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Behind Exclusive Books’ deal with the Jozi Cats

by Charlie Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) What do Exclusive Books and Jozi Cats have in common? A heck of a lot, given that they’re both brave brands which are working to make South Africa a safer, more-inclusive place to live in.

Jozi Cats is a Rugby club that is home to SA’s first gay-and-inclusive competitive rugby team. The club also exists to provide a safe space for the LGBTQI+ community to play rugby, and campaigns to disrupt homophobia in sport, particularly in rugby. Exclusive Books recently signed on to become the lead sponsor of Jozi Cats, and CEO Benjamin Trisk tells MarkLives.com why this makes sense for SA’s best-loved bookselling chain:

“We’re a highly innovative brand in the way that we present the architecture of retail to the customer. Innovation is fine and well for a bookseller, particularly a brand of our kind that’s curating the national taste, but we also need to be brave, stand up for what is right and be outspoken on the side of social justice.”

Financial and marketing assistance

The sponsorship of Jozi Cats includes financial and marketing assistance from Exclusive Books, and working together to integrate both brands into each other’s audiences and communities. The financial support that the Jozi Cats has been getting also means that the inclusive rugby club can play more competitive matches, do more development work and reach out to more communities.

Trisk says that, before buying Exclusive Books, he became aware that a large number of Exclusive Books staff member are LGBTQI+: “Our stores have always been safe spaces. I can give you a thousand apocryphal stories about people who’ve felt unsafe in a shopping mall, and have come to our stores to find safety.” Together with Mark Barnes (who is currently turning around SAPO), he purchased Exclusive Books from Times Media in 2013.

“Yes, Exclusive Books is a safe space. If you are in a mall and are being harassed, you can go to Exclusive Books and they will organise security to escort you to your car,” says Chris Verrijdt, chairman of Jozi Cats, who adds: “It has always been accepted in the gay community that Exclusive Books is a place where you can go to chill, read books. It is a safe place with no judgement, so it just made such sense for the brand to sponsor us.”

Founded in August 2015, Jozi Cats was born out of the desire to forge a competitive, social and diverse club that welcomes all players who love rugby. In February 2016, the club became a safe and welcoming environment for the LGBTQI+ community and for anyone who shares the club’s values, which include promoting inclusivity and diversity in sport and equality for all. The club has a competitive contact team, two touch-rugby teams, and does a lot to develop adult beginners.

Being accountable

“We don’t ask anyone to identify their sexuality or gender identity,” says Verrijdt, who explains that the club’s values are important, and that it’s not a matter of saying the right things but being accountable and living the values in a society that can be openly hostile, and at times violent, to people who identify as LGBTQI+.

“Sport, particularly rugby, is a place where homosexuality and homophobia exists side by side. This is because of the perceptions about what it means to be a man and the myths about what gay men represent,” explains Verrijdt, adding: “We want to confront and disrupt this bigotry wherever it exists, but our core focus is on creating a safe space for people who love rugby, to play.”

Research shows that homophobia and bigotry in sport are rife. Out On The Fields, the first large-scale global research into homophobic attitudes and behaviour in sporting environments, revealed that queer people don’t feel welcome and safe to play or engage with team sports without fear of discrimination.

Conducted in 2015, the majority of the thousands of queer participants who took part in the survey reported “hiding their sexuality from teammates with fear of homophobic discrimination cited as a main reason”. Seventy-six percent of participants believed youth sport was not safe for queer people. “Only 1% of participants believed LGB people were completely accepted in sport,” the report reads.

Beyond the field and locker room

“We want to say that it is unacceptable that homophobia exists,” says Verrijdt. “In an ideal world, a club like Jozi Cats shouldn’t have to exist, but people don’t come out in sporting environments because of what is said in locker rooms, as well as on or off the field.”

But Jozi Cats’ influence is being felt way beyond rugby fields and locker rooms. Club numbers have swollen from six to some 63; there is a club in Bloemfontein that it wants to engage with; and it hopes to start to a club in Pretoria, so it will be at Pretoria Pride on 7 October 2017 looking for champions.

In December 2016, the club went on a cross-country #GayRugbyTour to promote inclusivity and diversity in sport and equality for all. “The big idea behind this was to grow gay and inclusive rugby across the country, and to do something positive about homophobia in sport in SA,” Verrijdt says. During the tour, the club hosted rugby clinics in Cape Town, an initiative that inspired the formation of the Khayelitsha Cats, which comprises a group of lesbian slam poets who love rugby. “What’s great about the Exclusive Books sponsorship is that we are now in a position to help the Khayelitsha Cats with issues like uniforms and transport.”

According to Verrijdt, the Exclusive Book sponsorship challenges perceptions about what is possible in sport, and invites people to reconsider the way they think about sports and sports sponsorships. “At the end of the day we see both brands as being custodians of diversity, inclusivity and as a safe space for our communities,” he explains. “From the outset, it doesn’t look like the partnership makes sense but, when you understand what both brands stand for, it’s so simple and elegant; it’s just brilliant.”

Disrupt and reframe percecptions

The club is doing great work to disrupt traditional rugby, and reframe public perceptions about the sport and queerness. The Jozi Cats became the first gay-and-inclusive competitive rugby club from Africa to represent the continent at the Union Cup in Madrid in April 2017. But that’s just the beginning. The club will field a full squad for the Bingham Cup 2018 in Amsterdam, as well as the Union Cup in Dublin in 2019, and has big plans to bring the Bingham Cup — the biennial World Championship of Gay and Inclusive Rugby — to South Africa in 2022.

  • On Saturday 16 September, Jozi Cats will be celebrating its second birthday and will be playing at the Diggers Sevens at Diggers Rugby Club and then off to Babylon the Bar in Illovo, Sandton, for its birthday bash — all supporters welcome!

Find the Jozi Cats online at www.jozicats.co.za and on Facebook. For sponsorship enquiries, email chairman Chris Verrijdt at [email protected]

Read more

  • Mail & Guardian: Tackling a sports world that sidelines queer people
  • Daily Maverick: Jozi Cats: Africa’s first gay rugby club has an important role to play in SA

Charles Lee Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) is the founder of TheWriters.co.za, a boutique strategy and content shop that helps brands better connect — and engage with — the people who matter most. When not writing, or thinking about human behaviour, she is a contributing editor to MarkLives.com through her monthly “Africa Dispatches” column.

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Behind Exclusive Books’ deal with the Jozi Cats

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