Melanie Judge is a queer, feminist activist and scholar who has worked in the sexual and gender rights and justice space for two decades. She first came into contact with IAM as an activist at the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project in the early 2000s, working alongside IAM’s founder Pieter Oberholzer. Over the years, the partnership with IAM has grown and evolved, sharing many activist spaces as fellow queer activists, including advocacy and support for some of the high-profile legal cases that have challenged discrimination in church settings. Most recently, Melanie co-leads a project called “Keeping the Faith: Working at the Crossroads of Religion and Sexual & Gender Rights” that seeks to explore and support faith as a site for strengthening human rights for LGBTIQ+ people. IAM has been a partner in the Keeping the Faith project, and the publication and conceptual framework that emerged can help shape and support organisations like IAM’s future work.
Taking the LGBTIQ+ human rights discourse into the church: IAM’s radical work
Looking back at their shared history, she reflects that “25 years ago, to challenge discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity in mainstream churches was a radical prospect. Although we had the legislative and the constitutional framework to back that idea, IAM spearheaded actually doing that work in those spaces which, emerging out of an apartheid and colonial history, were seeped in deep discrimination. Churches had been so active in the denial of rights and the marginalisation and exclusion of queer people, in the development of profoundly persecutory discourses that were very much reflected in apartheid law and in apartheid narratives – yet here’s an organisation of activists who are prepared to take the claims of rights and justice on the basis of the Constitution and draw those closer to mainstream churches, and I think that was a radical prospect. And, for activists like me who were working strictly from a human rights perspective, there was at that time quite a lot of anxiety to engage with matters of faith and religion. It was a bit like we were doing the secular work and hoping that religious institutions would be dragged along by human rights and the Constitution. Yet here’s IAM, an organisation that’s going really to the heart of it – to the heart of prejudices – because we know that prejudices are so primarily propped up by religious discourses that justify self and other, that justify the ‘othering’ of particular groups.”
Engaging with sacred texts to advance justice
IAM didn’t stop at addressing the need for church structures to change, but also encouraged reading the sacred texts differently as well. “We come from a history where the Bible was actively used to legitimise racism. The use of sacred narratives to support apartheid is a deep part of our history. I think going into that space was such a critical move.”
This way of engaging differently with sacred texts continues to be a very powerful part of IAM’s work. “Bringing these texts, that have been read so fundamentally and in such reactionary and expedient ways in our apartheid past, and saying ‘No, we can read these texts into our present and into our future in ways that are inclusive, in ways that are non-discriminatory, in ways that advance freedom and justice instead of repression and prejudice,’ is transformative work. In the process of working with these texts and reimagining them in ways that are affirming and inclusive, you change religious practice, you change the role of religion in a society, you change the terms of religious belonging, and you change social practice.”
Leveraging the law to advance more inclusive spaces
Another prong of IAM’s work that Melanie has seen as particularly important has been leveraging the law to advance more inclusive spaces, whether through championing Ecclesia’s court case against the Methodist Church of Southern Africa for wrongful discontinuation of her ministry for her marriage to her same-sex partner, or to challenging the Dutch Reformed Church’s 2016 decision not to recognise same-sex marriages. “This leveraging of the law to bring religious institutions to account and to hold them accountable to the constitutional demands of equality and non-discrimination, has also been a powerful part of IAM’s work. Working at that interface of law and faith has been important, and through that IAM has directly contributed to the development of equality jurisprudence in South Africa, which is the scaffolding that holds so much of the rights-based activism we are able to advance around a range of issues, including around gender and sexuality.”
Giving voice to queer experience, inspiring activists and allies
A large part of IAM’s work over the past 25 years has been the inclusion and centring of voices of the LGBTQI+ faith community in faith spaces. “Giving voice to queer experience, centring the queer experience in this work, and allowing that experience to speak for itself and not to be spoken on behalf of, has been incredible to see.” In spaces where those voices have been routinely silenced, this continues to be challenging but important work. Through this, IAM has built a cadre of queer religious activists in the faith space that keep refocusing the narratives back to the queer perspective and experience, not allowing that to be swept away.
IAM’s work has also inspired allies to see engaging in faith spaces as fundamental to the full realisation of LGBTIQ+ rights. Looking back at her earlier work with IAM, Melanie reflects, “for me in my own activism, I myself started to recognise the critical importance of engaging with issues of sexual and gender inclusion through the prism of religious discourse. I developed a deep understanding of the importance of the approach of IAM and also the importance of people like me, secular activists, needing to find ways to engage with the role of faith in either oppression or in liberation. IAM really set the tone for that, for the possibilities of working in that space, and has done for many years… IAM in some way is an exemplar of what’s possible in the form of alliances across sexual and gender divides within mainstream churches.”
Continuing the fight
Melanie states that, “We’ve got rights enshrined in the Constitution, but we are in a long, drawn out battle to ensure the realisation of those rights for all. I’m relieved because what I think we’ve gained in 25 years is not something that can be rolled back as easily as people think they might roll it back, and I think that’s testimony to the fact that we have, however limited it is, created a vocal and a visible queer culture in South Africa. IAM along with many other players have been critical in the development of this culture that’s infused everywhere, in so many spaces, and that can’t easily be rolled back through the repeal of a law or even through the emergence of very real fundamental populism that’s also prevalent in South Africa. IAM has played a critical role in the irreversibility of some of the gains that have been made in respect of LGBTIQ rights, presence, voice, politics and participation, through its ongoing and sustained engagements.”
Today, Melanie believes, the work that IAM is doing is increasingly vital. “I think it’s particularly important now because we’re seeing a fervent mobilisation of fundamentalist politics using religious texts, again, as a legitimator. So, we’re witnessing the rise of the power and the reach of right-wing fundamentalism which absolutely draws on Christian fundamentalism and political popularism, and it’s global. In the face of this, we need solidarities and queer activism in religious spaces to challenge these forces. This needs to be ramped up, and I think that IAM is well positioned to enable and facilitate that.”
* interview has been edited for length and clarity