Monday, November 16, 2009

Sunday in Chennai, and Friday

I woke up this morning to have an early coffee and watch the city wake up from up high in the Marriott.  I remember my father easing us into a trip to India like this, a few nights in a nice hotel.  It is a real treat to travel internationally and not be sick or wreck your back on day two.  Crazy decadent as well, but wow, what a view of the rains coming in over the sea.

This morning I am up far too early because there is only one more full day left here.

First, The Rev. Dr. Monica Melancthon celebrated her first Eucharist last night, and I was honored to be there with her.  She is one of the leading, if not the leading, Feminist OT scholar in Asia.  If you haven't read her work, please do. She will be at SBL in New Orleans next week.  

Second, Elizabeth takes the best photos, so I can't arrange that until she is awake.  Bringing her to India has been an eye opener for me.   It shouldn't have to be her task to pry my eyes open, but hey, I guess that's one of the perks of life long committed? 

For the priviledge of knowing my family, working in the church and travelling outside of the U.S., I slip very easily in and out of the closet.  I haven't thought about it in a long time.  I was excited about this trip because of the newly empowered LGBT movement in India, post 377, and I thought I had thought through all the tricky parts of this trip, but I did not.  I would like to officially blame jetlag (and Satan), but it's probably deeper than that.  

The first days we were here were remarkable for the level of openness and serious conversation,  faithful Indian Christians were having with one another about the human rights of LGBT people in India.  The seminarians were very open and had clearly already thought about these issues, some of them, I assume, were themselves gay,  but there were a number of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant ministers, most of whom work with the most marginalized in some way, who were seriously wrestling with what it would mean to support this movement.  I was and remain deeply moved by the naive (in the best sense of that term) approach.  I know it's more complicated than this, but person after person seemed to say, if these become our commitments, if we believe in full equality, and the term people are using here is full humanity in the human rights context, then we must accept our  LGBT neighbors and make our communities accepting places.

Maybe it is difficult in these settings to talk about how difficult that might be to do, but I suspect that because some of the people we were meeting with have made it their life's work to be with the most marginalized, for some it really was that straight forward.  These are people living in areas that take days in rickety vehicles to find, where the sick are cast out and left to die, where AIDS care centers soon become orphanages for the children of patients dead.  There's not much these folks are afraid of, once they are convinced.  Truly remarkable.

And then, last night, I was at a seminary, and honored to be there, invited by an old friend from Union who is now a great theologian here in India.  Instead of arriving and being introduced with Elizabeth at chapel, strategically avoiding a few details, as usually happens, I was asked a day or so in advance if it would be okay if we were introduced as friends.  I didn't handle it well.  I didn't feel like I could decline the invitation so late, I sympathized with the position he was in, and I couldn't imagine Elizabeth, who has risked much over the years to be out, would find this as easy a place to slip into as I did, though I was secretly hoping she would.

I didn't respond, and she didn't come with me.  I am not surprised by the request, or surprised by anyone's response, but I am surprised by myself and how sad these complicated relationships are.  I'm not going to see my family on this trip for the same reasons.  I think anyone who is out and works in church will understand this place.  I wanted to say what I wanted to say in front of those seminarians. Maybe a preacher's vanity?  Can't say it feels too good today.  If I had responded in some way, maybe we would have had a chance to come to another solution, or at least talk it through.   I can't imagine living my life exclusively in places where I can be out, but clearly, I accept the improbability of openness too easily.  I know there's a a word for that, it's just too early in the morning... .

The coffee is not strong enough for me to laugh about life as an Olivia Cruise, yet... .

Next, Joe Thomas and George Zachariah ended the Sexuality and Faith Conference with a truly inspired visions of a liberal, diverse, rainbow hued India.  Those are all positive words in most of India, where the boys look fabulously butch in all shades of pink.   

Sunday, November 15, 2009

St. Thomas Mount --My Lord and my God

My family is from Kerala in the Southwest tip of India.  We are far north and east of Kerala here in Chennai.  We are on the beach that faces east, the Malabar Coast in Kerala faces west. 

The apostle Thomas came to India, and legend has it that he arrived in Malabar, and also went to Chennai.  I don't know if it was by land or sea, but the story here is that he landed on the beach and established a community.  When he was being chased down by locals for beginning this new movement, he hid in caves and was finally martyred at the top of what is know St. Thomas Mount, spear in his back while leaning on a stone, very Gethsemane meets Abraham and Isaac.

We went to St. Thomas Mount yesterday. 

First, in case you have any bad ideas in your head ...

