Proposed guidelines for schools in South Africa include unisex bathrooms, dress code and LGBTQ+ support

The Western Cape Department of Education has drafted what it claims to be South Africa’s first gender identity and sexual orientation guidelines, to make schools more inclusive and supportive for LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and other) learners.

The department said that current policies and guidelines held by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) lack any substantial support for LGBTQ+ learners at schools, necessitating the draft guidelines.

“With the rise of homophobia, transphobia, and gender-based violence, these guidelines will fill the gap left by the National Department of Basic Education, which sadly references LGBTQ+ people only twice across 38 textbooks in nine school subjects,” it said.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are protected under South Africa’s Constitution, and NGOs have previously encouraged schools to align their LGBTQ+ policies in line with this. The DBE has also previously published guidelines on how to tackle homophobic bullying at schools.

DA Western Cape spokesperson on education, Lorraine Botha said that the policy aims to “sensitise public schools and the education environment to LGBTQ+ rights, in the promotion of a more inclusive approach and progressive realisation of our constitutional rights”.

Botha noted that in the Western Cape, transgender students are already the first in the country permitted to select the school uniform in line with their gender-identity.

“The new draft guidelines take this one step further – in the right direction,” Botha said. “If passed, the guidelines will allow for the department to train school learners, management, teachers, and governing bodies on the principles of gender and sexual diversity.”

While the guidelines focus on LGBTQ+ learners as a whole, it places particular focus on transgender learners, who face some of the greatest challenges in gender expression and ‘placement’ in typically binary environments.

The guidelines largely encourage schools to proactively create safe spaces for these learners and, where possible, ensure their policies are as flexible or as gender-neutral as can be. In many cases, the policies are left up to schools and their governing bodies to determine.

Some of the key takeaways in the policy are highlighted below:


Dress code

The guidelines recommend that schools allow learners to dress in whatever uniform matches their gender identity or expression. However, it stresses that it’s not an “anything goes” policy.

It says schools should focus on neatness, cleanliness and looking presentable over specific gendered uniforms, and if possible, should gravitate to a gender-neutral uniform.

“The same rules which are applicable to girls, may apply to boys and vice versa, where reasonable and practicable. Schools are also encouraged to allow for deviations from the school’s uniform policy on cultural, medical and gender diversity grounds.

“A letter of application signed by the parents may be submitted to the principal,” it said.


Unisex bathrooms

The guidelines propose that, if reasonably practicable, schools can make provision for a unisex bathroom – depending on financial resources and infrastructure.

Where this is not possible, schools are encouraged to allow a LGBTQI+ learners to use the toilets and changing room facilities which they feel most comfortable with.

This comes with the caveat that the sensitivity of other learners also be taken into account, and safety measures and inherent risks for the LGBTQ+ learner be considered.


Excursions and hostels

As with the bathrooms, a similar approach is encouraged when LGBTQ+ learners participate in any excursions or hostel situations.

It is recommended that sleeping arrangements be considered very carefully before the excursion takes place, and thorough risk assessments be carried out prior to the excursion so that reasonable adjustments can be made to allow the LGBTQI+ learner to participate.

“Similarly, sleeping arrangements will have to be considered very carefully before placing a LGBTQI+ learner in a hostel, and while it may be best suited for the LGBTQI+ learner, it is recommended that the sensitivity of the other learners also be taken into account,” the department said.


Sport participation

The guidelines do not provide any policy on gender expression in sports, except to say that “learners of all sexual orientations and gender identities may be encouraged to participate in school sports, free from bullying, harassment and discrimination”.

It says that schools need to ensure that all learners have the opportunity to be physically active and that they are able to express their sporting abilities and interests, but makes no reference to how gender-specific sports teams should be structured.


Single-gendered schools

While the department acknowledges that entry into single-gendered schools is determined by each school’s respective governing body, it encourages these schools to make provision for LGBTQ+ learners in their admission policies.

It recommends that schools take into account the “wishes” of the majority of learners and parents of the school – but insists it should remain objective and “not be swayed by the subjective wishes of a particular group”.

“Schools may engage in suitable education campaigns with the parents and learners of the school community to ensure that the decision of the school to include the admission of LGBTQI+ learners is understood by the parents and learners,” it said.


Support and education

The policy recommends that schools, where possible, establish proper support structures such as social diversity associations, psychological support and providing an affirming environment.

This includes training teachers and heads to be sensitive to LGBTQ+ issues in dealing with learners, protecting their privacy, and tackling bullying.

It also recommends that in attending school events like dances and functions, that learners be allowed to bring the partner of their choosing.

In terms of the curriculum, the department says that gender inclusion be integrated into lessons “through story problems, writing prompts, readings, art assignments or music”, while also directing lessons towards helping learners identify and combat stereotyping.


The full draft guidelines can be read below:


Read: Understanding South Africa’s new court case on freedom of expression

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Proposed guidelines for schools in South Africa include unisex bathrooms, dress code and LGBTQ+ support