The Mar Thoma Syrian Christian Community has over several decades, centuries even, found itself at the forefront of thought leadership in India. The mission of spreading the ministry of Christ has often meant that the Church reaches out to previously un-reached and sometimes outcast members of the society that we live in. Spearheaded by the Valiya Metropolitan Philipose Mar Chrysostom, last year the Church began breaching socially dictated boundaries to reach out to the transgender community.
Though richly represented in history both through biblical and literary records, the transgenders have over the recent decades been sidelined to the fringes society. Misunderstood gender fluidity has led them to be excluded from mainstream community and often forced into questionable lifestyles. Under the leadership of the Valiya Metropolitan the Church has sought to reintegrate these individuals into mainstream society through the “ministry for the transgenders”, even creating history by inviting members of the community to speak at the Maramon convention.
To kickstart the program at the grassroots of the church the Chennai-Bangalore diocese held a meeting at Primrose Mar Thoma Church, Bangalore on Saturday, 10th March, 2018 presided by Rt Rev Dr. Mathews Mar Makarios Episcopa (Chennai Bangalore Diocese) and inaugurated by Rt Rev Dr. Geevarghese Mar Theodosius Episcopa (Mumbai Diocese & President Navodaya Movement) . Also present at the meeting were eminent TV personality, journalist and a member of the transgender community herself, Apsara Reddy, Prof Sarasu Esther Thomas and Rev. Dr. Sham P Thomas.
The meeting addressed both the need for the transgender ministry and the scope of the ministry as envisioned by the Sabha.
Rt Rev Dr. Geevarghese Mar Theodosius Episcopa (Mumbai Diocese & President, Navodaya Movement, a mission among the Transgenders) laid the context for the day in his inaugural address. Mention of the transgender community in Bangalore, brings up imagery of a group of people standing at traffic junctions and crossroads asking, sometimes intimidating people for money. What our recollection of transgenders fails to bring up is the little child who grew up in a family, with a father, a mother and siblings perhaps. How did a child who grew up like you and me, who grew up like every other child we see end up on the street? Rev Dr. Geevarghese Mar Theodosius says the answer is simple. We sent them there. We in our rejection of individuals who do not fit the male female binary have forced parents to neglect children they don’t understand and children to run away from the security of their homes in a desperate attempt to fit in. We have no right at all to consider a human being, irrespective of gender, unwanted. We have no right to throw them out. We have no right to exclude anyone from the community.
The transgender community, just like every other group of humans, has the rights to be honored, respected and adhered to. The time is here to provide for the transgendered community a space to live and be respected in the society.
Rev Dr. Geevarghese Mar Theodosius pointed out that it only natural that as humans, as individuals and families, and as a church there are things in the world we are ignorant of which often lead to fundamental mistakes.But these are mistakes that must be corrected and awareness is key to moving forward. Through the transgender ministry the church will attempt to:
- To provide fellowship to the members of the transgender community.
- To open its schools and colleges to transgenders and give them a chance at education and a sustainable means of living
- To develop Walk-in counselling centers and vocational training centers to integrate marginalized transgenders into mainstream society
Speaking on the need for community Rt Rev Dr. Mathews Mar Makarios Episcopa pointed out that after every creation God said, “it is good” but after the creation of Adam God said, it is not good that he is alone. Humanity was not created to be alone. We are called to a community, to mutuality and that is a universal truth irrespective of gender and any other man-made qualifiers. The Mar Thoma church has always led from the front in addressing the issues contemporary society faces. We have missions all over the country trying to bring in equal opportunities to people from geographically remote places, people excluded from mainstream society because of caste or poverty. Responding to the problems of the world we live in has been the mission of the church. The ministry for the transgenders is a re-dedication for the church. A re-dedication to our commitment to the formation of a wholistic community, one that is diverse, plural and based on the core of the Christian faith, based on love.