We need one of those signs for the East Yard at St. Mark's.  We have a problem with the pairs and merriment there.

You start the walk, stations of the cross, in the middle of the Anglo Indian neighborhood in Chennai.  Anglo Indians are the community descended from marriages or less public liaisons between Brits and Indians.  Usually soldiers and local women, but there are other interesting configurations as well.  This is a community that has been marginalized historically and has, i think, also produced a disproportionate number of well known public figures. 

It was a rainy day, and there were very few people around.

We began at street level and ascend a not very steep "mount" following the stations of the cross with the few people there who seemed to be using it as a walkway.  There are houses built on both sides with entrances through the pilgrimage site.  What a place to live!

As we got higher, we had a view of the city below through clouds and drizzle.

At the top we found Pope John Paul II, some ceramic elephants and a Catholic gift shop with all the usual stuff under a thatched roof. 

In the church, our Lady of Expectation, I think.  I don't know her, but she sounds with child, the altar piece was a section of the stone from the ancient church on this site.  A black orthodox cross.  Interestingly, you could walk all the way up and behind the altar and to both sides.  Can you always do that in Catholic Churches? 

I think my grandmother would see this site as the only pilgrimage worth making.  She lives 14 hours away by train.  She turns 99 next year, or 100, we're not sure.

We went back down the path in a light drizzle with Chennai coming up to street level as we walked the stations in reverse.

Friday: Sexuality and Faith

The goal of LGBT struggles is more than equal rights for homosexuals but social transformation, including the renewal of religious institutions and traditions with respect to sexual ethics. The prevailing power inequities in church and society need to be corrected.  Social and cultural norms should be re-imagined so that differences in caste, gender and sexuality are no longer ranked hierarchically in terms of superiority and inferiority. Differences should not be occasions for domination but for recognizing and validating variations within a richly diverse humanity. --Dr. George Zachariah

13 Nov 2009

Magdalene Jeyaratnam is a Clinical Psychologist who runs The Center for Counselling in Chennai.  She is a leading expert in the area of LGBT people in Chennai, because they and their families come to her for support.  She reports that post 377, July-Nov., she has seen a significant rise in requests for appointments.  People are coming out!  AND, conversion aversion therapies on the rise.  Teachers and counsellors of many religious and non religious backgrounds are advertising their ability to convert LGBT people using some shocking techniques.

She also reported on her experience of "Skype Sessions" for families that she is working with who have a family member abroad or who themselves move abroad.  I think that's called outsourcing in the U.S., but what a powerful way to integrate the multiple identities immigrants and their families live.

Pam Merrill got up and reported that her presentation had essentially been given over the last day and a half, so she left us with an important message, not yet stated.  Stand with those who are fighting for their dignity!  It was an important point to make in this context.  We had been presented with the idea again and again that if the LGBT community wanted their rights, they should stand up for them.  This comes in the context of a country in which untouchability was abolished in my parent's life time, gender equality remains hard fought in parts of India, and women and men are physically threatened in that struggle.  The intricacies of "the closet" create a different context for a liberation movement.  Solidarity is critical. 

Then we got to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, presented by a lawyer and HIV activist Dr. Joe Thomas

He began with a great joke about oral sex.  Really!  I'm not sure if I can write it in a way that can't be abused by someone else later, so I'll have to leave it at this.  As a teenager, he thought oral sex meant talking about sex and so when he is invited to participate in events like this one, he remembers that at one point he would have understood that he was being asked for ... .  Have I mentioned what a repressed community Malayalees/Keralites are?  He is from Kerala, like me, and wow, do we have a talent for keeping ourselves uninformed. 

The case that went before the Delhi High Court was "Naz Foundation v Union of India," IPC, section 377, 1860.  The case was in court for nine years, decided this summer.  Joe introduced his presentation as a liberal, equity oriented, secular analysis from a heterosexual researcher, public health activist/ practitioner and educator.  Section 377 criminalized "unnatural" sex between adults in private.  Law of this kind were written at the height of Victorian Empire to further criminalize the poor in England and the sex crazed barbarians elsewhere in the empire.

Since 1860, it has been applied 134 ish times, four people have been convicted under this section. It is not used for sexual abuse.  We do not have good law against sexual abuse in India, yet.  That is being fought out right now in light of horrible abuse cases of European sex offenders opening up orphanages in India. 

The basis for the ruling is "The right to dignity:  the priviledge, the ability, and right to make free will choices about how one lives one life... a person’s value regardless of function to make choices, and the  Right to privacy:  the right to establish and nurture relationships without the invasion of the state."

Do we have either of those in the U.S.?

