Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Queering Transformation in Higher Education

Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Queering Transformation in Higher Education

Article excerpt


Transformation scholarship in higher education has tended to centre on race and, by extension, gender, framed by the political and socio-economic transition from apartheid to a democratic South Africa (Fourie, 1999). This has been important in addressing the legacy of apartheid within the systemic transformation of higher education institutions. However, the selective focus has done little to address other forms of discrimination such as homophobia- "the individual and societal contempt for and prejudice against [same-sex desiring individuals]" (Walters & Hayes, 1998: 2). While it is no secret that queer1 students in higher education institutions mostly do not enjoy favourable experiences (see the Ministerial Report 2008), the general response has been to ignore the issue, with parity in terms of race and sex being the main priority areas for both researchers and institutional administrators. This article contests this static and limited approach, not least on its superficial framing of power and oppression. The reduction to racial and gender parity creates boundaries between those who are perceived as victims and those who are perceived as perpetrators, silencing questions as to how race may be sexualised, how gender may be classed, and how class may be raced. Instead, a queer approach towards transformation is needed. This approach would foreground discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, while highlighting the multiple, pluralistic ways in which identification is performed.

The article draws on existing research, personal experiences (as a student and now staff member at the University of KwaZulu-Natal) as well as my current research project aimed at addressing homophobia in secondary schools and higher education institutions in South Africa. I begin with a discussion on the meaning of queer theory and its associated concepts. I then present a review of literature on the daily experiences of queer students in higher education institutions internationally and in South Africa specifically. This is followed by a discussion that demonstrates the need for the adoption of a queer approach. The article is not driven by the need to quantitatively present experiences of homophobia; rather it seeks to qualitatively highlight the patterns and nature of homophobia, through the experiences discussed, so as to argue for a more inclusive, complex approach towards transformation.

Jansen (1998: 106) highlighted the importance of using critical incidents in the study of transformation as these "tell us more about the nature and extent of transformation than any official documents or quantified outputs [would]". Radebe and Taylor (2010) similarly argue that critical incidents can "bring out" issues which are often ignored in the study of transformation. Whiteford and McAlister (2007: 74) write that

[critical incidents] are context bound, generate thick description of specific phenomena and allow for iterative processes, that is, the person experiencing and recounting the incident is able to review the story over and over again, understanding it in different ways and with greater degrees of depth.

In essence, critical incidents in this article serve to foreground issues which are silenced by the politics of heteronormativity, the belief that heterosexuality is the norm in terms of gender and sexuality (Warner, 1991).

On theory and concepts

This work is, to a large extent, based on queer theory, the growing and contested postmodernist body of knowledge which positions forms of identification as fluid and multiple. 'Queer' is often used by many (but not all) queer theorists, including this study, as an umbrella term referring to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Queer theory includes "sexualities and gender identities that are outside [the] heterosexual [identity] and [challenges] gender categories" (Renn, 2010: 132). To be 'queer' is not necessarily perceived as an 'identity' in the stable and fixed sense. …

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