IAM at 25: Civil Society partners reflect on their work with IAM (Jacqui Benson)

Investments in partnerships with individual activists and organisations in our community form an integral part of how IAM is effecting change. We reached out to several civil society partners we’ve interacted with over the years and asked them to reflect on our work together and the impact that IAM has on their work and the community more broadly.

Jacqui Benson is a Jewish queer activist working in Cape Town. Her background in delivering personal development programmes for over 20 years in part led her to understand the importance of her own advocacy, even when trying to fit it in between her full-time work and other commitments. “I’m Jewish and queer identifying and have found myself over the years participating both in the Jewish space and starting to be an advocate for queer issues, and in a queer space also showing up as a Jewish person because there aren’t any other Jewish queers showing up.” In this work, she’s crossed paths with IAM’s Thuli Mjwara and Ecclesia de Lange, often sharing platforms and connections. As she’s shown up in more spaces over the past few years, she’s connected more with IAM as an organisation.

Jacqui values the interfaith spaces that IAM has helped to open up for her. After the highly contentious 2018 Cape Town Pride, in 2019 IAM brought together an interfaith group of LGBTI+ activists to jointly take part in the Pride activities, showing solidarity with the wider faith community. The group marched together under a faith community banner and took part in an interfaith service at the Pride shelter. “It was really magnificent for me because it was not about Cape Town Pride, it was a space for those who could come together and join and celebrate the diversity of our faiths in a really great way. I’d love to see more of those kinds of spaces and unifying our positions on issues.”

In 2019 Jacqui also took part in a training by Taboom Media for journalists where IAM’s Thuli Mjwara was a speaker. Writers from around Africa took part in the training, learning about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and the role of journalists in advancing the narrative around LGBTIQ+ issues in the media. She credits her relationship with IAM in part for the access that she has had to these kinds of training opportunities and spaces. “IAM has helped connect me to spaces that I wouldn’t ordinarily have access to as an individual and not somebody who’s actually formally representing a specific community organisation or community. I have really appreciated the networking that IAM has opened me up to in connecting to other people in terms of a broader interface LGBTI community, which has been really great, and as such I then get to bring that back into my community.” Being on her own, unaffiliated with a formal organisation and fitting activism in between her life responsibilities requires allies that can push her in the right direction. “It’s easy to put the activism on back burner, so sometimes just even getting an e-mail from IAM can be enough to remind me ask myself ‘what do I need to be aware of or cognitive of? How can I keep these conversations moving forward?’”

While her relationship with IAM has been very positive and supportive, it’s also spurred her even more to action within her faith. “The conversation is still a very Christo-normative conversation, and so I’m feeling a double whammy of a responsibility to be there and have to show up. I need to remind people that ‘hang on, there are Jews here and actually we can’t only be talking about Christian issues.’ She imagines that Muslims and other African traditional religions feel the same way, that those other faith communities are not always represented in the conversations. The question she asks is “how do we create a bigger vocal space for other faiths?” She’s become more active and vocal on social media, particularly through the “Jewish LGBTQIA+ and allies” Facebook group that’s been active since 2013, linking to IAM and the wider faith community through those platforms. During the COVID-19 crisis she’s been vocal with her Jewish community to consider the needs of the LGBTIQ+ people in the community, encouraging them to connect to existing resources that exist (helplines, etc.) reinforcing those resources as spaces that people of all faith can tap into and avoiding duplication of efforts. She’s passionate about advocacy and education to existing Jewish communal structures. “In our community we’ve got a lot of communal organisations but they perhaps haven’t given enough thought to how to support people from diverse sexual and gender minorities, they’re not operating from there. How can I impact the existing organisations and empower them to be inclusive for everybody?”

As IAM celebrates their 25th anniversary and looks ahead at the years to come, Jacqui would love to see IAM doing more of what they have proven to do well – bring together diverse groups for more discussion and collaborative action. One example would be in any Ministerial dialogue on the idea of bringing together the three Marriage Acts. “If we could flesh out how we are going to show up and represent ourselves at these dialogues that will happen across the country in a unified way, that would benefit us all.” Spaces for more informal connection and dialogue amongst faiths would also be welcomed. “There are issues that go beyond our individual faiths and I believe the collaboration of all of our groups and community will build us to be even stronger and present a very distinct show of unity, whether it be to National Government or Provincial Government or even just LGBTI community for example, and I think if we found ways to do that on a more regular basis we all would get more value out of it in that regard. We’re all doing our very best that we can, but I think in some respects we’re operating a little bit in silo fashion, and sometimes it’s necessary to attend to what you need to attend to and do in your community, but there’s also more that we could learn from each other and collaborate with each other to build a greater societal tolerance.”