by Dennis A Francis, published online on 28 Jun 2017 in the Journal of LGBT Youth:



Dennis Francis, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University, conducted a comprehensive review of 27 South African publications which looked at sexuality and homophobia in the South African school setting between 1999 and 2016. The rationale for this review is that as a site of identity construction, the school plays a critical role in how young people might feel free or constrained in coming to appreciate and accept their emergent sexual and gender identities.

Are schools spaces in which the Equality Clause in our constitution comes alive or do they enforce compulsory heterosexuality and gender binaries, causing harm to young people in the process? What are the gaps, where can change be leveraged and what can we learn to make schools more inclusive and safe?

How do LGBT youth experience schooling?

Many of the studies included in Francis’ review revealed that lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans youth, who do not conform to a desired heterosexual and cisgender norm, face discrimination, victimisation, intolerance and isolation from peers, teachers and school administrators.

Participants across studies reported being unable to withstand their abuse and victimisation from peers, school management and teachers, who threatened or enacted physical violence upon learners who identified as lesbian or gay, tried to exclude them from classroom spaces and enforced rigid and heteronormative dress codes. In extreme cases participants reported accusations of witchcraft and being told they would “infect” other learners with their sexual orientation. Participants experienced teachers as either silent or in denial about sexual and gender variance, or as explicitly hostile, belittling and disrespectful.

Often, it was masculinity that was being policed. There was a belief among learners in some studies that those who “betray” manhood or masculinity need to be punished. Gay men are not seen as “real” men, because they are not attracted to women, and so the violence enacted upon gay male learners is considered appropriate, because they have transgressed social norms.

LGBT youth reported a variety of mental health concerns, ranging from “experiences of loneliness, isolation, identity crises, depression, high levels of anxiety, stress and self-hatred”.  Apart from the fact that this diminished self-worth contributes to an increased risk of becoming infected with STIs, including HIV, young people may develop compensatory coping mechanisms such as drug and alcohol use, dropping out of school and eating disorders. In one study a participant reported that two gay friends had committed suicide because the headmaster had threatened to expel them because of their sexual orientation.

How do schools, if at all, address gender and sexuality diversity?

Francis argues that when school managements provide environments which are more accepting of learners who are variant in terms of sexuality and gender, other learners in the school are likely to follow this example. In some studies reviewed, participants pointed out that having a supportive teacher at school, who did not condone the violence and discrimination the learner faced, increased the likelihood that the learner would stay in school and complete their secondary education.

Sadly, this was the exception rather than the norm. Rather, teaching about sexuality and gender diversity was ignored and avoided, or framed in the language of “compulsory” heterosexuality. In some cases, teachers felt LGBT learners were “supravisible” – that is they were seen as acting in ways which were exaggerated – and should be taught to “behave normally” and not “seek attention”.

Teachers often saw non-heterosexuality as “deviant, sinful or immoral”, and indeed “un-African”, informed by their own cultural and religious beliefs, despite the framework of the Life Orientation curriculum. One school indicated in its prospectus that it “assists homosexuals with changing their sexual orientation”.

In many instances, teachers avoided a “diversities” approach because they lacked skills and confidence to do this or because they were under scrutiny from school administrations to promote heterosexuality. And some teachers were afraid to teach about homosexuality because they feared being seen as gay.

In general, schools were unable to teach on gender and sexual diversity because their approach to sexuality and relationships was conservative, and teachers experienced a lack of guidance and support on creating a safe environment for learners who varied in terms of sexuality and gender.


This article is a sobering reminder of the power that schools have to exclude those who do not fit neatly into gender binaries or who may be exploring non-heterosexual practices and identities. Not only does this go against the spirit of South Africa’s constitution, it also forecloses opportunities for schools to be truly inclusive and to meaningfully explore what diversity means in all its forms and complexities and to promote the idea of “school belongingness”.

These studies point to a dire need in schools for management, teachers and learners for sensitisation training on diverse sexualities and gender identities and expressions. In the absence of such training, too many learners are victims of abuse and discrimination. As Francis notes, there is a tendency to conflate sexual orientation and gender identity and such training would need to explore these nuances and their implications.

Other gaps identified by Francis include: the lack of research on resistance and resilience in LGBT learners and what can be learned from such learners who exhibit agency and challenge victimisation tropes; what an LGBT inclusive curriculum would look like; what an intersectionalities perspective could offer, to tease out the nuances of race and class for example; and the value of going beyond qualitative approaches, towards establishing causality and correlation, as this would have a great impact on lobbying and advocacy around LGBT learners and their rights.

Young people are perhaps much more aware of their rights than ever before – what this article leaves us with is a profound sense that all adults need to support youth-based activism and rights and to listen to the voices of marginalised LGBT learners. Perhaps we have failed them – the current situation is neither just nor dignified and contradicts the spirit of the Equality Clause. This is not good enough – as academics and as practitioners, mental health professionals have an opportunity to explore the long term impact of homophobia and transphobia on young people and to develop programmes which build resilience and address systemic prejudice entrenched in the school system.

Fischer (2013) suggests that a critical understanding of heterosexuality requires seeing heterosexuality as a social construct that involves very specific power relations between men and women, and between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals. Moreover, such an understanding moves away from the notion of heterosexuality as monolithic, and privileges instead the problematisation of commonsense understandings of heterosexuality as the dominant norm, allowing the exploration of the diversity of meanings, social arrangements and hierarchies within the category.

In their working paper on critical heterosexualities, Heath et. al. (2013) make explicit the ways in which the social institution of heterosexuality operates: it consists of an organised set of social practices that guide the behaviour of many people through norms, rules, and rituals; it is learned through socialisation; and it is often invoked and performed in ways that renders alternative sexualities invisible. This provides a useful starting point for psychology to start thinking about the ways in which heterosexuality shapes its theory and practice.


Fischer, N.L. (2013). Seeing “straight”, contemporary critical heterosexuality studies and sociology: An introduction. The Sociology Quarterly, 54(4), pp. 501-510.

Heath, M., Beaver, T., Fischer, N., Nordstrom-Loeb, B. and Simula, B. (2013). “Crossing Boundaries, Workshopping Sexualities.” Working Paper on Critical Heterosexualities. Retrieved from on 2 February 2017.

Ingraham, C. (1994). The heterosexual imaginary: Feminist sociology and theories of gender. Sociological Theory, 12(2), pp. 203-219.

Jackson, S. (2006). Gender, Sexuality and Heterosexuality: The Complexity (and Limits) of Heteronormativity. Feminist Theory, 7(1), pp. 105–121.

Kitzinger, C. (2005). “Speaking as a Heterosexual”: (How) Does Sexuality Matter for Talk in Interaction? Research on Language and Social Interaction, 38(3), pp. 221–265.

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