Welcoming gays into the church: voices from India

Following Pope Francis' appeal to welcome gays into the church, Indians of diverse backgrounds and faiths reacted with bewilderment, threats, and in due course support.

Nicola Desouza
11 January 2016

'This man is it. A Christian who is actually a Christian. He's so Christian, he confuses other Christians with his Christian-like actions. If he were the pope when I was young and forced to be a Christian, I'd have been a freakin nun.' – (Comment from Internet forum)

Throughout his tenure, Pope Francis made news for almost always the right reasons but something changed in October 2014 when the international media went beserk with his call to welcome gays into the Catholic church. Back home in India, Roman Catholics heard about this controversial piece of news through newspapers, and certainly not through Sunday sermons at the local church. Meanwhile, reactions poured in from those of all faiths and backgrounds.

Illustration by Suraj Appukuttam

Leading the charge was a 50-year-old devout Catholic spinster from Goa who roared over the phone while begging anonymity, ‘Opinion! Opinion! Well, mine and yours is dirt. It’s the Word of God which matters and which clearly says homosexuality is wrong. I will leave the church if this Pope allows gays to marry.’

To clear any error stemming from a misinterpretation of news reports, I read her an excerpt from the Vatican document: ‘Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing them a place of fellowship in our communities? Oftentimes, they want to encounter a Church which offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of this, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?’

She interrupted hastily, ‘I do not understand this fancy language. But why are gays full of lust? I too am unmarried and could easily do the same, but do I? The difference is that I pray and I’m full of God’s grace. Also if these gays are born with faulty chromosomes, why can’t the doctor pull out that chromosome and make them straight? Besides, are you telling me that the church stops gays from entering? Do they have ‘GAY’ written on their foreheads? I could very well be standing near a dirty gay so why is this Pope politicising the issue so much. He is the anti-Christ’

She continued, ‘It’s not nature and hormones that makes people gay. Remember that God created a perfect world but the devil brought corruption and released the demons of homosexuality into gays.’

As extreme as it sounds, her opinion is not to be taken lightly or even ridiculed as it stands representative of the very real fears and prejudices held by many. Bob, a foreign citizen living in Mumbai spoke to me in a cafe at length about the issue. He addressed a pertinent point about people being okay with closeted gays worshipping in church saying, ‘Homosexuality is tolerated as long as it’s under wraps. Giving them visibility is bound to upset the status quo in patriarchal societies. This is why traditionalists are quick to point to the existence of closeted gays in church. ‘What more do they want?’ they ask.’

Invisibility is indeed a powerful tool for repression, which explains why Indian TV presenter and producer Aamir Khan was served a legal notice for promoting homosexuality on his show Satyamev Jayate. Geof, a traditionalist Catholic male confessed, ‘After watching LGBT guests on Aamir’s show,  I was reduced to tears. These are real people, making the best of traumatic circumstances they were born into. For long I’ve judged them because I didn’t ‘know’ them. May I add that I’m a straight male who won’t turn gay because of the show. I also support Pope Francis all the way!’

Françoise, a French friend who spends time in India is a baptised Catholic who left the church decades ago. In an email interview, she said, ‘Even though I’m a non-believer, I’m interested in observing the evolution of the Catholic Church especially since the arrival of Pope Francis in the Vatican. In France too there is some opposition towards gays but we can at least discuss it openly and organize debates. In India, it’s difficult to even raise the question. I have met Indian youths who said that gays should be put in prison.’

The law that criminalizes gays

India’s LGBT community is still reeling under the Supreme Court’s decision of December 11th 2013 to re-criminalize “unnatural sex” under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Two years later on December 2015, Congressman Shashi Tharoor's attempt to introduce a bill to decriminalize homosexuality was rejected much to the chagrin of the Indian LGBT community.

Amit, a Dalit Buddhist lawyer mulled over the state of the law saying, ‘A sin is different from a crime. Incest is wrong but I don't see an Indian law criminalizing those guilty of it. So why should homosexuals be targeted?' He continued, 'Also, even if the church believes that homosexuality is a sin, my argument is that by isolating them, you are dooming them to continue in ‘sin’. I’m not surprised that priests either ignore requests to give their opinion on the Pope’s appeal, or they suggest focussing on other safer topics. '

What about the LGBT Indian youth?

