He says he has experienced discrimination but it now just leaves him feeling numb.
“When I was younger, my nephew came home crying, telling me that boys in his school had teased him saying his uncle is gay, as if the gay word is a swear word. I tried to educate him to dispel this [notion] about gay and lesbians not being … ‘normal’ people, but it was difficult.
“When I started my teaching career, I could see in the body language of fellow teachers and even students that they had something to say about my sexuality but were too scared to express this in words.
“In such situations I have learnt to produce quality work and leave. I have produced a number of professionals such as doctors, teachers, engineers and accountants by simply focusing on my work and living my life, no matter what people say,” said Moli, who believes life orientation studies should be considered for teaching pupils about LGBTQIA+ communities.
Separating life and work
A lesbian teacher, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, says she disclosed her sexual orientation more than 12 years ago, soon after starting to teach at a high school in the Pinetown area.
“Some have accepted me as I am, but others are still not comfortable with this fact. But I live my life, do my work and go home,” she said.
“One day I was in the female toilet and one teacher asked me why I’m using ‘their’ toilets because I am attracted to women, or ‘play for the other side’. I felt insulted but took it on the chin. Male teachers feel uncomfortable when I get close to female teachers or learners. I often tell them that I stick strictly to the code and ethics and don’t practice my sexuality on the school premises.”
Another KwaZulu-Natal teacher says the discrimination against him has gone much further, resulting in him being shot and injured at the cottages where he lives.
“This matter is very sensitive and is being investigated by the police and the department. There is strong evidence that my attack was work- and sexual orientation-related. I am still recovering from the injuries and often have to see specialists,” he said.
Nomarashiya Caluza, Sadtu’s chairperson in KwaZulu-Natal, says the union decided to take up the cudgels on behalf of teachers because its LGBTQIA+ members have suffered in silence for years. She says the entire education system needs an overhaul in terms of issues of gender and sexual orientation.
“Our Bill of Rights ensures the right to equality for everyone. The right to equality places on me the responsibility to treat every person equally and fairly, and not to discriminate against anyone on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation.
“As Sadtu, we are saying that we support lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender [people]. The LGBTQIA+ is us. This teacher [Thumbadoo] could not stand on that day because [they were] discriminated against and humiliated. [They] made a plea that ‘please don’t judge me for who I am, don’t judge me for what I wear. Look for the good teacher that I strive to be in the classroom.’ That is the only thing you can use to judge these teachers,” Caluza said.
Before it’s too late
Activists say stern action must be taken against those who act in a homophobic manner in schools and other workplaces. Hlengiwe Buthelezi, director of the KwaZulu-Natal LGBT Recreation organisation, says homophobia must be nipped in the bud because it could easily lead to violence against LGBTQIA+ people.
“Durban is one of the hotspots of violence against the LGBTQIA+ community. I am very disappointed about what is happening to our teachers. I didn’t think that now, in 2021, we can have this discrimination, this type of hate crime,” she said.
“Hate crime starts from hate speech and then it moves to discrimination and prejudice. In the end, people are killed, brutally.”
Nonhlanhla Mkhize, co-founder and head of the Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre, says the centre made a submission regarding the Hate Speech Bill in the National Assembly before the 1 October deadline.
“We have heard that the principal of [Centenary] school has apologised. But the question is what commitment has he made to make up for his mistake and to ensure that other homosexual teachers and learners would not be afraid to come out of the closet and declare their sexual orientation without the fear of being victimised?” Mkhize asked.
Muzi Mahlambi, spokesperson for the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education, said discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender is not condoned and those who commit such an offence will be dealt with.