Scores of high school pupils joined their lesbian colleagues demanding equality at the Phomolong Secondary School in Tembisa

Tembisa high school pupils in the east of Johannesburg have joined a protest against their school for allegedly discriminating against their lesbian schoolmates.

Last week, media reports emerged that seven openly lesbian teenage school girls claimed to have been warned by Phomolong Secondary School Deputy Principal Mashego that their “satanic” lesbianism would not be tolerated.

The girls, who insist on wearing pants to classes instead of the traditional skirts, were allegedly told that they were not welcome at the school.

Members of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) met with the seven girls to discuss their claims and on Wednesday, together with local activists and some of the victims’ parents, staged a protest outside the school.

The picket was held at lunch break to avoid disrupting classes but the activists were unprepared for the excited response from the school’s pupils.

According to Phindi Malaza, Advocacy Officer at FEW, many rushed the school gates to join the protestors, chaotically pushing past school security. (See gallery below.)

Malaza told Mambaonline that the enthusiasm was both due to the deputy principal’s apparent general unpopularity and schoolchildren’s desire to show their support for their colleagues.

“Many of the learners were very excited, telling us ‘we don’t want Mrs Mashego at the school’. The school didn’t want them to come out. It was crazy at some point, but it was encouraging to see that the girls are supported by the pupils,” she said.

Malaza explained that the protest aimed to put pressure on the school to act on the issue and to show FEW’s solidarity with the seven girls, some of whose school attendance has been disrupted by the alleged discrimination.

“This is happening in a lot of townships and schools and we’ve had complaints from other learners who are afraid, so we wanted to support the girls for coming out and speaking out. It is risky for them. They are worried that they may suffer consequences for raising their voices.”

Malaza said that her group has laid formal complaints with the school and with the Gauteng Department of Education’s Ekurhuleni district office.

She revealed that after the protest, the activists met with Principal Mocheke Thoka and members of the school governing body. She reported that they were met with an unwelcoming attitude.

“There was no apology, but a lot of arrogance, to be honest. The principal said that an investigation is already underway,” said Malaza. But she insisted that “the teacher also needs to be suspended while the investigation is happening” to avoid the possibility of the children being further harassed.

Malaza said the girls had alleged that they have in the past been threatened and assaulted by teachers over their sexuality. She reported that one girl was allegedly thrown out for being a lesbian and has been refused a transfer letter from the school.

“There is a lot of harassment and intimidation. The kids are having a hard time – and it’s not just [about] the skirts,” insisted Malaza. “There are lots of violations of what the Constitution says in terms of children’s rights and the right to education.”

She added: “A lot of LGBTI people are dropping out of school and it affects their future – just because of one persons’ opinions or beliefs. Teachers need to act on the basis of the Constitution. We can’t act as if we are in Uganda and allow these things.”

Phumla Sekhonyane, spokesperson for the Gauteng Department of Education, told Mambaonline that the department was “very concerned by such allegations.”

“We operate in an environment that prohibits discrimination and promotes access to education for all learners in our province,” she said,

“We have commissioned an independent investigation into what has happened at the school,” Sekhonyane confirmed, adding that district officials had been sent to the school to ensure that the girls are back in class “so that learning and teaching are not disrupted in any way.”

On the matter of the girls’ insistence on wearing pants instead of skirts, Sekhonyane explained that in terms of the South African Schools Act, schools are permitted to develop a code of conduct relating to uniforms. But, she asserted, “that policy should not in any way breach the Constitutional provisions of equality, dignity and freedom for all.”

Sekhonyane confirmed that the issue of the girls’ freedom to dress as an expression of their gender identity or sexual orientation would form part of the investigation. She also urged the girls to contact the department if they face any intimidation from teachers “and we will ensure that corrective measures are taken.”

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