Queer Christians in India cautiously rebuild relationships with their churches
Driven away by anti-homosexual stigma, some queer Indian Christians are slowly returning to the fold – helped by some churches’ efforts to make safe spaces for them
"I was brought up in an over-the-top Christian household," Romal Laisram, a 37-year-old queer journalist and editor in Bengaluru, said. Sitting at an outdoor restaurant on a cloudy evening, sipping on glass tumblers of filter coffee, Romal told me about growing up in Kotagiri, a mountain town in Tamil Nadu. His father was Meitei, a theologian studying to be a pastor, and his mother a Tamil-Malayali school teacher. His family said a prayer every night before bed, part of "devotion time". At these night-time prayers, Romal and his three brothers were assigned a verse from the Bible and had to lead a discussion around its themes.
Romal described growing up as part of a reformist, modern Protestant movement. His Christian values were bolstered by his schooling too. "It was a hardcore Christian school," he said. "Every school assembly was within the school's church." There was always a roster of pastors and theologians speaking about being a good Christian.
"For a lot of Christians growing up in India and being brought up within organised minority religions, it's like their whole self is defined by their community, and we grow up believing the church is the centre of our lives," Romal explained. "And a lot of people in India don't understand this at all."
He could not place the first time he heard the words "gay" or "homosexual", but by the time he was ten he believed that being gay "was far worse than being a murderer." Attending church as a teenager, he remembered "hearing pastors saying that gay people are the reason the world is ending, for our trials and tribulations, for global warming. Everything terrible in the world was because of gay people."
The last thing Romal thought was that, one day, he would discover he was gay himself.
A cross to bear
For many people growing up queer and Christian in the India of the 1990s, it was an experience of oscillating between fun and the fundamental. It was fun because access and ease with the English language, central to the faith in many Indian churches, meant being able to reach out to a world beyond national borders, especially through English-language music. First through devotional songs and then through secular hits, young Christians were introduced to various subcultures and the cultural conversations, and found they identified with some of them. But this fun was monitored and strictly controlled by their respective churches and their clergy. For example, while Christian boys were discovering rock bands, bonding over them and learning to play the guitar with hopes of becoming the next rockstars, Christian religious leaders were preaching that rock music was satanic. Growing up in Bengaluru as a queer Christian myself, there were persistent rumours that "Hotel California", by the American rock band The Eagles, revealed satanic messages when played backwards, and that the song's lyrics laid out the rituals and practices of a satanic cult. (This has long been proven baseless but is still repeated in some Christian circles.)
While the cultural capital of English and rock music meant young Indian Christians were often deemed "cool", the same things fuelled Hindu nationalist groups' condemnation of Indian Christians as suspect, Westernised outsiders. There was also growing violence against churches and the Christian clergy, often based on accusations of "forced" conversion of Hindus – especially indigenous and Dalit communities.
One incident that shook Indian Christians to their core was the murder of the Australia-born missionary Graham Staines and his two sons – Philip, aged 10, and Timothy, aged 7. Staines had been in Odisha since 1965, and was working at the Mayurbhanj Leprosy Home, extending medical care and assistance to indigenous communities in the area. In January 1999, a mob instigated by a Hindu nationalist outfit burnt him and his sons alive in their station wagon, and photos of their charred remains were splashed across the front pages.
The United Christian Forum for Human Rights, which advocates for the rights of Christians and other religious minorities in India, counted just 38 incidents of anti-Christian violence in the country from 1964 to 1996. As attacks escalated, between January 1998 and February 1999 alone the number came to stand at 116 incidents, according to Human Rights Watch. On the heels of this, Christian communities across the country turned inwards, holding their own closer and tighter, and looking to Christian teachings and tenets for solace.
It is within this complicated context that their church assumed an increasingly central place in the lives of many Indian Christians, including all the queer Christian men I interviewed for this story. They had similar childhoods, and were all immersed in the culture of their church and Christian community. Coming to accept their gayness in these highly religious environments was a particularly uphill task.
Ryan Frantz, a 44-year-old digital-content specialist, told me over the phone from his home in Pulicat, in Tamil Nadu, of his early struggles with his sexuality and his religion. "At the age of 19, growing up within a saying-the-rosary-every-evening family even made me first look to my faith to find a cure for my gayness," he recalled. "I began to regularly attend prayer retreats where I would pray very hard for God to take away these 'unnatural' feelings from me." After learning that this doesn't work and years of inner turmoil, Ryan took a step back from the church.