There’s a popular saying that goes, we fear what we don’t understand. And while most of us would perhaps not admit to fearing the transgendered community excluding them from our daily lives speaks little of courage. Understanding the community, the continuum of gender fluidity and the nature of space required to address an issue is key to solving. It was that Ms. Apsara Reddy addressed the meeting. Ms. Reddy, refers to herself as a transwoman, and has been on a journey that few of us would relate to. But what she speaks of as her support system is one that we all have in common – a family. Transitioning from one gender to another is never easy physically, and it is a much a harder fight in world that is insulting, discriminatory and judgmental. But the hardest of it all is having to fight alone. Echoing the words of Rev Dr. Geevarghese Mar Theodosius, Ms. Reddy spoke about the need to empower families to stand by their children, at a time when they need them the most. A child with basic questions about identity needs the support and not the aggressive dismissal fueled by fear that they are usually met with. That leads to individuals on the streets, seeking desperately for shelter and acceptance and susceptible to so many of the issues that are rampant in the communities today.
The church is an important arena of compassion, peace and religion should ensure a connection with God. We have to create room for negotiation, for acceptance, for individuals who need not fit into one of two options.
Ms. Reddy also brought up the umbrella term LGBT, and acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and transgender pointing out that gender fluidity is entirely different from homosexuality. The misunderstanding regarding gender fluidity was also highlighted by Rev. Dr. Sham P Thomas (Vicar, Primrose MTC). Though a concept that has been carefully kept out of everyday conversations through social appropriation, gender fluidity appears in the bible from its very first book, Genesis. The bible says that God created man in his image, he created them male and female, suggesting a continuum of gender in relation with God. The question of God’s gender becomes further convoluted through the use of human language to describe the divine. Patriarchy which suggests that positions that man as a protector and provider has likened that image to God leading to terms like Father and other male signifiers to be used to refer to God.
The bible recounts transgenders in several instances, from Queen Esther’s court down to the Ethiopian eunuch who is believed to have spread the gospel to Ethiopia and other African countries. Interestingly the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch comes at a time when baptism was regarded as a form of ordination to spread the ministry of God. The Ethiopian eunuch was perhaps the first individual outside the gender binary to be recorded as being ordained into the Christian ministry. At the time of baptism, the eunuch is recorded as asking Philip if there is any hindrance to his being baptized, a question to which the answer is a simple no. At the end of the day Rev. Dr. Sham P Thomas summarized that every human is fearfully and wonderfully made.
A lot has been said, in the past years about the legal provisions to recognize and protect transgenders. Section 377 of the constitution has been hotly argued over. Professor of Law. Dr Sarasu Thomas, explained how legal provisions hold for the transgender community in India. Dr. Thomas argues that the homogeneity brought in by the British, which recognized the binary gender, has affected the rights of transgenders in India. While it has taken the law until recent years to recognize the community as a third gender, the fundamental rights of every Indian citizen, of equality before the law, freedom of speech and expression and the right to life, personal liberty and dignity, has never been qualified by gender.
As a result of patriarchy, the male gender has been pitted as superior to the female gender. This has then meant, that women taking up roles considered male in nature have been encouraged for their agency, while men have been regarded as taking up the role of the weaker sex when taking up roles regarded as those of females. One of the key callouts Dr. Sa Thomas made was the need to highlight the differences between sexual orientation and gender identity and assert the fluidity of gender identity.
Also speaking about her experiences while working with the transgender community was Ms. Shoba, an MTH student at United Theological College. While addressing the need to reach out to community Ms. Shobha pointed out that humans are more than their genitals. They are more than gender and any other label we create. As a church, and as children of God it is critical that we start treating human beings with love and respect. The transgender community has fought several battles, both legal and personal to be identified as people in their own right. Their recognition today shows the agency the community possesses today. A little bit of support and guidance could do a lot of a community that is already committed to its own welfare.
The meeting was an eye opener for many, raising questions that were previously suppressed and introducing the Church to a new era of acceptance. As Rt. Rev. Dr Geevarghese Mar Theodosius put it, the basic tenet of Christianity is to love other just as God has loved us. And that is perhaps all that the transgender ministry is about; to love human beings just as God has loved us, beyond gender and labels.
Reported by Tabitha Sunny, Jerusalem MTC Hebbal.