Since our founding in 1995, a central part of IAM’s identity has been working with select denominations, leadership and future clergy in South Africa advocating for the recognition and celebration of LGBTIQ+ people.  In our work with our faith partners over the years, IAM has choosen to engage in dialogue as a primary driver of behavioural change, using the Bible and faith to counter and create meaningful alternatives to harmful religious fundamentalism. In this post (part 1 of 2) we look first at why we must work with faith partners for LGBTIQ+ advocacy, and explore an example from popular culture that highlights the tensions that we address through dialogue and looks at why we choose this (often challenging) form of engagement as a central tool to facilitate long-lasting, deep changes.

Why Faith Partnerships for LGBTIQ+ advocacy matters: Implications of religious ideologies on real bodies

According to the 2013 census, 85.6% of South Africans self-identify as Christian. This identity undoubtedly impacts how we behave as citizens in South Africa, and how we behave is closely knitted to how we read and interpret the Bible. Biblical scholars and LGBTIQ+ activists over the past few decades have commented on how the Bible is used to demonize diverse sex, gender, and sexuality and how heterosexuality is viewed as the “normalized” sexuality.  Conservative literal readings and interpretations of the Bible forms gender and sexuality codes that hierarchically structure bodies according to heteropatriarchal and cissexism ideologies.

The Christian faith as an institutionalized religion is a powerful creator of identity that determines social values, ethics, and behaviour on a personal and national level. Recently at a workshop, a correctional service official attending an IAM session as part of a conference told a story of Jade September, a transgender woman who challenged and won a court case to be incarcerated in a facility that affirms her gender identity. Jade’s incarceration in a “female facility” forced correctional officials to examine their faith convictions, which are largely based on “biblical” heteronormative gender and sexual codes. The official wanted to know: “how do you respond to religious questions of the officials and what role does the local congregation play in this matter?” These questions highlight the pervasiveness of how gender, sex, and sexuality are intertwined with faith.

Dialogue is a choice

Over the past 25 years, IAM has continually chosen to use dialogue as our central tool in working with our faith partners to address these interconnected spheres. While an often-challenging form of engagement, IAM has seen evidence that dialogue is an effective as a central tool to facilitate long-lasting, deep changes.

A great example of the power of dialogue for transformation is the 2019 film The Two Popes. It portrays a fictional meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio from Argentina who would later become Pope Francis I. What is striking about this film is the format of the conversation between them which brings two wide-ranging lived realities and theological convictions into dialogue.

The two characters experience life and make sense of it in contradictory ways. Throughout the film, you notice the various steps of behaviour change: precontemplation (self-assessment), contemplation (confirmation of readiness and identification of barriers), preparation (plan of action), action, maintenance (multiple strategies to cope), and relapse (disappointment) in the dialogue process. These stations are not linear, but provide an important insight into how behavioural change transpires within a process. Values like flexibility, reciprocity, vulnerability, authenticity, empathy, and risk, accompany these stations and form an integral part of the dialogue process.

The film begins with both Benedict and Bergoglio at a place of disorientation. Bergoglio is on a mission to resign as cardinal because of his disillusionment with the church, which is unusual because of his status in the church. Benedict XVI’s papacy is scandalised by sexual abuse stories perpetrated by priests and covered up by church officials. In the film Benedict is portrayed as a traditionalist who strictly follows Catholicism. He is depicted as a devout German intellectual who believes that the strength of the Roman Catholic Church resides in the church’s unchanging steadfastness in theological convictions. Unyielding to change provides continuity, certainty, safety, and absolutism. Bergoglio, in contrast, is portrayed as a follower of liberation theology that proclaims God’s preferential love for the poor. He believes that the church undoubtedly has a role to play to elevate the lived realities of the poor and contribute to a better life. Bergoglio’s Catholic Church is welcoming towards divorcees, affirming of LGBTIQ+ people and encourages priestly marriage.

The climax in this fictional movie, in my opinion, is the dialogue in the Room of Tears where the two characters mutually encounter one another through their embodied stories of guilt, calling, vulnerability, forgiveness, and hope. Benedict and Bergoglio’s embodied stories portray the characteristics of dialogue partners on opposite ends in the conversation on sex, gender, and sexuality.

This fictional portrayal of an encounter in The Two Popes is a good example of the work that IAM does within faith communities.  We engage with people on different sides of the conversation who are often stuck in debate that has led to a deadlock. IAM chooses dialogue as a conversation model, which speaks to our organisational values. Conversational partners often go through behavioural change stages on a micro- and macro-level simultaneously.

This post is part 1 of 2 – read the first part of the post here.