Kevin Fernandes-Prabhu, a 31-year-old educator based in Bengaluru, told me about growing up in Dubai in a "traditional Christian family, meaning there was iconography all over the house, the daily rosary was non-negotiable." In the 10th standard in school, Kevin's elder brother found certain messages on his phone during a fight, and told their mother. "My mother is educated, she's had a professional career but she could not understand it," Kevin said. His mother believed that Kevin's homosexuality was the result of "bad influence", and that if he stopped talking to "such people" he would no longer be gay. This is the same attitude that churches and the communities around them have towards alcoholism and drug addiction, Kevin said. "I was not in a position to argue or negotiate, so I said, 'Sure, I'll stop talking to people like this.'"
Looking for light
The prevailing atmosphere of disapproval, disdain and denigration of homosexuality led many queer individuals to distance themselves from their churches, their covenants and surrounding communities, resulting in isolation. Still, many queer Christians found themselves looking for some source of steadiness and solace, and some found it in their church.
As a queer Christian myself, I hadn't attended church in over two decades until a few years ago, when I attended my grandfather's funeral mass. I found myself instinctively slipping into the structure of the service. The feeling of having not missed a beat in my many years away was eerily comforting, even with my ongoing and complicated relationship with the church.
Kevin went through a phase of being "anti-religion and marginally atheist" during his college years in Bengaluru, yet he maintained his attendance at Sunday services. "I don't know why but I just did," he said. For the past five years, Kevin has also been attending Tuesday masses at a local parish church conducted in Konkani, his mother tongue. Kevin described "feeling a connection to the sense of stability and safety" that he felt as a child as part of his motivation to increase his involvement with his church. Despite occasional uncertainty, he finds himself continuing to attend.
Mark, an IT professional from Chennai in his mid-forties, decided to return to the fold because, during his time of doubts and his struggle to accept his sexuality, he realised that "a relationship with one's God is something personal." Since he had "always had a special relationship with the Lord," he wanted to work on it again. And he understood that his break from the church was a result of people's closed mindsets, which he continues to negotiate. Mark grew up and continues to practise his faith in the highly charged and charismatic Pentecostal Church, "where pastors, even today, might say that homosexuals need to go to hell," he said. "And I do feel a little uneasy at these times, and I might step out of church for a bit. But I also remind myself that I know where I stand with my Lord."
Ryan, the digital-content specialist, said his break from his church turned out to be a good thing because he began to miss aspects of it. "I did begin to remember smaller actions, gestures and snippets from the scripture which gave me strength," he explained. For example, he remembered that there was a priest during his university days in Chennai who would make a tiny but thoughtful change to the prayers, such as saying "not just God our Father but also God our Mother too." These kinds of memories were stacked alongside his experiences from travelling abroad, where he saw some churches that accepted queer people, and some that were even exclusively queer-run.
He also came across a podcast on how some Catholic churches had been among the first places to provide care to the gay community during the AIDS epidemic. "My fond memories along with these kinds of stories softened my approach to church and prompted me to find a place for myself within it again," Ryan said. Today, Ryan practises and sings with a choir at a parish church in Bengaluru. "Quite serendipitously, I've found my way back through this group of Christians in a choir who completely accept me and my sexuality."
Some churches in India have also been trying to make space for queer Christians. One commendable effort is ESHA – formerly known as Ecumenical Solidarity for HIV and AIDS – started in 2008 by the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), the apex body of all Protestant and Orthodox churches across the country. Romal, who recalled coming across it in 2012, described this project as "very cool, because it is always striving to make the church a better place."
ESHA started after a former general secretary of the NCCI challenged the church in a sermon to take up the fight against HIV/AIDS. Over the past 15 years, the project has been providing care and support as well as education to change mindsets on human sexuality, all the while working to remove any stigma based on gender and sexuality and to achieve gender justice within the Protestant and Orthodox churches.
In 2012, Romal attended an ESHA meeting at the United Theological College in Bengaluru. "For the first time, I realised that there are so many people within churches – running churches, clergy, pastors and theologians – who were supportive of the LGBTQ+ community," he told me. At this meeting, Romal spoke about his "faith journey" intertwined with the self-discovery of his sexuality. He found himself able to talk directly to leaders in the church about "what the queer community would want from these institutions, and why we deserve to be within these spaces as much as anyone else." Romal remembered his testimony "ruffling a few feathers, but they were also supportive and open, and even invited me to volunteer with them." Over the years, he has seen church stakeholders such as priests and ESHA members become "greater advocates of the queer community" than he was.
