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Christianity in India: Exclusion of Sexual Minorities

In the Indian state of Mizoram, homosexuality is still a taboo.

"If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense" (Leviticus 20:13).

As more states in America and first world nations join the bandwagon for marriage equality, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes intercourse between same-sex partners as an “unnatural offense” and equates it to intercourse with an animal, is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court of India.

Meanwhile, there have been several petitions filed against the decision. According to the Lawyers Collective websiteFollowing the High Court decision, 15 Special Leave Petitions (SLPs) were filed in the Supreme Court appealing against the said decision on behalf of mostly faith-based and religious groups from all parts of India.” 

In June 2012, the Presbyterian Church of Mizoram, the largest church denomination in the northeastern state of India, snapped their ties with the Presbyterian Church of North America after the latter allowed ordination of gays as priests. "We, the members of Presbyterian Church of Mizoram, cannot accept ordination of homosexual people as pastors and regard homosexuality as against the teachings of the Bible and Christianity," said D.P. Biakkhuma, a church elder and secretary of the Synod Executive Committee (SEC), the second highest decision making body of the Presbyterian Church, in the Times of India report.

One of the seven sister states in northeastern India, Mizoram has recently reported a high Gross Domestic Product rate, a high literacy rate, and a successful record in its fight against an underground separatist movement; unlike neighboring states like Nagaland and Manipur that continue to struggle for peace and basic development. Christian denominations like the Presbyterian order have taken much credit for Mizoram’s current state of affairs — as a dry state (that has legally banned any sale or service of alcohol), and especially for its relative prosperity.

Committed to the Bible

When asked if the move to break ties with Presbyterian US counterparts reflects a rigid stand on homosexuality, Reverend Zosangliana Colney, the Synod secretary at the Presbyterian SEC, said in an email interview: 

“The Mizoram Presbyterian church accepts the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the infallible Word of God and that we use the teaching in the Bible as the only rule of faith and duty and as such[,] some people might find that our stand is rigid. At the same time[,] we try to adjust ourselves to the need of the hour without compromising on biblical principles. We feel that going against the teachings of the Bible, as against losing fellowship and funding, is more harmful in the ministry of our Church.”

In view of the Delhi High Court judgment and the LGBT movement in India — as well as the scientific views of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Diseases that have revised their classification of homosexuality as a disease or a mental disorder — Reverend Colney upheld the biblical references, above all, for the Church: 

“Modern science, society and laws change with the times in order to suit a particular group of people or country, and some religions may also evolve with time and be relevant[;] but the Mizoram Presbyterian Church is, in fact, more committed to the Biblical truth and its teaching.”

Jesus is the Way

While religion might be debated in academic and intellectual circles in mainstream India, such an environment of intellectual exposure hardly exists in the northeastern states that are still politically unstable and have a heavy military presence to suppress separatist rebel outfits. A pride march or a national coming out day are unheard of anywhere in the northeast. Opinions on homosexuality are uniformly homogenous in other Christian states in the northeast such as Manipur, where biblical views impact opinions on homosexuality. However, northeasterners are visibly active in marches or LGBT social circles in large cities, which provide a sense of “strength in numbers” to people from all regions and states.

Joe (pseudonym), a student from Manipur who studied in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said: “Christianity is the most popular reference as opposed to other literature or philosophies. Religion and politics are heavily intertwined where denominations like the Presbyterian Church have great influence in the government, which even lends money to them.” 

On not coming out to his family yet, Joe says: “I don’t think my family needs to know. I am very careful about my thinking process when I’m at home and vigilant about what I say to people on the subject.”

Marvin (pseudonym), a school teacher in Aizawl — the capital of Mizoram — and a member of the Presbyterian Church, keeps a low profile of his queer identity. “In Mizoram society, even if people have their own ideas, if it clashes with the Church they won’t be open about it. Church has such a big influence in the life of the people, especially the Presbyterian Church, which is the biggest denomination. Whatever the church says becomes the law in the state and has already influenced governance as well. Even political leaders don’t cross the church leaders,” he said.

Goosh Vangchhia, a part-time college lecturer in Lunglei and fashion editor, embodies an exception to the general norm of maintaining discrete sexual identities. He says: “I go to church and dress myself as however I want. I'm also quite active in the church youth and choir group activities. I’ve even suggested to the Baptist youth group fellowship on ways that we can reach out to people like me instead of judging them and driving them away from the fellowship,” he added.

