RIGHTS AND EDUCATION
Growing calls for guidelines to support transgender pupils as discrimination in school continues
The family of a transgender pupil have been in a battle since 2022 with Beaumont Primary in Somerset West, alleging that the school refuses to accept that their child identifies as a boy. The family have also accused the Western Cape Education Department of launching no formal investigation.
Carte Blanche producer Catherine Rice reached out to the family to investigate the details of the issue. Rice captured the pupil’s story (referred to as Henry* and the father named Michael*) in a podcast titled A Tale of Two Schools.
Henry’s biological sex is female, but he identifies as a boy.
The family claimed in the Sunday Times earlier in 2023 that their child was barred from wearing a male swimsuit because this might cause social discomfort to the other pupils. According to the article, the school governing body (SGB) denied this allegation.
Henry’s father, Michael, told Daily Maverick another transgender child was facing similar challenges at the school. What was also now concerning, he said, was that the school was forcing gender-diverse children to use a single-user toilet facility.
“Gender-diverse children have also been threatened with disciplinary action if caught in the ‘wrong’ toilet,” he explained.
Beaumont Primary did not respond to any of our specific questions but said questions were referred to the Western Cape Education Department (WCED). Daily Maverick also approached the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and some NGOs in an effort to gain insight into how the education sector was responding to the needs of transgender pupils. However, by the time of publishing we hadn’t received a response.
Rice told Daily Maverick that she started her investigation when, as the mother of two teenagers as well as a journalist, she noticed an increase in adolescents identifying as transgender or gender diverse at school.
“This was particularly noticeable in the adolescent age group,” Rice said.
She realised no guidelines for schools were in place. Researching more on the topic, she was introduced to a family whose transgender son was just eight years old.
“With increasingly younger children identifying as gender diverse, it seemed an important topic to address,” she said, adding that the DBE’s guidelines for schools have still not been published. “This leaves the door open for discrimination as described by a Cape Town family whose child is transgender and who are the focus of the podcast.”
On 4 November 2022, Henry’s family lodged a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), which was referred to the CGE. There has not been a response.
Lack of guidelines
SECTION27 attorney Zeenat Sujee said the DBE’s guidelines were circulated and the deadline for submissions was 30 April 2023. Yet, “the DBE has not provided timelines on the finalisation and implementation of the guidelines”.
In fact, Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) in-house attorney Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane said the guidelines are still up for comment, adding that they had made comments and the DBE was probably reviewing these.
“They have not been finalised or approved so there are no current guidelines in relation to LGBTIQA+ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual] persons.”
Mokgoroane said there could be several issues resulting in the delay in approving guidelines, adding that even if the guidelines are passed these would not hold a lot of water.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Model policy gives hope to ‘othered and alone’ gender-diverse, trans students seeking safe spaces at varsity
“What they need to be is a policy or something so we can hold the government accountable. Guidelines are kind of something that is voluntary.”
Similarly, SECTION27, CALS and the Centre for Child Law welcomed the draft guidelines but recommended to the DBE that these should be regulations to ensure their enforcement.
CGE spokesperson Javu Baloyi said they had received complaints from different provinces and that the KwaZulu-Natal office was investigating allegations that teachers at a school were discriminating against transgender children.
“Western Cape also has a complaint that is still at an investigation stage,” Baloyi said, adding that the complaint relating to KwaZulu-Natal had been reported to the DBE and was being dealt with at provincial level.
He said the issue of inclusion in relation to the uniform and dress code, particularly for transgender pupils, is currently dealt with by the heads of the school under the guidance of the provincial and national departments of education.
“The guiding tools aimed at eliminating discrimination because of gender preferences or against the LGBTQIA+ learners are at a developmental stage and at consultation level with the public including civil society organisations.”
However, the CGE had received information from the DBE that workshops on the guiding tools had already started. Baloyi noted that the CGE stands against gender-related discrimination and understands that eradicating it requires a collaborative effort from all the different key stakeholders.
“The commission would like schools to be inclusive spaces that are free from gender oppression and inequality. The provincial and national government must work proactively and efficiently to expedite the finalisation of the guiding tools that the department has developed.”
Back at Henry’s school, Michael explained that the WCED was allegedly also investigating their complaint – they have been waiting almost 10 months for feedback from the WCED on their formal complaint.
According to a letter addressed to the head of the WCED, Brent Walters, dated 10 October 2022, which has been seen by Daily Maverick, Andreas Springer of Springer-Nel Attorneys, acting on behalf of the family, said Henry was assessed as transgender boy.
This, Springer stated, was before enrolling in Beaumont as a boy following consultations with the school’s former headmaster, Gordon Reddell.
Daily Maverick understands that Reddell’s term ended in September 2022 and Dwain Brown is the new headmaster.