While this opening up is still often glacially slow at the local level, Romal saw the NCCI as decidedly driving a change in the tenor of the conversation around sexuality and religious institutions. ESHA has recently added a non-denominational forum within its ambit called the National Ecumenical Forum for Gender and Sexual Diversities, which brings together queer people from around the country and across various faiths, including Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Vaishnavites and many more.
Two-odd years into his journey with ESHA, Romal felt the need to connect with other queer Christians in the city. He started putting out calls through queer support groups both online and offline, hoping to bring together a group that could meet once in a while and talk. It took off. A whole bunch of people got in touch and they began meeting at each other's houses on Sundays. But the group lasted for less than a year. "The problem was that I wanted for it to be a space of worship and for the sharing of faith but many of these individuals were still traumatised by the church shaming their sexuality. So it remained at the level of catharsis alone," Romal told me. "But it still exists online as a closed group with over a thousand members and it's still growing. We share queer-positive news from the church and hold peer-led discussions."
This evolution of the relationship between some queer Christians and their faith might also be motivated by a decade-old declaration by Pope Francis, the current head of the Catholic Church. "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?" the pontiff said in 2013, shortly after his papacy began. Though he was clear that the Roman Catholic Church's position remains that homosexual acts are sinful, he said that homosexual orientation is not. Even this qualified show of clemency lowered the threshold for some queer Christians to re-enter the church.
But there might remain a fundamental crisis of language in the dialogue between the divided domains of religion and rights-based activism – or, to put it another way, between the supernatural and the secular.
Jason Keith Fernandes, who studied law before training in theology and is presently a deacon at a seminary in Goa, speaks to this tension from the perspective of theology in an articlepublished by the Political Theology Network, a network for the interdisciplinary study of religion and politics. Over the phone, Jason began by laying out his journey. When he studied at the National Law School of India in Bengaluru, he learnt about the language of the queer rights movement. Then, he moved to Rome to begin seminary, where he was introduced to persons actively thinking about sexuality, LGBTQ+ issues and Christian theology. Combining these various intellectual pursuits, something clicked for him, and he realised that society has given people a way of understanding what is happening in their hearts, and they have even assigned specific terms for it. For example, same-sex desire is given the term "homosexuality". For Jason, "the first thing we need to recognise is that God comes first, God loves you and he has planted a love in your heart and you may not understand that love," he explained. He drew a parallel to the initial experiences of queer people who seek community when they are trying to understand their identities and place in the world.
"In the Catholic understanding, one's sexuality is one's whole being, all that you feel and everything else," he said. "So I'm saying this sexuality has been ordained by God to himself."
It has become easier for some queer Christian men – particularly those who perform straight-passing masculinity – to get back to their faith, but those with non-conforming queer bodies or who don't look like a traditional cis-gender man or woman are still struggling with the process of connecting with their church. Finding Christian lesbians or transgender persons who are practising their faith was nearly impossible for this story because they either didn't respond to my interview requests or didn't want to talk publicly about their experiences. For similar reasons, Romal didn't see a day near at hand "where a drag queen or drag king could walk into Sunday service yet or where queer people will be able to get married in a church in India."
Romal admitted that there's still a long way to go before churches can be safe spaces for queer believers. He warned those trying to make their way back into the fold. "They will need thick skins and a fighting spirit because you will become a representative of the whole queer community in that church," he said. "And your life, your partners and everything you do will be surveilled and scrutinised – but it has to be done by someone at some point."
As an openly queer Christian, Romal added, he finds himself constantly defending against the violence exercised and experienced under the banner of religion. But since he has always been told "the church is a safe and welcoming space," he is working to make it so for queer people too. "Because the healing has to start in church because that is where the hurting started for so many of us."
Illustration: Jose is a non-binary illustrator from Kerala whose work highlights personal stories marked by gender, body experiences and their south-Indian heritage. While not lost in their sketchbook, they can be found devouring all things camp and horror.
This story has been reported and produced by queerbeat, a collaborative journalism project focused on covering the LGBTQIA+ community in India.