Being young is not for sissies. Moving into adulthood is fraught with emotional and social growing pains. Establishing a sense of identity and belonging are all part of the journey. And, by all accounts, the road for gay youth is even more harrowing than it is for others.
Consider the fact that numerous studies conducted in the USA have concluded that up to 30 percent of youth that commit suicide are gay or lesbian.
While it appears that teens are bursting out of the closet at ever-younger ages, universities are still the first coming out environment for many who go on to study after matric. For the first time, students have the freedom to move around, create new social networks, drink alcohol, take drugs and of course, experiment sexually.
Whether they call themselves gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning or just plain confused, many will have their first genuine same-sex sexual encounter while at university. So what kind of environment do gay students find themselves in after 13 years of post-apartheid liberation? With our homo-friendly constitution, are gay student organisations of any relevance on today’s campuses? Two student leaders from Gauteng universities certainly think so.
Zac Mbhele has been Chairperson of Activate at Wits for two years, while Sergio Do Santos is Vice Chairperson and a founding member of the University of Pretoria’s first gay student society, Up & Out. They may have different approaches to their organisations, but both feel that these bodies have a vital role to play in campus life.
In April 2005, when a religious society at Wits started lobbying for gay male students to be moved to the women’s residences, Zac decided to take action. He approached Activate, and was surprised to discover that the organisation was barely functioning with only two members on its committee. That led to him take on the task of re-energising the society, which is now a vibrant and active one. “I guess I’ve always just been someone prepared to stand up and be visible”, he explains modestly.
“I was actually surprised that there was no backlash when we re-started Activate. It seems that people who are homophobic are often too lazy to act on it,” he adds. Nevertheless thanks in part to Activate, conservative or homophobic groups now have to contend with a strong counter-voice on campus.
For Sergio, the motivation behind starting the now year-old Up & Out was primarily a social one. The University of Pretoria , with its conservative culture, has not traditionally been the friendliest of environments for gay students.
“There are a lot of gay people on campus”, says Sergio, “but there was no meeting space for us and you couldn’t be yourself. Everyone was giving everyone else the shifty eye. There was this feeling that you couldn’t be who you wanted to be on campus.”
Getting started was not easy; progressive constitution or not. According to Sergio. even getting registered as a campus society was a problem: “We had a lot of resistance from the university. We had an SRC (Student Representative Council) that had strong representation from the Vryheid Front and stressed Christian values. The chairperson of the SRC didn’t even show up to our founding meeting.”
The campus culture
Shortly after the organisation started up, gay and lesbian symbols and Up & Out’s logo on the campus graffiti wall were defaced. Up & Out posters advertising social events were also torn down shortly after they were put up.
Sergio says that “things have gotten a lot better now”, but feels that there appears to still be some subtle homophobia at work; explaining that the University has refused to create a link from its website to the Up & Out website. “We keep getting all kinds of excuses. We don’t know what to believe,” he sighs.
While Activate also experienced its posters being torn down, the campus environment at Wits is much more supportive. “I’ve never heard of a problem with staff or the campus structures. The Dean of Students is very gay friendly and we’ve never had issues with the SRC administration other than the usual bureaucracy,” says Zac.
Activate has a seat in the university structures and is seen as the official gay student voice. The organisation co-hosted a talk about homophobia at the reses which was initiated by the Vice Chancellor’s Office. Zac says that he’d describe the general campus culture towards gay students as “indifferent and tolerant – with pockets of gay friendliness.”
Apart from two gay students being pushed around at res parties in 2005, Zac reports few overtly homophobic incidents since then at Wits. So, what then, does he see as the purpose of a gay student organisation?
Students just wanna have fun…
Zac lists three areas in which he believes Activate can play a role: Providing a social space for students to connect and make friends; a voice that challenges homophobia and; public education through fostering understanding and tolerance on campus.
For Sergio, Up & Out’s key function is to develop a feeling of community among gay students: “We focus on socials and lots of parties. We’ve been criticised by other organisations for this. But that’s what students do – they go out and party.” He mentions that the organisation will soon be hosting a monthly student night at Legends nightclub in Pretoria.
Zac notes that Wits’ liberal activist history has led to the organisation having a more political approach: “We focus on more than just free pizza and punch,” he says, although, he admits, “that does perhaps mean that we have fewer members.” (While Activate has 60 or so registered members, Up & Out says that it has around 100.)
While making it clear that politics is not its primary focus, Sergio explains that Up & Out’s efforts are not only directed towards throwing parties. “There are lots of problems with coming out and we help people with that – speaking and counselling and introducing them to people who had the same experience.”
Coming out does seem to be one of the significant issues facing students – something that is echoed by Zac’s observation that the majority of Activate’s members are in their first year. After having come out or established a social network, “most will resign in second year,” he notes.
Sergio is clearly excited about the mark that his fledgling organisation is having on the university. “It’s been like an explosion on campus. For the first time, we’ve created a feeling of community among gay students.”
Contrary to some expectations, the future may see gay student organisations actually growing in strength. Activate is spearheading a two day LGBTI Youth Leaders’ Lekgotla in Johannesburg in July. It will be a two-day gathering of LGBTI student societies from around the country, in which issues will be debated, ideas exchanged and an agenda for advancing LGBTI youth aspirations will be defined.
Zac notes that “We have some connections with other student organisations. We do keep in touch but not as regularly as it should be.” He’s hoping that the conference will change this.
Sergio is keen to take a message of rejecting a gay ghetto mentality to the lekotla. He believes that gay activists should acknowledge that gays and lesbians are part of a broader society. “We should stop screaming and shouting only about homophobia – there are so many other issues that affect ev