Students’ narratives on gender and sexuality in the project of social justice and belonging in higher education
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Student protests in South Africa over the last few years have re-energized the project of social justice in higher education. While emphasis has been on decolonizing the curriculum and the university spaces, there has also been a powerful mobilization around the lived experiences of students, including sexual and gendered practices of exclusion and othering. Students’ activism and a growing body of research speak to continued practices of exclusion, marginalisation and injustice, not only in the classroom, but in everyday experiences of un/belonging on the basis of intersectional raced, classed, gendered, sexualised and other forms of social identity and difference. Efforts to understand the lived experiences of young people within diverse higher educational contexts are arguably especially important in this context and this article seeks to explore such experiences with a particular focus on the entanglement of gender and sexuality with student citizenship. The article draws on research with students at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) who engaged in a participatory photovoice research project in a feminist research methodology module. Students were asked to take photos on and around campus that represented un/safe spaces for them and to write short narratives on these. In this article we apply a gendered lens to reveal the intersectional dynamics that shape students’ experiences of un/belonging and un/safety on campus. The narratives and images generated by students in thinking about their sense of safety or unsafety on campus speak to a multiplicity of spaces, both symbolic and physical, that impact on experiences of belonging, either enhancing belonging or facilitating exclusion. Student narratives revealed the complex intersections between gender and sexuality in different locations, at different times, on and between campus (including, the campus bar, the sports field and commuter taxis), and how these operate in ways that validate heteronormative gender and sexual identities and practices, while marginalising alternative, non-conforming genders and sexualities. Taking these narratives seriously means acknowledging ways in which gender, sexual and intersectional injustices limit students’ ability to participate as equal citizens in a higher education context and flags the value of student voice in the project of social justice in higher education.