Threat of Excommunication

How does someone as open about his identity as Goosh not face negative reactions or worse, expulsion or excommunication? “People here have high respect for educational qualifications that has an influence on how people perceive someone like me who did his education in Delhi,” Goosh responded. He describes most Mizos as being afraid of the word “gay” and of the idea itself, because verses in the Bible deem homosexuality to be sinful. “Tuai means sissy in Mizoram. I used to be very downhearted with this word but I now identify myself with it."

In a community where sexual expression is suppressed under the threat of excommunication, same-sex relationships are kept out of the knowledge of public domain. Marvin has been in a relationship with his partner for ten months, although the latter does not reside in Aizawl. “We’re not open about our relationship since I’m the first guy he’s been with and his family is very active in their church.”

To the question of how he, and others like him, escape excommunication from the Church, he says that all is well unless one is blatantly open about it. “I heard of two-three guys who were excommunicated because they were open about their sexualities. As long as you are active in church and not very ‘in your face’ with your sexuality, the church can look past it.”

Advocacy for HIV/AIDS

Organizations like FXB Suraksha International and Mizoram State AIDS Control Society (SACS) have been working towards HIV/AIDS prevention in Mizoram since the 1990s. Dr. Eric Zomawia, the project director of SACS, says that the acknowledgement of men who have sex with men (MSM) has increased, even though there is little or no acceptance. “The MSM community is still a closeted group, but many have already come out openly and do not hesitate to come to the counseling centers, especially those who dress as females.”

The rate of new infection in the state has decreased in the last five years, even though the fall is not very drastic. Zomawia said that while the MSM population contributes less to the statistics than intravenous drug users, the rate of testing in the former is still much lower as they are reluctant to come forward.

Internationally, health and prevention campaigns have often run into contentious grounds with religions like Catholicism, especially when public health messages have directly contradicted a moralistic stand on the issue. A popular reference to this is Pope Benedict XVI’s first papal visit to Africa in March 2009, when he had stirred wide controversy over his statement that said: “AIDS is a tragedy that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.” 

A more recent example is served by Savita Halappanavar, who died after having been denied an abortion in an Irish hospital despite a life-threatening infection, partly out of the fear of Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws.

Among many other challenges, homosexuality is also trapped in the science vs religion debate in Mizoram. Non-profits like FXB Suraksha and SACS work in collaboration with the major denominational churches of the state, including the Presbyterian Church. In order to get their support to reach the masses, health practitioners tailor their messages for Christian groups offering abstinence as the best preventive measure, at first.

“The Church’s strictness regarding premarital sex, can sometimes indirectly affect our preventive measures. A couple of years back, condoms were quite a taboo among sections of the church leaders and elders. That opinion is slowly changing,” Zomawia.

Zomawia says that although the relationship with the Church on crucial matters such as contraception, homosexuality and pre-marital sex remains precarious, the Church is mostly flexible as long as the messages do not steer too far from Christian values. “We tell the church elders not to promote condoms if they are not comfortable, and instead talk about abstinence and faithfulness to one partner.”

Social Outreach

For the Christian communities in states like Mizoram, the Church binds the society together through Sunday schools, bible study groups, youth fronts, women’s social services, and charity cells. Administrative laxity and the missionary movement have resulted in the Church becoming the most coherent sociopolitical force in many northeastern states.

Christina Lalrindiki, the project director of FXB Suraksha, says the Synod Social Front — the social services wing of the Presbyterian Church — places an outreach worker in centers to study the MSM community and understand their lives, as well as organize gospel camps. SACS also works in partnership with the women’s cell of the Baptist Church of Mizoram, called the Grace Society; it provides counseling in risk reduction and hands out condoms and lubricants as a part of their preventive work.

A 19-year old-student who has been associated with FXB for two years said:

“I never felt comfortable being an MSM and I am always afraid that people would know my identity, so I tried my best to hide it as much as possible. Many people in our society look down on us and have a silent stigma and discrimination. Sometimes they make fun of us in front of others, calling us bad names. In church, there is no discrimination but a silent stigma does exist. So far I am not excommunicated, since I involve myself in the church activities as much as possible. I do not think that being an MSM is in conflict with being good Christian. My sexual orientation does not have anything to do with Christianity.”

Many believe that the advent of Christianity in the northeast helped to modernize tribal communities towards mainstream society. Will the Supreme Court judgment that repeals Section 377 lead towards better understanding and inclusion in society? Will the constitution of India include “sexual orientation” as one of the grounds to not discriminate against in its “Right to Equality” articles?

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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