Ajay from Pondicherry is a young Hindu male often wishing he was born female. He told me in a choked voice, ‘Hinduism does not have one universal leader but if he existed, and openly called upon all Hindus to accept gays, I’d have no words to describe the feeling but gratitude and pride. But tell me, if at all I’m transgender, will you be friends with me still?’

Ajay's parting question is no ordinary one. It is emblematic of the fear of loss that engulfs those struggling with their identity and orientation. The fear of losing face in society, being cut off from the family will, being blackmailed by vicious opportunistic siblings, and losing those closest to them. Is coming out worth the pain of loss? Are they better off staying invisible, just like those closeted gays who worship in church?  Sunita, a young mother of Indian origin who lives in the United States told me, ‘I don’t condemn anyone but I really wish these gays would stay invisible. Why should my kids be exposed to this lifestyle? They might be influenced and want to experiment too.’

Mohammed, is not buying this argument. He states, ‘I too have a young daughter but she is eventually going to be exposed to alternative sexualities and gender identities through media and through life. It’s better I explain to her about differences in people that need to be respected. I don’t want her growing up hateful and fearful of what she perceives as different.’

Elvis, a Protestant believer from Bangalore and a father of two echoes the sentiment saying, ‘Media cannot be blamed for the growing number of gays who are coming out. Children have to be aware of things in this world. By supporting gays to join the church, the Pope is not promoting their lifestyle. He is attempting to create a more understanding and loving community. How can anyone find fault in this argument?’

Parsi priest Firoze kindly agreed to explain Zoroastrianism’s stance of gay relationships. He said in an email, ‘There is a long list of crimes and sins which can be found in the penitentiary prayer called the Patet. Unnatural sex is highly deplored in our religion whether it is between two persons of the same sex or even between male and female before marriage. Our religion is the religion of good life and there is no locus standii for such inhuman behaviour which no religion accepts.’

However Yazad, a young Parsi male feels differently. He said, ‘In Zoroastrianism, there is no dogma that I know of. But there are also very few self-declared gays. I see Pope Francis as a broadminded individual and a maverick of sorts. Anyway, gays are better people than child molesters to my knowledge.’ Runa, another Parsi woman reacts strongly to the resistance the Pope is facing from some Christians saying ‘These people are behaving like gays did not exist before this generation. Maybe they prefer a society where you can be married, have affairs and frequent brothels, but just don’t be gay please. And if you are, don’t ever come out.’

Meanwhile, it’s the teaching community in India who are most vocal in their support of the Pope. Edith, a retired teacher recounts a young effeminate boy saying, ‘In those days, though labels like transgender did not exist, we realized he felt like a girl inside. His family went through hell but his mother stood by him through it all. In the teaching profession, we come across kids who show signs of gender dysphoria at a tender age. They are mocked by other children who are products of a hate-filled heteronormative society. I know for sure that these kids were born this way and not deviants who chose a sinful, promiscuous lifestyle. Their lives are difficult enough. Let’s stop condemning.’

Benu, a Hindu lecturer from Delhi holds a similar opinion, ‘I hold Pope Francis with utmost regard. I think the Church is in the right hands for the first time. He is capable of bringing about courageous and radical changes which is the need of the hour.’ With an afterthought she adds, ‘You know, I'm worried about the Pope's safety.’

Her fears may not be misplaced as he faces resistance from within the Church and outside it too. Adulation is a fickle thing. The same liberal who cheered Francis’ views on poverty and climate change, will grudge him for his pro life stance. And then there are the anti-Christ accusations. Bob, a keen observer and voracious reader says, 'As Francis attempts to dismantle the power structures of the elites, the right wing and fundamentalists, it’s inevitable that their first and only recourse would be to call him the anti-Christ. This is an accusation used since time immemorial to eliminate perceived threats. In medieval times, one of the French kings labelled the Templars 'devil-worshippers' as he owed them money he couldn't repay. Back then, the punishment for heresy was execution. As for today’s evangelicals, don't hold your breath. To them, God created them, and the devil made Catholics. They used to call Pope John Paul II the anti-Christ, and I used to ask them, 'Someday he will die. Then who will you call the anti-Christ?'

