Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?
My name is Megan Robertson and I have recently completed my PhD at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa. My doctoral research focused specifically on investigating how the lived experiences of queer clergy in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) co-constitute the institutional cultures and politics of the Church. Since 2018 I have had the privilege of working at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice, at UWC. The Centre seeks to contextually, theoretically, and methodologically challenge asymmetrical systems of power. It thus allows me a space to research and teach in ways which bridges the false binary between academia and activism and places justice at the centre of the work I do.
How does your research or your work connect to activism?
The picture of me in this blog is taken in front of Church Street Methodist Church, the congregation which I was a member of until my late twenties. For me this is a site of my own identity negotiation and also the space which continues to drive the activism which is integral to my research. The church which I grew up in not only shaped my belief systems but perhaps more significantly provided me with a place to which I felt I belonged. As a teenager and young adult I became more involved in the broader provincial and national structures of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) and thus more aware of how the Church which provided a ‘home’ for me was also deeply patriarchal, heteronormative, racially segregated and hierarchical. I was also quite actively involved in the Church at the time when a minister, Ecclesia de Lange, was excommunicated for declaring her intention to marry her same-sex partner. Therefore, for me, the church and religion became both a place of significant belonging as well as a space for a great deal of injustice. These experiences inspire my research which explores how different people navigate religious belonging and exclusion and indeed transform those spaces in positive ways.
In my research I incorporate activism by exploring how politics of belonging, body politics and politics of the domestic and erotic are evident in the narratives and experiences of queer clergy who occupy positions of power and marginality in the Church. I argue in my work that the MCSA’s internal conversations around the inclusion of women and same-sex marriage are too narrow to do justice to queer experiences of exclusion, discrimination and violence in the Church. For the MCSA and other denominations seeking to become truly inclusive of queer, women (and all other) members, bringing lived experience into conversation with institutional cultures in research sharpens understandings of how the church can indeed be a place of inclusivity instead of rejection. In my work I am also interested in the activism participants themselves are engaged in as they inhabit the norms of the institution. In a complex religious context where gender-sex identities are contested I found that participants engage in activism in relatively covert ways through living their domestic and erotic lives, embodying clerical and Methodist identity and through silence. In illuminating these subtle forms of activism, the political project of my research explores the possibilities that varied ways lived experience can trouble normative powers of race, class, gender and sexual orientation.
Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?
My fuel for doing research is activism. Before beginning my PhD and working in the Desmond Tutu Centre, I was disillusioned by academia and bought into the idea that dismantling social injustices and researching them were two separate tasks. However, I soon realised that the binary between activism and academia was a false and unhelpful one. It is my anger and frustration that continues to drive me to work towards a just and equitable society and it is in academia where I am able to make productive meaning of that anger and frustration.
Through the writing up of my dissertation, I have continued to be in conversation with some of the clergy who participated in my doctoral research. In these conversations we have begun to explore the ways in which my research findings can feed into the committees and activism work which they would like to pursue. Further, in my post-doctoral research I want to further explore the nature of queer activism in South Africa. My other passion is dance and theatre and I hope to explore the ways in which popular artists and performers in Cape Town interrogate the intersections of religion and sexuality on stage.