Cape Town - When a transgender man who goes by the pen name Dylan Marx attended an all-girls school, his school-issued skirt and blouse were a discomfort to him. He cross-dressed under his uniform, but the clothes still identified him as something he was not.
“I wanted to destroy my uniform. I thought about burning it all the time,” he said. “It was awful.”
Uniforms and bathrooms are two areas transgender pupils continue to struggle with in South Africa. This is because of a lack of a national policy for schools on how to accommodate them. As transgender children are coming out earlier and earlier, this is a area of concern for many parents.
Ronald Addinall, a clinical social worker, sexologist and academic in UCT’s Department of Social Development, said because more parents are aware of gender identity, they are willing to approach him when they realise their children are transgender.
“In the past few years, I have been involved in assisting parents to negotiate the social transition of their children at primary schools and high schools. Because there is no national policy, you have to re-invent the wheel at every school and you are at the mercy of the principal and his or her attitudes and the degree to which he or she is willing to take this on board and talk about it.”
The school administrators then decide whether the child will be given social transition. Addinall said most schools are co-operative.
“You have to convince the principal, educate the principal, help the principal understand these children’s rights and how the constitution protects them,” he said.
Marx said his years at the all-girls school were the loneliest of his life.
Eventually he became romantically involved with a fellow pupil and was sent to a psychiatric hospital where they gave him an ultimatum - either he could stay at school, spend a year in the psychiatric hospital and repeat the school year afterwards, or he had to leave.
He left and his mother enrolled him at a co-ed school.
“I had to focus on the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
“I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was introspective because I was only focused on surviving.”
In a 2014 report published by Gender DynamiX, a Cape Town-based organisation focused on advocacy efforts for transgender people, transgender pupils said bathrooms were particularly difficult to deal with at school.
One transgender woman said she did not go to the toilet at school as boys did not want her there because she presented as female.
Estian Smit, the advocacy co-ordinator at Gender DynamiX, said the organisation was piloting an education programme for teachers. “It’s difficult for a child to negotiate gender norms and facility use, such as with bathrooms.”
Dr Anastacia Tomson, a transgender woman in Joburg, said not teaching gender-diversity in schools could damage a transgender child psychologically.
“Teachers don’t understand how to empower them. If children feel different, they feel alone and unwelcome. It doesn’t make sense to transgender children that they cannot express their genders in ways they feel comfortable.”
Addinall said: “The best practice is to allow that child to live in the gender of their identity and to make a social transition.”