In January, Bondings 2.0 reported about Indian Catholics’ involvement in starting the country’s first school inclusive of trans youth. This week, The Atlantic posted a more in-depth look at the women religious who helped make the school a reality, and who have remained involved as key allies.
Transgender educator Vijayaraja Mallika had a dream was to start a school for trans people and to give it the name “Sahaj,” which in Hindi means “natural.” But Mallika lacked a proper space for the school until Carmelite sisters, having become aware of the activist’s efforts, invited her for tea. The article continued:
“Splitting themselves between an auto-rickshaw and a public bus, the sisters and the activist rode past palm trees, tech offices, and paddy fields to the spot they had in mind: an unused building that the CMC convent had once intended to turn into a dormitory.
“Mallika looked at the size of the structure, the roomy kitchen and sunny terrace. She was so overwhelmed that she burst into tears. The building was not only a concrete way to get her school started, it was also indicative of an entirely new support system. The Carmelites, she realized, could become unlikely allies for transgender activists pushing for education and acceptance in [the state of] Kerala.”
The Carmelites spent $8,000 to help outfit the school, and there are now two sisters living on the property. Sr. Pavithra, who helped connect the order with Mallika, said there is potential for more support, too. The sisters have “conceived of a new initiative to help trans youth by educating children in Carmelite-run schools about what it means to be transgender.” Through this awareness-raising program and through financial support for trans youth, the Carmelites goal for the students is “to ensure that they never drop out of school to begin with” and will not have to enter the sex trade. Sr. Pavithra said:
“We are 6,000 sisters. We have so many institutions. We are known to the society. Unless and until we take them up, how will [trans people] come up?”
Yet, establishing Sahaj itself has been a struggle. The initial excitement of establishing the school has ceded to frustrations. At present, there are “no teachers, no accreditation, and no students.” The building, instead, is functioning as a shelter. But despite administrative challenges, Sr. Pavithra and the Carmelites remain hopeful:
“‘Any new beginning has got its own problems. It takes time, even for a normal school. A transgender school? We have miles to go ahead. . .Of course it can happen in Kerala. . .These are all the initial struggles to take up a new responsibility. I said, “Mallika, you are the first generation. Us sisters, we may be part of it, and maybe [by] the third generation, we will see the fruits. It will take.”‘”
The sisters’ commitment is important because the needs of trans people in Kerala are great. Approximately 25,000 trans people live there, and their outcomes are impaired by the high levels of discrimination, harassment, and violence that they and other trans communities in the world face. The Atlantic compared education outcomes:
“Kerala boasts a higher literacy rate for both men and women than any of India’s other 28 states. But 58 percent of transgender students in the state drop out before completing 10th grade and 24 percent drop out before ninth grade.”
Kerala’s 2015 Transgender Policy and the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to legalize a third gender option have done little to mitigate these oppressions, said Mallika. Indeed, a trans advocate named Faisal said Kerala is a worse place to be trans than other states. Hijras, who are “transgender, intersex, and transsexual people who live within a strict hierarchical community” found elsewhere in India, are less present there. And Kerala has fewer Hindus and far more Christians than the overall demographics of India, with Christianity being far less accepting of non-binary genders than Hinduism.
Thankfully, the Carmelite sisters are paying attention to voices on the peripheries, and have been quite accepting of trans people in their state. The partnership began when Sr. Pavithra encountered Mallika at a social work gathering:
“There, Mallika spoke about how she had looked at almost 700 properties to no avail; some were too small, while others closed their doors when the owners learned what would be done with the space. Sister Pavithra took up the issue with her convent’s administrative council and advocated that they retrofit one of their vacant buildings into a school. . .The six council members approved the lease, with the blessing of the local bishop.”
The partnership is not, however, without its own problems. In an effort to protect trans people with whom they are working, the sisters have, at times, enforced strict curfews to keep people staying with them from going into sex work. They also “occasionally try to persuade trans people to wear clothing associated with the gender they were assigned at birth,” though one sister said this is so trans persons will “blend in, gain acceptance, and avoid ridicule” in society. She explicitly rejected that there have been any attempts at “conversion therapy.”
And there are intra-church hiccups, too, with some Catholics critical of the sisters’ work and of trans outreach generally. To them, Sr. Pavithra simply said, “If we consider everybody’s opinion, nothing will take place in the world.”
Church officials have had a leading and largely positive role when it comes to LGBT people in India. Last fall, the bishops’ official development agency, Caritas India, announced trans-specific outreach programs (though, it must be noted, the director’s approach to gender identity has been criticized). Virginia Saldanha, a leading lay person who was once executive secretary of the Office of Laity for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, said the church must bring LGBT people “in from the cold.”
A particularly bright light is Bombay’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias who, in a message to LGBT people conveyed through a personal interview with Bondings 2.0’s Francis DeBernardo, said the “church embraces you, wants you, needs you.” Gracias has said repeatedly that homosexuality should not be criminalized.In fact, he was the only religious leader in India to criticize the Indian Supreme Court’s decision to reinstate criminalization in 2013.
The witness of these Carmelite sisters and other Indian church officials to the dignity and worth of LGBT people can be an inspiration and model for the church universal.
To learn more about Catholics involvement in international LGBT human rights, attend New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Frank Mugisha, a Catholic who heads Sexual Minorities Uganda, will speak on “The Catholic Church, Criminalization Laws, and the LGBT Experience in Uganda.” An international panel of transgender and intersex advocates will speak during a focus session. For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, March 30, 2017