Teachers and academic institutions play a vital role in supporting the holistic development of students and learners – and some of those students are members of the LGBTQI+ community.

Constitutionally speaking, Zimbabwe is a nation that has yet to warm up to LGBTQI+ folks. This mainly means including a clause that specifically outlaws (unfair) discrimination against anyone on the grounds of their sexual/gender identity.

However, the continued intolerance of LGBTQI+ people, fuelled largely by queer-antagonistic leaders, has not stopped the formation and running of organisations advocating for the fundamental rights of this marginalised community. In fact, it has formed the basis for the establishment of these organisations. After all, the supreme law of the land does accord every citizen the “freedom to practise and propagate and give expression to their thought, opinion, religion or belief, whether in public or in private and whether alone or together with others”.

The continued intolerance of LGBTQI+ people is fuelled by queer-antagonistic leaders.

One such organisation is Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), which has been in existence since 1990. Unsurprisingly, all these years of GALZ’s existence have not been without challenges in the form of harassment, vandalism of the organisation’s offices and/or arbitrary arrests of members. Still, the members have soldiered on and have been making commendable progress in raising awareness of the need for LGBTQI+ inclusion in society’s institutions.

Read: Zimbabwe is moving towards inclusive health care to fight HIV, not to legitimise gay rights

It is therefore heartening to note the willingness of various institutions in Zimbabwe’s society to engage GALZ – and other such organisations – on ways to make specific spaces more inclusive and safer for LGBTQI+folks to navigate and thrive in. One such space is our institutions of learning, where some students face harassment due to their actual or perceived queerness.

Thankfully, the union for teachers in Zimbabwe, the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), seems to have recognised the need for a solution that will help mitigate the incidences of queerphobia that is directed at said students. PTUZ is working with GALZ to fight against homophobia in the education sector, and the union says learners face massive discrimination because teachers are not trained to deal with the issue. “We have engaged them to assist in dealing with the issues of discrimination and stereotyping of some students. We want to address that so that the students can also enjoy their learning without feeling discriminated against,” Raymond Majongwe, PTUZ secretary general, told NewsDay. GALZ director Chester Samba confirmed the partnership with the teachers’ organisation, and said GALZ will help the union and support its awareness programmes. Samba was quoted as saying, “It is a welcome development that teachers are recognising that there are children with diverse sexual backgrounds and that, because of the absence of information around LGBTQI+ issues, teachers will be in the dark on how to deal with such students.”

Tweet by Raymond Majongwe, PTUZ Secretary General

Instances of harassment targeting LGBTQI+ students in Zimbabwe’s schools have been noted, and the perpetrators are both fellow students and certain teachers.

This collaboration between the union and GALZ is important because:

1. It will help the relevant authorities understand the impact of queerphobic bullying in schools in addition to

2. Allowing teachers to be educated so that they can…

3. Effectively provide support to LGBT students while…

4. Advocating for or championing a change in the attitude towards queerness.

There are so many social and systemic biases that perpetuate the ill treatment of LGBTQI+ people, or those believed to be queer, based solely on the way they carry themselves. Our institutions of learning are not insulated from those damaging biases, some of which are “queerness is a mental condition that one can receive therapy for” and “it is immoral or simply a phase that one will outgrow”. In fact, it is in those institutions that prejudicial beliefs are inculcated or re-instilled into the minds of learners through the formal curriculum or institutional culture that reflects broader society’s socio-political attitude towards gender and sexuality.

It is incumbent on academic institutions to recognise, affirm and encourage the acceptance of the diversity of the students they cater for. This diversity manifests itself in our race, skin tone, height, weight, tribe, language, gender and, yes, sexual orientation. Teachers need to openly acknowledge and teach this to their learners. They can do the latter without unnecessarily outing students or forcing any LGBTQI+ students to come out but by simply using inclusive language and including the sexuality issues in their learning materials. After all, can we really brag about “being educated” if our “education” does not open our minds to our human differences and the various ways in which fear/intolerance of that difference produces dangerous power-based relationships where one trait is regarded as the norm while others are dehumanised or seen as illegitimate and therefore unworthy of civil liberties accorded to other individuals?

Making learning institutions safe for LGBTQI+ students is not tantamount to, as is infamously claimed by anti-LGBTQI+f olk, “pushing the gay agenda”. As a matter of fact, the only agenda here is improving every student’s experience of education by effectively recognising, challenging and doing away with queerphobic bullying. Such bullying needs to be treated with as much urgency as is or should be afforded all other forms of bullying.

Bullying contravenes the basic principle of treating everyone with respect.

As UNESCO rightfully put it, “Fundamentally, and whatever its basis (sexuality, gender, ethnicity, HIV status, class), bullying contravenes the basic principle of treating everyone with respect and as such must not be tolerated.”

Of course, the teachers and relevant authorities will not be able to achieve much in the way of supporting LGBTQI+ learners if they do not challenge their own anti-LGBTQI+ prejudices We need to be the change we wish to see in the world, right? This is exactly why the collaboration of the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe and GALZ is crucial.

The experiences of LGBTQI+ people have a huge bearing on overall physical and mental well-being. A study conducted by Stonewall revealed that queer pupils who felt they did not have an adult to talk to are much more likely to have symptoms of depression than those who do have an adult to talk to.

A positive school experience is therefore likely to boost or safeguard the well-being of LGBTQI+ learners. This will go a considerably long way in reducing the incidence of depression, which may lead to suicide or substance abuse. It is worth noting here that it is not being queer that causes these mental health challenges. It is the harassment, bullying and lack of response (or indifference) of relevant authorities that the affected individuals endure that gives rise to anxiety, depression, and more. It is the harassment, bullying and poor response from learning institutions that needs to be urgently tackled.