Tariro takes a stand for queer youth

Tariro Wafawarowa wrote a book on being bullied in high school because of his sexuality.

Tariro Wafawarowa, of Lakeside, was 15 when he realised he was bisexual, but it was a discovery that came with a bitter sting as he found the school system was not a welcoming place for anyone who wasn’t straight.

Tariro, who has written a book about his experiences as a bisexual teen in a heteronormative school, says LGBTQ+ children risk suffering depression and anxiety at schools that continue to harbour antiquated notions about sex and gender.

“In Grade 9 I was sitting with a friend. She said to me that she had one of the best ‘gaydars’ but she could never figure me out. I’d always known that I had these complex feelings towards boys, but I never understood why. It was at that moment that I realised why I had these feelings. I said it to her, ‘I am bisexual.’”

But it was when Tariro confessed his feelings for another boy that his life at school became a misery.

“There was this one boy that I had become close to over time, we were sort of becoming friends. I told him that I had feelings for him. His reaction was literally, ‘what the hell?’ after I told him that I had feelings for him. He became cold towards me, and then I noticed that everyone was becoming cold towards me.

“’They’d do weird things like if I was standing at the front of the line, they’d all move to the back of the line. I also remember this one time he passed a rubber around the class, and everyone wrote on it. When he realised that I had written on it, he took it and he threw it in the bin in front of everyone. He was not the person I thought he was.”

June is International Pride Month, a month when LGBTQ+ people are celebrated for the impact that they have made globally. This past Sunday was also Youth Day, a day that commemorates the efforts of young South Africans who fought against apartheid.

But Tariro, who is now 19 and a first-year student at UCT, says LGBTQ+ youth continue to face a daily struggle in schools against discrimination.

The Purple Letters – the book he wrote – addresses his experience of being bullied and victimised by pupils and teachers in high school because of his sexuality.

He does not want to disclose the name of his former high school, fearing further victimisation.

He says that after he told his friend he had feelings for him, things were never the same again.

Tariro says the friend ridiculed him for opening up to him and got other pupils to gang up against him, making him feel like an outcast for the rest of his high school career.

“I spent the most of Grade 10 feeling extremely uncomfortable, and I had depressive episodes. There was also some cyber bullying involved, and when I reported it to a teacher, they said they’d investigate it, but nothing really came out of that.”

Tariro says schools often fail to hold pupils accountable for their queerphobic behaviour and that’s why most don’t “come out” in high school.

What’s going on in schools is disturbing, he says, because they are a microcosm of the country and reflect broader attitudes to the LGBTQ+ community, particularly how those guilty of queerphobia are often not punished accordingly.

Tariro says teachers do not call each other out and pupils copy their behaviour.

“I remember in one of the assemblies, one of the male teachers stood up and spoke about how he knitted 67 squares for Mandela Day the last year and encouraged boys to also knit for the drive. As soon as he got off stage, the principal said ‘Thank you, Mrs’, and everyone laughed. Now if the principal can say that and get away with that then clearly there’s something wrong with schools.”

Tariro says many queer pupils suffer from depression and anxiety in high school because they are not protected by the school.

“In my matric year, I started showing signs of anxiety and even had an incident where I lashed out at a teacher. I was referred to a psychologist who realised that I had never really moved on from what happened to me in Grade 9. My grades were also affected, and my parents were concerned that I would not get into UCT.”

Some pupils’ behavioural and academic problems in high school are rooted in the frustration of not being accepted, understood or heard, Tariro says. They feel alienated.

In matric, and deciding he had had enough, Tariro published The Purple Letters on Wattpad. They are eight open letters to the people who victimised him.

He also ran for the Representative Council of Learners so he could push for racial transformation and inclusivity for all genders and sexualities.

He says his book shocked teachers, parents, pupils and the wider community because they did not know he had been through so much. But, he says, it opened their eyes and made a small difference.

That year, Tariro became one of the founding members of a queer alliance society at the school, giving pupils a platform to share their experiences under the LGBTQ+ umbrella.

Now as a first-year student at UCT, he says he realises that a lot of queer pupils at different schools face the same problems

“There are queer people who refuse to talk about their high school experiences, that’s how traumatic they were.

“Schools really need to change if we want to make this country better. I tried my best when I was there. “