IAM’s annual LGBTIQ Scholarship for the Gender and Religion Programme at the University of Kwazulu Natal’s (UKZN) School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics is awarded each year to provide a promising student an opportunity to enhance the relationship between praxis and academia, developing collaborative interdisciplinary research on an intersectional understanding of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

In 2019 IAM’s second annual scholarship was awarded to Tracey Sibisi to continue her studies at UKZN. Tracey has spent her entire career focused on promoting human rights and is particularly invested in working for LGBTI rights. “It’s a community that most people do not recognize and do not see as visible,” she says. “It’s hard enough when you advocate for people that are visible – advocating for women is more easily understandable because we recognize women, not to diminish the work done or make it seem less important. But having to start from the point where you have to humanize people that are dehumanized in most parts of KZN, having to start from the ground up, having to help build people’s self-esteem, empowering them to be able to stand up for themselves, it’s a lot more difficult.”

With the help of the scholarship, Tracey is pursuing her Bachelor’s of Theology Honours in Gender, Religion and Health. She spends her time between the classroom and continuing her work as a Program Coordinator with the Gay and Lesbian Network (GLN) in Pietermaritzburg and the surrounding community, which allows her to keep grounded in the realities and everyday importance of her research. Tracey feels that there is a huge benefit for bridging the academic/activist divide that often exists in our work. “Research being done through the use of theoretical tools such as queer theology provides a lot of sources of information and understanding how people form the systems that are created within society and the church,” she says. “It is important to make sure this research is more accessible to people who are working in the field. Academic knowledge combined with our lived realities helps in understanding the contextual realities from a holistic view, informing an approach that will help to tackle issues from the root of the problem rather than only just fighting issues that come up. You know that this thing is deeper than what it is. Sure, the violence that is happening now is a major issue, but that violence stems from somewhere, and academia is helpful for understanding where it is stemming from and how we can fix the problem from its roots and not just keep putting out fires that are coming up now.”

Every week she spends one day a week attending classes, the rest of the time in the field with GLN. “Most of my time is spent working with communities, and I’m able to bring in my work with the University to the field, and able to bring my knowledge from the field into the University. I’m lucky enough to do something that I’m passionate about in both spaces and have been able to find the link between the work in the field and at University.”

At GLN Tracey works to create an environment where LGBTI+ people can be supported by communities and institutions (schools, police, clinics, media) in a way that reaffirms their humanity and provides them with the services they need without stigma or discrimination. Part of this work includes working with religious and traditional leadership and faith institutions to better understand the issues that LGBTI are facing within their communities and change hearts and minds to be more inclusive. In partnership with UKZN’s Ujamaa Centre, Tracey has conducted gender sensitivity training with religious leaders, took part in research and collaborated with UKZN faculty on the creation of a Pastoral Care Manual to help church leadership be able to respond more effectively to LGBTI issues within their communities.

Tracey’s research at the Honours level focuses on the development of queer churches and their contextual realities. She hopes to build on this research in further Masters research to delve more deeply into “understanding why queer individuals leave the church that they feel is oppressing them, only to come into another church and oppress others using the same systems.” She explains, “we find that LGBTI are moving away from churches that are oppressing them by continually enforcing hetero-patriarchal ideals, and they move into other spaces that are created for them to be safe, for them to worship God without having those binaries imposed on them. But we see those same people recreating those binaries without even realizing it. I want to help the queer community understand why we are moving away from oppression, yet we are oppressing each other in spaces where we’re meant to be safe and be together. Why are we oppressing each other? How can we better create a system that accommodates and includes everyone? I’m hoping that the knowledge I add to my organization and my work will inform the kind of approach we have.”