Springer noted that Reddell and the SGB made it clear that the school had no experience in how to accommodate transgender children “and that there was resistance on the part of one or more members of the governing body to accept that the concept of transgenderism even exists”. He added that Henry was not the only transgender child at the school.
Springer also stated that Dr Allan Donkin, a general medical practitioner in Somerset West and an SGB member, authored a document which was distributed to the other members and presumably to other parents. The family said the document was shared on WhatsApp.
Donkin’s document, Springer stated, was viewed by the family as defamatory of their efforts to be good parents to Henry, displayed startling ignorance of the origins and requirements of transgenderism or gender dysphoria, was arrogant and patronising and constituted an outrageous invasion of Henry’s and their privacy.
In part, Springer stated that the family was of the view that anyone who was capable of drafting and disseminating such a document was unfit to serve on the SGB.
“In the premises our clients have instructed us to request you, as we hereby do, that you investigate this matter to determine whether grounds exist for the removal of Dr Donkin from the Governing Body of Beaumont Primary School, whether in terms of Section 16(1) of the South African Schools Act No 84 of 1996, or on any other basis. Kindly conduct this investigation and then informed [sic] us of your findings in this regard,” Springer wrote.
Donkin denies the accusation and insinuation that he distributed any document in any manner, regarding this matter.
Donkin said, “What is being referred to is a portion of a personal, private, one-on-one conversation with one other parent in the school, which was explicitly confidential in writing. This conversation was before my time as a governing body member. I did not share it with anyone else. The confidentiality was broken by the other parent with whom I had the conversation, who shared a portion of the private conversation directly with a parent of a child with gender dysphoria in the school. The other parent with whom I had the conversation or the parent of the child with gender dysphoria (or both), then distributed the portion of private conversation to other school members and then claimed that I had distributed it.”
A detailed explanation was sent to the Western Cape Education Department by Donkin. In his response to the WCED, Donkin denies that the contents of the private conversation contained anything “defamatory”, “ignorant”, “arrogant”, “patronising” or anything that “invades privacy”.
In the response to the WCED Donkin explained that his views expressed in the private conversation include that:
“Policies need to be developed to cater for transgender children / children with gender dysphoria in the school context; It is not the role of a school to promote a certain view regarding gender ideology; The intervention of a school should be aimed at accommodating transgender children / children with gender dysphoria in a compassionate manner taking into account the best interests of all of the children at the school; The approach adopted by the school should be inclusive and non-judgemental.”
“False accusations seem to have been made by a parent in order to defame a member of the School Governing Body, in intolerance of any views other than their own, and in an attempt to influence the governing body processes.” said Donkin.
Waiting for response and support
Michael said WCED claimed that the matter is being investigated, adding that the inaction casts doubt on the earnestness and legitimacy of the intervention.
“We feel that the matter is now destined for litigation,” Michael said.
He said neither the WCED nor the school offered any support or counselling for the affected pupils.
“Absenteeism has become a problem as the children no longer want to attend school. Obviously, this matter is affecting their basic rights to access education,” he said.
In the meantime, WCED spokesperson Bronagh Hammond said there is no formal investigation under way but that the department met the various parties involved to offer support in an effort to find the best way forward for the entire school community.
The school, Hammond said, has been open to engage on the matter. She said they will continue to work with the relevant role players, that they have been working closely with parties involved and that there is commitment to provide continued support to the school community.
Because of the recent taxi strike, Hammond said further engagements had to be postponed and rescheduled for later this month.
She said there was no request to provide counselling, adding that the school and the WCED were made aware that the pupil is receiving support from a private psychiatrist.
The WCED had also met the psychiatrist.
“Should further counselling support be required, this is available on request by the parents via the school,” Hammond said.
Hammond said their draft provincial guidelines were never approved by the Western Cape government, while the DBE is in the process of drafting guidelines.
“The DBE guidelines are still draft guidelines in the consultation stage,” she said.
Sujee said transgender pupils face victimisation and bullying, and interventions are needed. In the interim, complaints should be lodged with the school and district and provincial education departments.
“Any act of discrimination at a school is a breach of the learner’s right to equality, dignity, freedom and security and the right to basic education,” Sujee said.
Many trans children in the sector, Mokgoroane said, have been misgendered, not allowed to wear a particular uniform and discriminated against. To resolve unfair discrimination, Mokgoroane said school governing bodies and provincial education departments needed to be involved and take the school to court to challenge discrimination. DM
* Not their real names
EDITOR’S NOTE: Update and apology to Dr Donkin
This article was updated on 26 October to include Dr Donkin’s comments. Daily Maverick apologises to Donkin for not seeking his views prior to the publication of the original article and also for not obtaining his response that was submitted to the WCED in October 2022, which reveals a different reality of the situation.