I recently attended the launch of the queer Pride society at my alma mater, Bishops Diocesan College in Cape Town. As I stood among this humble gathering of students, alumni and teachers, both familiar and new, I couldn’t help but reflect on my high school experience before matriculating at the end of 2017. If you asked me then if a society like this would be possible, the short answer would have been “no”.
I came out of the closet in 2015. I was a scrawny 15-year-old in Grade 10, at an elite “all-boys” high school (I would later come into my non-binary gender identity while at Stellenbosch University, evidencing the fact that the school is not only for boys.)
At an institution marked by a fervent brand of masculinity, famous for its rugby successes and infamous for an underbelly of snobbish misogyny among its students, I became an anomaly in this culture of the “boys club”. At the time I was also repeatedly told that I was the first student ever to come out while at the school, and so my coming out became more than a personal discovery of identity; it was an institutional shock to the system.
Not only was this new territory for me in navigating my identity, it was a novel navigation of queerness between the institution and students like me.
Up to that point, my queer experience at Bishops from Grade 8 had not been a pleasant one. Remember, this was a time leading up to Donald Trump’s election as US president and “leader of the free world”, whatever that means.
It was still common then for students to derogatorily describe things that weren’t to their liking as “gay”. “That’s so gay” was a phrase so commonly used during my time there that no one blinked twice when they heard or used it. My inherent femininity opened me up to a plethora of taunting and violent questioning of my sexuality and gender that often made the trouble of coming out seem like a monumental effort not worth undertaking.
The firm assertion of heteronormativity and blatant proclivity for hyper-masculinity consistently reminded me that I should want to be a man who likes women – all of this on top of the difficulties of being a middle-class, biracial kid at a historically wealthy, white school. But, in 2015, a newfound sense of confidence and unshakeable desire to live my truth and exist in the fullness of who I am pushed me to come out, in a space and at a time when no one else had done it and there was no blueprint for how I might best brave it.
Naturally, I became an oddity, constantly bombarded with invasive questions and fetishised in the most uncomfortable ways. I became a topic of conversation and, among the more homophobically inclined, the subject of ridicule.
I was also relentless. I took the gay jokes on the chin more than I should have, and carved out my space despite it. I called out problematic peers and fought the subtly queerphobic teachings of some of my educators, forcibly normalising my presence in this outdated culture.
By the time I got to matric, my best friend had also come out, and younger students were slowly edging their way out of their own closets, too. I even took a man to my matric dance, another Bishops first. My queerness, for better and worse, had to be a big deal. I integrated it into my cultural work, I spoke about it during break times, and I breathed it every time I entered a classroom. I demanded my queerness be respected, even if it was not always loved.
Through it all, I had a sense that this was just the beginning and more could be done for students like me.
Never in my wildest gay dreams did I think that that progress could manifest in the creation of a safe space like a queer Pride society, a mere five years later.
In 2022, as I stood there at this society’s launch in a miniskirt that I had always dreamed of wearing as part of my uniform as a student, I was finally proud.
Proud of the school that I had come to love in spite of the trials, proud of the students who came after me and carried that mantle even more fiercely, and proud of myself for knowing it was not all in vain.
Make no mistake; this is not the end of progress for Bishops and South African schools, only a harbinger that the floodgates may finally be open for our queer youth. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.