Young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex are more likely to hide their sexual orientation until they graduate from high school and leave home to study at university or other institutions. In most African countries, these institutions are invariably located in urban centres.
Leaving their homes before “coming out”, these young people hope their orientation would be less conspicuous in the urban cities and people will be more tolerant. In this way, they will be able to express their non-heteronormative identities as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender or intersex (LGBTI).
But they find that their tickets to freedom are not as they envisioned.
Is it really freedom at last?
Gay students see universities as spaces of intellectual freedom and believe these institutions are progressive and inclusive spaces – unlike their communities back home. This rural-urban migration of “going out-before coming out” has benefits and pitfalls.
Research shows institutions are often an extension of some of the general population’s homophobic attitudes. Their fellow students are homophobic and discriminate against them in their residences, on the sport fields, during lectures and when they access other support services on campus.
During sports activities or physical education, the LGBTI students are harassed, bullied or assaulted based on their sexual orientation. And during lectures, their lecturers create a hostile environment by calling them names and verbalising their hatred and disapproval of homosexuality.
Their dormitories are hostile with heterosexual students often violently attacking, ridiculing and forcing them out of residences. University administration dismiss complaints of harassment, prejudice and discrimination from students and campus-based health care workers perpetuate discrimination by denying the students services. Health care workers also offer “corrective counselling”.
In one South African university, the negative attitudes even come from students who attend the anti-stigma and discrimination campaigns. Research shows the homophobic practices are influenced by selective readings of religious scriptures and particular interpretations of African culture.
To avert stigma and discrimination, LGBTI students have found several ways to protect themselves. One is to live double lives, where they publicly engage in heterosexual relationships during the day and privately enjoy the partner of their choice.
This is by no means exclusive to these universities, But involving themselves in concurrent sexual relationships puts them at risk of contracting or transmitting HIV. Their so-called “public partners” are also at risk of being infected with HIV.
Apart from the increased risk of HIV infection, both the students and their “trophy partners” are at risk of emotional trauma. In some cases, some end up impregnating their partners without any commitment. This, at the end, affects the child, who is conceived as an act of “convenience”
Other LGBTI students try to avert stigma by avoiding public spaces and their classes. But this leads to poor academic performance, and them dropping out of university. Or they resort to drug and alcohol abuse.
Studies conducted in 14 South African universities show that men who have sex with men and LGBTI students have increased level of drug and alcohol abuse compared to other university students.
Continuous exposure to homophobic and transphobic attacks has a negative impact on the LGBTI students’ mental and social health in general. Some end up being depressed while others commit suicide. Their academic performance suffers and the continued stigma contributes to increased student drop-outs.
However, there are LGBTI students that are tired of being in the closet and end up “coming out” publicly, displaying “exaggerated behaviour” so that their sexual orientation can be openly seen instead of them being asked. Feminine gays or transgender males dress up to surpass as females. Similarly, masculine lesbians and transgender females dress to surpass as males.
Most of the students end up advocating for the rights of other LGBTI students. They do, however, also become easy targets for further homophobic and transphobic attacks.
How to normalise homosexuality
Apart from belonging to LGBTI community, these students deserve equal rights like all other students. Their treatment shows that university administrations, the government and civil society need to rise in defence of LGBTI students’ rights.
To address the hatred towards LGBTI persons, the AIDS Accountability International has a campaign to break down the hierarchies within sexual orientation and normalise homosexuality in Africa.
As part of this campaign, several universities in the Southern Africa Development Community are planning research into LGBTI challenges in institutions of higher learning. Research reports from various researchers in the region will be published in special edition journals.