My research question: What are the implications of gender binaries at the African Leadership Academy on the LGBTQ+ community?
My project: I’d like to challenge the binaries present in my school because it’s mission states “African Leadership Academy seeks to transform Africa by developing a powerful network of over 6,000 leaders who will work together to address Africa’s greatest challenges, achieve extraordinary social impact, and accelerate the continent’s growth trajectory”. If this is their mission, there are some institutions binaries that are exclusionary. By making gender binaries very present in the school they are excluding people who are gender non-conforming, gender-queer, transgender etc. to be part of this mission. At large, they are sending a unspoken message that members of the LGBTQ+ community are not included in the school’s mission. I’d like to challenge the subtle message they are sending to the community about who are the people competent to foster change in Africa. I’d also like to influence change by having them think about the various ways they are being unequal in their institutional rules and boundaries. This works hand in hand with the UN goal 5 for gender equality.
Important Terms to Note:
LGBTQ+ : Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and more.
Marginalised: To treat a person as insignificant.
Lesbian: a person who is attracted to people of their own sex, in this case women.
Gay: a person who is attracted to people of their own sex, in this case men.
Transgender: a person who’s sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.
Queer: this is an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities, people who do not identify as cisgender (a person who’s sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex ) or straight.
Gender Performance: adhering to the gender normative behaviours and roles set by society.
Hegemony: dominance of one force over another.
Binaries: involving two things
Gender-neutral: suitable for all genders.
Gas-lighting: manipulate (someone) by psychological means into doubting their own sanity.
Unpacking My Topic:
The LGBQT+ community is a highly marginalised community around the world. In many places, in the world they are still unable to legally get married, they are not protected by policies and regulations against discrimination and harassment and in many religions their existence is considered a sin. A study done by Julia Mencher showed that 29 out of 33 schools in her area of study have had transgender students apply to their schools (Mencher, 2). Additionally, only “8 of those schools had approved guidelines and policies” on inclusivity in the school (Mencher, 2). This becomes a problem because when schools do not have actual policies on how to create a safe space for the LGBQT+ community then it leaves them unprotected and subjected to discrimination and harassment.
At my school, African Leadership Academy, we have an anti-bullying and harassment policies however, we do not have formal discussions about the LGBTQ+ community. Students from my school come from different backgrounds, some liberal but mostly conservative. The ones that come from countries where there are laws against the LGBTQ+ community and have witnessed people who are not part of the hegemony get imprisoned, harassed and attacked start to internalise the message being sent: anything that is not part of the hegemony is wrong. They carry this message to school and end up mistreating people different from them, it may not be through violence but through small comments and actions to other them. Also known as gaslighting.
I had conversations with some student in my school to find out how they feel about the binaries in place currently, these were their responses (
The interviews are quite long, but I included them incase you want to listen to the whole interview, however I will put out the the quotes I found most important from the interview and list them below):
Binaries are a reflection of the most salient understanding of gender on the continent– Dean of Academy
I do think that the academy avoids being unnecessarily heteronormative, however I do think especially in a boarding school there are some practical constraints either because of risk, law or parental expectation, student expectation on how fluid you can be– Dean of Academy
I think there is space and room for anyone, however they identify to participate in the mission of ALA, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation– Dean of Academy
Individuals and staffulty are interested in supporting and enabling all students to find safe spaces to explore who they are and who they want to be, but I can’t say if there is an institutional priority– Dean of Academy
This interview was able to give me a sense of the thinking that members of administrations have on this issue. You can see some of the important quotations I picked from the interview above. It was clear to me that the school has so many gendered spaces because it is the norm for the larger majority of Africans. They are open to having LGBQT+ people be part of the academy however, they do not make any active efforts to make sure they are part of the academy and rely on students and faculty members to create these safe spaces. However, I think this is problematic because as much as change starts with the people, there is a need for institutional change to happen. Many people led movements advocate for change to happen at an institutional level because that’s when it really matters. If a member of our school feels unsafe, the students can make clubs and have safe spaces to engage with each other but that safe space will only last for a few moments. Institutional change lasts a longer time. This is why I would like to challenge administration to start having these conversations, students sense of identity should be of importance to the administration just like finance, marketing or curriculum content.
Traditionally, that is what has been established as what gender or the spectrum is, as being male or female, not even intersecting people are considered, also a large part of it is centered around eurocentrism because I look at a lot of cultures of color that don’t necessarily have such a strict focus on gender– Student 2
ALA is a more progressive institution, in terms of acknowledging the existence of queer people on campus, but it’s a weird thing because it’s like we acknowledge your presence but you are also a complication to our conservativeness– Student 1
I think we should have mixed dorms, I think we should be taught well enough about how to prevent STD’s and STI’s and have safe fulfilling sex for both hetersexual and queer relationships– Student 1
I think policy wise there are just decisions the school doesn’t want to make and they are really maintaining this firm conservative stubborn stance and actually I think it’s delusion and denial– Student 1
Many of these quotations speak for themselves and I 100% agree with them. Students understand why these binaries exist, however in a space like ALA where we are meant to be having difficult conversations that catalyse change. We should not take the easy route and stick to the norm of things if we want to see a difference in the future. The school needs to look at different ways they can prepare us for life and for the difficult task that is leading Africa to a better place. A lot goes into preparing people for life, and understanding who they are is one of the most important.
It becomes a problem when I am trying to fit myself into this one category and it enforces this culture of oppression yourself to fit into the system– Student 3
I don’t feel safe in an all male boarding dorm, particularly because I feel more comfortable around females, in the dorms I am more conscious about my actions, they way I speak, the way I move around men than women– Student 3
It’s taken me time for me to grow very confident in my sexuality and the way I express it and the way my gender is performed so I do not feel the need to conform to that form of hegemonic masculinity– Student 3
Implement rules within the student handbook that criminalize you bashing someone else because of their gender, which will show that the school actually respects people from different spectrums of gender– Student 3
The last student I interviewed showed me that as much as it is important for change to happen institutionally, Personally, you can choose not to conform to the norm of things. It may be difficult but waiting for institutions to acknowledge and accept your identity before acknowledging and accepting it for yourself will leave you waiting for a long time.
A book written by Elly Barnes was my point of reference when looking at ways to make boarding schools more inclusive. One way is changing the language used when referring to members of the community, this means giving students the option to fill in their preferred gender, referring to groups of students as members of the community rather than ladies and gentlemen and not assuming students pronouns based on what you see (Barnes 8) . Another way could be creating gender neutral spaces such as gender neutral bathrooms and gender neutral spaces. Also another simple way is just starting conversations with members of your community in order to turn it into a larger institutional conversation. These conversations should try understand how members of the LGBTQ+ community feel in spaces with such binaries.