Christian Education

LGBTIQ learners at risk in South Africa as conservative Christian groups fight plans for safer schools

Advocacy groups in South Africa are stepping up their efforts to stop the country’s education department from creating safer environments for children of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations. Some of the advocacy groups have ties to American conservative Christian groups.

Representing conservative organisations, Freedom of Religion South Africa, the Family Policy Institute, the African Christian Democratic Party and Freedom Front Plus are creating controversy over draft guidelines on sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. The guidelines were made public as part of community consultations that began earlier this year.

The groups focus on two elements of the guidelines to stir up panic. These are the provision of unisex toilets, which would not replace existing single-sex toilets, and the elimination of gender pronouns.

Claiming the guidelines are “godly” and “anti-family”, the groups argue that the rights of Christian learners and their families would be violated. The groups say their opposition is based on religious beliefs, not hatred of LGBTIQ+ people.

But their objections contradict South Africa’s constitutional mandate to create a society free of discrimination.

In a statement to the media, the education department expressed disappointment that the focus on unisex toilets was being used to create controversy. This distracts from the broader debate on eliminating gender discrimination in all spheres of society.

Homophobia and transphobia on the rise

Researchers and journalists have documented an increase in incidents of homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools across the country in recent years. Some children who have been discriminated against have tragically committed suicide.

Misinformation campaigns claim that gender-diverse learners pose a threat to cisgender (directly self-identifying) female learners. But research shows it’s queer and transgender people who experience extreme levels of anxiety and fear in bathrooms and other school spaces.

The lobby against queer-friendly education

Last year, the African Christian Democratic Party staged a picket against the guidelines. Placards read “Down with guidelines on gender identity and sexual orientation”, “Down with unisex bathrooms” and “God created male and female”.

Freedom of religion South Africa is now trying to block the implementation of the guidelines by legal means. The organization claims they are unconstitutional and violate “parental rights” and “traditional values”. Statements like this normalize the discrimination that many learners face in schools.

Freedom of Religion South Africa director Michael Swain says the department imports “foreign” agendas. His group aims to place religious freedom above the right to equality and dignity. American Christian anti-LGBTIQ+ advocacy groups, such as Alliance Defending Freedom, have tried to do the same.

South Africa’s Family Policy Institute is working with US “hate group” Family Watch International in a campaign against comprehensive sex education in schools. They plan to “reveal harmful content” in the program and call it “dangerous sexual indoctrination”.

Read more: US right pushes against South Africa’s sex ed curriculum

Family Policy Institute founder Errol Naidoo admitted to being mentored by the Christian-right American Family Research Council. The council argues that homosexuality is “harmful to society as a whole” and should not be protected by policy. Naidoo has also been associated with the World Congress of Families, a US-led Christian right-wing organization.

Our research shows that American Christian right organizations have developed their networks in African countries. They have invested millions of dollars in anti-LGBTIQ+ campaigns in Africa and elsewhere. They also provide “mentorship” to set up organizations and campaigns such as Stop CSE.

A global trend

The campaign against the ministry’s guidelines for safer learning spaces reflects a wider trend. Far-right actors are using child welfare rhetoric to cause moral panic. Making it “about children” allows anti-gender groups to air their biases in public. This tactic has also been observed in Europe and Latin America.

Our research found that far-right attitudes towards LGBTIQ+ people have become part of the ‘normal view’ in basic and higher education. We argue that homophobic and transphobic bullying in these spaces continues the discrimination of apartheid era South Africa, which was based on Christian ideology.

These stories claim that LGBTIQ+ learners are “deviants”, “unruly sinners” who need to be converted and civilized. This creates an atmosphere of fear and hostility in classrooms and communities at large. Research with teachers shows that a lack of departmental guidance on creating inclusive curriculum and school environments puts the safety and security of straight and queer learners at risk. It also undermines the promise of equality in the South African constitution.

As the Global Interfaith Network has demonstrated, Christianity is not an inherently homophobic or transphobic religion. Those who use religious justifications to promote anti-LGBTIQ+ intolerance do not represent all Christian communities. The weaponization of sexuality and gender-based differences in schools has consequences for all learners whose life opportunities are threatened by experiences of discrimination, exclusion and bullying.