Towards gender inclusive and diversity affirming life-orientation in Christian schools.
Parsons, Toni Rosslyn Tatum.
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Towards gender inclusive and diversity affirming life-orientation in Christian Schools’ is focused on a model that can be used by Christian schools in South Africa to create an inclusive, diverse and safe space for learners to engage with sexuality and gender identity in a constructive and life affirming way. While South Africa’s constitution is explicit concerning equal rights for all regardless of gender, sex or sexual orientation, the reality on the ground is very different and LGBTQI+ learners at school age are especially vulnerable, sometimes up to five times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight, heteronormative peers. ‘Queerness’ takes a spectrum of deeply personal, fluid and nuanced forms. The language around how to articulate identity is complex, especially in a country with the convergence of vernaculars, cultures and religions that South Africa faces as well as its patriarchal history. The factors influencing stigma and prejudice around those who fall outside of heteronormative ideals are as nuanced, numerous and diverse as the range of sexualities and gender identities that exist. Schools function as a microcosm of their communities and can be catalysts for systemic transformation and disruption. In this work, they are considered as sites for change and a workshop conducted at a Christian school, focused on inclusivity and diversity, conducted by Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) forms part of this research. With a specific focus on discourse, IAM works with faith communities to make them inclusive and affirming spaces for those who are marginalised as a result of falling outside of a heteronormative ideal. The work is conducted on an invitation basis, tailored specifically for each community. Reflective praxis forms a large part of the process: critically reflecting and interrogating each of the workshops to better inform the process as it moves forward. The first school based workshop took place in 2019 ahead of a series of such workshops starting in 2020. Research into Life Orientation (LO) teaching at schools in South Africa has been conducted extensively: it has included field work with teachers and pupils to better understand their experiences and lived realities; into school resources, communities around schools as well as the role of emotions in teaching LO within schools. Sexuality and gender identity within a school environment is an issue that has received (and requires) extensive attention. An aspect that is a factor in the research but has not been a central focus is the role that Christianity plays. That forms a fundamental aspect of this work, using the existing work as a platform for context and insight into the institutional landscape. Within South Africa, race and class play a vital intersecting role in how sexuality and gender identity are considered, how they are approached in terms of discourse and these factors require consideration. However, the primary focus for this work will be on sexuality and gender identity within a Christian schools context and accordingly, the bulk of the work will focus on that. Framed in gender and queer theory, three methodologies are used. These include Contextual Discourse Analysis (CDA), Richard Osmer’s Theory for Practical Theology and Denise Ackermann’s Feminist Theory of Praxis. Themes including masculinity, patriarchy, sexuality, positionality, power and intersectionality are considered drivers of existing discourse. Within Christian schools, language, power and positionality are identified as dominant forces. Six recommendations for intervention are made, followed by further research recommendations. Intervention recommendations are premised on ‘meeting people where they are’ and with specific attention to how power dynamics operate within social systems. The recommendations include, firstly the creation of a space that enables and encourages empathy. Empathy can diminish shame and assist with shifting the existing discourse. Secondly, creating spaces that are physically and emotionally safe for all. Thirdly, allowing for the non-linear and time consuming process of transformation is recommended. The last three recommendations are focused on resources. Fourth, resources for educators: in addition to appropriate information and emotional support being made available, educators must be provided clear guidance in terms of their responsibilities and adequate support must be provided to ensure that these responsibilities can be completed satisfactorily. Fifth, that LGBTQI+ people be consistently represented in teaching materials: textbooks, classes and in language used as part of learning. Lastly, that learners are supported: provided with emotional support in addition to resources that represent a full spectrum of sexualities and gender identities in an unbiased, inclusive manner.