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Being queer in South African township secondary schools: experiences of queerphobic violence and creating opportunities for change.

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Despite the fact that the rights of South African queer persons are enshrined in the Constitution, queer youth continue to experience marginalization and queerphobic violence in communities and schools. The aim of this study was to investigate how, despite the protective constitutional context, queer African youth experience, respond to and resist queerphobic violence in and around their township secondary schools. The main research question addressed by the study was How do queer African youth experience, respond to and resist negative experiences in township secondary schools? The study is located within the constructivist paradigm to understand the world in which the participants live and learn, and the critical paradigm to critically examine and challenge the unequal social norms that informs their marginalization and violence they experience. Linked to these paradigms, the study adopted a qualitative methodology, and in particular, participatory visual methodology (PVM) as an approach to addressing the research question. Working with 10 queer African youth, the study generated data through participatory visual methods, drawing and cellphilms-making, during a series of workshops. In addition, using the visual artefacts (drawings) they generated, I held one-on-one interviews with each participant. The emerging data was analysed using thematic analysis and John Fiske’s three layers of analysis of visual texts. These layers include the primary texts (drawings and cellphilms), the secondary text (what the participant had to say about what they have made), and the audience text which involves what the audience (including other participants in the workshops and others outside the workshop) says about the primary text. To address the main research question, the study posed three critical questions. In response to the first critical question, What does it mean to be a queer African youth in a township secondary school?, the findings suggest that the schools are configured around unequal gender and heteropatriarchal norms. In these spaces, for these participants, queerphobic violence, including name-calling, bullying, physical and sexual assaults, was part of every aspect of schooling, with little support from teachers, who were often perpetrators. In response to the second critical research question, How do they respond and resist their negative experiences from peers and teachers?, the findings suggest that despite the heterosexist school contexts, the participants drew on their agency to develop friendships, love, and a sense of belonging. The participants’ resistance and agency involved avoiding certain spaces (such as toilets), but also knowingly going into queerphobic areas to disrupt and subvert the unequal gender norms that informed interactions in and around the school. In response to the third research question, What changes do queer African youth want to see in their township secondary school?, the study found that, informed by their experiences of queerphobic violence, the changes the participants wanted to see in the schools included changing school policy, improving teacher preparation for teachers to address queerphobic violence and queer issues, and changing the curriculum to include queer content and affirm queer youth in schools. These findings have implications for interventions aimed at addressing the safety of queer learners in these schools and communities. Based on these findings, interventions might include changes to school policy (particularly the Code of Conduct), working with communities and parents to identify and develop strategies aimed at making schools safe, improving school and classroom practice, and teacher education and professional development to ensure that curricula for training include the needs and issues of queer learners.


Masters Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.