Row over bi-gender KZN teacher wearing a skirt to school

Serbash Thumbadoo

Serbash Thumbadoo

Published Jun 4, 2021


Durban - A Sydenham teacher believes the older generation needs to be more sensitive to gender issues after his own experience.

Serbash Thumbadoo, 29, has taught mathematics and life sciences at Centenary Secondary School for the past two years.

After living and dressing as a man since childhood, about four years ago he began a process of introspection which resulted in him realising that he was bi-gender.

Thumbadoo said: “Bi-gender basically means a person who identifies as both male and female. You could feel both genders at the same time or be fluid between them.”

He said he had known for some time that he was different.

“After the death of my father in 2017 and grandmother in 2019, I took time to reflect on my life. It was then that I realised that I was bi-gender. There are days that I identify as a male and on other days as a female. In August 2020 I told my family I was bi-gender."

More recently, Thumbadoo informed the principal of Centenary Secondary School of his gender.

“I told him that although I was born male, I sometimes identify as a woman. I explained that I was going through a transition aimed at finding my identity. He seemed to understand and accept that I was bi-gender.”

Thumbadoo said that changed on May 21 when he arrived at school dressed as a woman.

“I got to school at 6.40am dressed in a shirt, a black knee-length skirt, black stockings, and flat ankle boots. About ten minutes later, while I was standing outside the office administration block, the principal saw me and asked what I was wearing. I responded, asking why? He then said he did not want the school to be a laughing stock and what I was wearing was a joke.”

Thumbadoo said he went into the staff room and the principal followed. The principal then allegedly took a picture of Thumbadoo on a cellphone.

“He said he wanted to show the picture to the school’s circuit manager and my union representative,” said Thumbadoo.

“I was hurt. I walked to my car and changed into a pair of pants. I just broke down and began to cry. I felt victimised and discriminated against. I felt like I was not allowed to be who I really was.”

Thumbadoo said he was so upset he was not able to conduct his classes. He said he sent the principal a message explaining this and the principal acknowledged the message.

Thumbadoo said since the incident he had started researching the rights of members of the LGBTQI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex) community.

“I found that, according to the school’s code of conduct and policies, I did not break any rules. I was treated unfairly and reported the matter to my union representative at Sadtu (South African Democratic Teachers Union).”

Last Monday, members of the union staged a picket outside the school. He said he found pupils to be more accepting of his gender.

“The older generation needs to be educated. They need to be reminded that South Africa’s Constitution is more progressive than they think. Our Constitution protects the LGBTQI+ community from discrimination, especially in the workplace.”

Nomarashiya Caluza, the provincial secretary of Sadtu in KZN, said: “The union stands against any form of discrimination, including discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation and gender.

“Thumbadoo was frustrated and stressed by how the principal treated him. We were very angry about this because it was discrimination in all respects. We spoke to the principal. We asked him to apologise to the teacher.

“This is a struggle we need to wage because there is a lot of hate out there. People are being killed because of their sexual beliefs, sexual orientations, and gender,” said Caluza.

Muzi Mahlambi, spokesperson for the Department of Education in KZN, said he was not aware of the incident.

“However, the department does not condone the behaviour of the principal. Discrimination in any form is not allowed in our schools. We are governed by our Constitution and our Constitution is one that is inclusive of everyone."

Hlengiwe Buthelezi, the director of the KZN LGBT Recreation Organisation, said: “We have noticed that when a manager or leader is homophobic towards an employee, the same attitude is passed on to other staff members. In this case, if the union did not act swiftly, the principal’s attitude towards the teacher could have been filtered to the other staff members, making the school an unbearable place for the teacher to work in.”

Buthelezi said there needed to be more education in the working environment about the LGBTQI+ community.

“This is one way to stop homophobic behaviour in the workplace.

“People need to start being more accepting of the LGBTQI+ community. They need to unlearn this discrimination. Like we rose from the ashes of apartheid, we as South Africans need to do the same for the LGBTQI+ community.”

The school and its governing body referred the POST to the Department of Education for comment. But Thumbadoo said he had received an apology from the principal.

THERE have been mixed reactions regarding the Miss South Africa Pageant’s accommodation of transgender women in the competition.

But the Miss SA Organisation, which manages the pageant, released a statement on May 24 clarifying this was not a new development and that transgender women had been able to enter and compete in the beauty pageant for some time.

Stephanie Weil, the Miss South Africa Organisation’s chief executive, said that for the third successive year, transgender women were eligible to enter the pageant.

Anthony Waldhausen, the founder and director of Gay and Lesbian Network, an LGBTQI+ organisation promoting recognition of the LGBTQI+ community in Pietermaritzburg, said: “It is important to acknowledge transgender people. Opening such opportunities for them is quite exciting. We are looking forward to it and we strongly encourage trans women to enter because at the moment Miss SA is calling for our transgender women entries.

“The LGBTI community are facing continuous discrimination and hate crimes because of who they are. However, I don’t see this decision being an additional threat to our people, but it has just given them an opportunity to participate in an inclusive contest.”

However, Nonhlanhla Mkhize, the programme director of Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre, a centre that cares for lesbian, transgender, gay, bisexual, and intersex communities, said they would have preferred a separate pageant for trans women.

“As much as we are delighted by the progress that trans women would now be recognised as South African women, hence the inclusion in the pageant, however, there is an element that questions: why not recognise trans women for who they are? Educate the society more and raise awareness by giving them their own title such as ’Trans Miss SA’.

“I believe that if transgender women could have a different title people would have more clarity and learn about diversity. A pageant that would focus mainly on them, and the things they go through, and embraces them, would educate people about transgender people.”

Kim Lithgow, founder and director of Same Love Toti, a non-profit organisation that advocates for the human rights of sexual and gender minorities in Durban and South Coast areas, said the gender markers required on IDs were unnecessary.

“Unfortunately, this requirement is a drawback and maybe it shows a lack of understanding of what the transgender and gender diverse and intersex people face. Transgender people can wait years for their IDs to be changed, and they face challenges with opening bank accounts, purchasing property, having a driver’s licence or even having their qualifications recorded accurately.

“Everyone’s transition journey is different, so it is unrealistic to expect that every transgender woman will be the same. It is preferable for the entrance requirements to rely on the self-declaration of the individual and use their current ID document. But it would be even better if we could all accept that transgender women are women already, regardless of where they are on their journey.”

Weil said a South African ID document, reflecting gender identity alignment, was an essential requirement for transgender women to be able to compete internationally.

“Since we took over the competition, our goal has been to be more inclusive and embracing of all members of society. The world is finally opening up to the changing beauty standards and understanding that beauty is not a one-size-fits-all. We hope that the Miss South Africa Organisation will continue to play a role that can act as a catalyst to this. Miss South Africa will continue to recognise the innate potential in all young South African women,” said Weil.

She said the surge of violence against transgender people accumulated much interest this year and they were committed to keeping the spotlight on these issues and creating awareness.

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