Mohammed, an agnostic goes a step further in his praise for Francis saying, ‘The Pope appears to be in touch with life’s realities owing to his time in Argentina as archbishop. As supreme head of the world’s largest Christian church, his call to welcome gays was bound to stun traditionalists and divide the faithful. While his heart is in the right place, he should have first focussed on educating people about the LGBT community, and then put forth the proposal. Still, it’s not too late, and the  synod in October 2015 should have interesting results if parishes can take on the responsibility of holding orientation programs to acquaint their people towards the LGBT community. Many hurtful stereotypes need to be broken: gays are not sexual Godless beasts, paedophiles, diseased, or demon-possessed. I also personally feel that Pope Francis interprets the biblical verses of Sodom and Gomorroh that condemn homosexuality in a different light, in a way that Jesus Christ perhaps would. In any case, what he has done takes enormous courage especially at a time when Europe’s churches have emptied out.’

The Synod of October 2015 held in Rome eventually finished with the Roman Catholic Church upholding its stance that homosexual tendencies were not sinful but the act itself. However Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic LGBT advocacy organization is unhappy with the Church's continual usage of the word 'homosexual tendencies'. In this article, he says,  'For church leaders to continue to use 'homosexual tendencies,' which seems to connote impermanence as well as simply a controllable desire to act and not a personality trait, reveals a stunning ignorance of the topic, as well as a disrespectful attitude towards lesbian and gay people.'

Back home in Mumbai, another storm has been brewing. Although India witnessed a spurt in communal tension in recent times, it seems that the heads of all religions have gaily and unequivocally agreed on one issue — their support for Section 377 of the Indian law that criminalizes homosexuality. However Cardinal Oswald Gracias who heads the Archdiocese of Mumbai has not only spoken in favour of decriminalizing homosexuality, but also maintained that those of homosexual orientation needed to be welcomed by the church and not judged and isolated. Not surprisingly, his call was met with hostility by some local Catholic groups. Even as international commenters on social media have mocked the legality of a group of celibate, aging men (cardinals) voting on issues related to family and sexuality, it is heartening when a cardinal such as Gracias dares to take on the establishment at the risk of being rebuked by his own flock, that too in a country that recriminalized homosexuality, and where Christians form a mere 2% of the total population.

In neighbouring Nepal, a transgender sex worker in a cafe in Kathmandu is most amused when we discuss Pope Francis being accused of promoting sin as it took place in Sodom and Gomorrah. She laughs , 'Do you know who are our biggest clients? It's your decent, heterosexual, family man with children and a wife back home who comes to frequent us transgender sex workers. Politicians, actors, bureaucrats, truck drivers, clerks - they're all regulars who prefer physical-born males — freaks like us, to actual women.'

She continues, 'Men just need something to penetrate as a form of release. Rape is punishable and since most men can't afford or don't want to spend on a girl, nothing stops them from having physical relations with other men or sodomizing children. Your Bible is actually condemning these men, and not the effeminate gay man who has absolutely no feeling of attraction to women. Your Pope Francis knows this truth, trust me!'

These words spoken so nonchalantly by this young trans sex worker with certainly no background in theology, feminism or gender theory challenged everything I thought I knew. Was she right or were these casual, sweeping generalizations? The following day I chanced upon a quote attributed to Winston Churchill when questioned about the Royal Navy. 

'Don’t talk to me about naval tradition,' he said. 'It’s nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.'

His biographer Richard Langworth referenced a quote in a similar vein, 'Ashore it’s wine, women and song; aboard it’s rum, bum and concertina.'

Could this be the reason why Pope Francis' heart goes out to homosexual persons who refuse to live a life of duplicity by marrying those of the opposite sex just to fit into a hetero normative society. All they want is to be left alone to live a life of dignity and respect.

This article is based on the author’s conversations through emails, internet and face to face interviews.  


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