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Being gay in academia

- By Buhle Zuma

Professor Robert Balfour spoke candidly about his experience and being referred to as ‘the gay dean’.

Race, gender and curriculum have dominated discussions on transformation lately. However, these debates in institutions of higher learning are missing an important component according to Professor Robert Balfour.

The neglect of the rights of minority groups such as the LGBTIAQ * community is not so apparent but one that has real consequences.

“Minority rights are also a transformation issue in higher education. Without having difference recognised within institutions in which we conduct education, we can’t really expect that difference will be understood outside of education,” said Balfour.

Balfour, a Dean of Education at North West University, was speaking at a conference themed Sustainable Transformation and Higher Education, hosted by the Wits School of Education in partnership with the Higher Education Research and Policy Network (HERPNET).

Balfour, who spoke candidly about his experience and being referred to as ‘the gay dean’ said that institutions of higher learning differ in their commitment to transformation, hinting that there is superficial support extended to the LGBTIAQ * community in academia.

Even in institutions that advocate for freedom of association, it is not easy to identify as gay, he said.

Balfour said he is often asked whether he really wants to disclose his orientation and whether he has considered how this might limit his career aspirations.

Balfour, who has taught at three universities in the country, said it is not enough for institutions to create Safe Zones and Safe Places.

“Unless there is policy, money to support it (LGBTIAQ * initiatives) and goodwill to support it – those policies and spaces end up being in the backrooms where students gather to talk about issues they can’t talk about in and out of the university,” he said.

Balfour noted that student movements who attempt to champion the cause of the LGBTIAQ * often collapse because they operate “on the margins of mainstream student life” with no support from the institutions.

He further touched on issues of access and retention with respect to this group.

Redress and restitution for the minority group

Balfour said he is cognisant that race and gender are the most visible and the most obvious areas of redress in the country, however, the LGBTIAQ * community has always been subject to oppression.

“Apartheid and its colonial predecessor were severely homophobic in nature and homophobic across the race and gender divide.”

He posed a question on whether the Constitution really protects the rights of minority groups, disadvantaged groups and vulnerable groups when it comes to the world of work.

Advancing his argument, he said there are contradictions between the Constitution and the Employment Equity Act.

According to Balfour, the Employment Equity Act, which seeks to ensure equitable representation in all occupational categories and levels in the workforce, is in many respects a discriminatory Act in its narrow definition of designated groups eligible for affirmative action appointments.

Universities should lead the way in true transformation. 

His presentation elicited a vigorous discussion among delegates, a majority of whom hail from the continent.

Thirty eight of the 54 African countries on the continent criminalise same sex activities including countries such as Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Balfour’s presentation was titled Postcards from the edge*: gay identity, leadership and transformation in higher education.

* Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Asexual, Queer and other sexual orientations and gender identities.