And also, the Right to Equality, Non Discrimination
"It cannot be forgotten that discrimination is antithesis of equality."

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution: The Right to Health!

Okay, then, the zinger, "constitutional morality vs popular morality."  There is a notion of Constitutional Morality in Indian Law.  It is a higher morality, for the common good, that is a higher bar than the necessarily prejudiced community and time limited understandings of Popular Morality.  I think this idea exists because a nation founded on the strength of it's religious and ethnic diversity will necessarily have different expectations of private behavior by community, and there must be some common code of law.   In response to this ruling, the National Council of Churches, India spoke out immediately encouraging all to  “accompany  people of different sexual orientations (PDSO) in their journey.”

We had a great conversation about different notions of privacy.  The most interesting example was among Aboriginal Australians. Dr. Thomas described it this way, "Your neighbor protects your privacy, by not looking where he or she should not.  The person, not the state upholds the value. 

This is an opportunity and the nature of Indian Democratic Tradition, the opportunity is to claim the Right to Health, the challenge is how to take that forward and in the midst of this opening.  Cultural intolerance and religious intolerance is increasing and is becoming institutionalized .

Dr. George Zachariah concluded our sessions with a good old fashioned liberationist approach to LGBT inclusion in the church quoting Brock, Nelson and Ellison.  The quote at the top of this entry is from his paper which I hope will be published somewhere soon.  I think he floored some of the non religious activists with a version of Christianity not often seen in the public discourse in India.  Apparently Christians have the toughest time accepting themselves if they are queer and/or accepting queer family members, according to Dr. Jeyaratnam's experience.

George --A rainbow people of God, in India.

We were told by Dr. Jeyaratnam that Chennai planned a Pride March on the Beach this past July.  They planned for 50.  700 arrived to march.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Mamalapurim and Speak Out, Chennai!

What a great day!

Mamalapurim or Mahabalipuram is a historic site on the Bay of Bengal about an hour outside of Chennai proper.  It's famous among the Thomas Merton-o-philes among us from his Asian Journals.  The five rathas (of the legendary 7) are like an outdoor sculpture gallery in stone.  When the tsunami hit here a few years ago, local people say that as they watched the water recede, before it came inland in 10 foot waves, they watched in awe as the two other rathas were revealed.  They had been hidden by the sea for centuries!

The sculpture is mellowed and damaged by exposure.  All of the buildings you see are carved from stone, not built.  There must have been enormous boulders in this place, you can still see some smaller ones, that were then just carved where they were.  There are no joints or stacked stone, except for the floor.   There was some debate amongst the guides as to whether they were built in the 6th or 7th century, also a long talk to make sure we all understood they meant A.D.

It's a beautifully sensual place.  

It rained while we were there, as it had for Merton.  We ducked into the small interiors at the Shore Temple and the rathas to stay a little dry during the worst of it.  Here's Elizabeth in one of our 5 minute homes.   

We had a very tourist day and the confirmation was the busloads of school kids in uniforms that seemed just ahead of us on every stop.  We missed the Crocodile Bank, it was raining, apparently it's about us investing in our Crocodile friends, not where the crocodiless stash their cash and definitely not a place to buy belts or shoes, CaminoPR!

After a drive through the flooded streets of Chennai, we joined some new friends for a filming of a news talk show called "Chennai Speak Out"  on NDTV Hindu.   We were told it's #2 in the ratings in the area.    They were tackling "Sexual Minorities" today.  That's LGBT or Queer, pronounced CU-EAR in South India. 

That's the panel, plus Gabriel with host Jennifer Arul on the far left.  She was fantastic.   They crafted a well informed, sensitive, honest conversation between the host, panel and audience asking audience members what they think of their LGBT neighbors in Chennai.  She is a brave journalist.  It's not the kind of thing I would normally do, but what a priviledge to be a part of the conversation here.  I learned that Chennai is a "live and let live" town with a reputation for being more conservative than it truly is.  I was impressed by the fierce support of well informed, passionate young and not so young women for their LGBT friends, and the willingness of the audience to speak honestly. 

The most ill informed person in the room, that spoke, was a pastor.  Oh well, and the least tolerant women who spoke were also clearly Christian.  I was wondering whether I looked like a moon rock, or an expat from a  neighboring state.   Riding home half the car was from Kerala, 2/3rds of the panel was Keralite as well.  We are NRK-s, Non Resident Keralites.  All the better for nostalgia and mental health.

Tomorrow, St. Thomas Mount and Gurukul Seminary.

Elizabeth is such a good sport.  She must be over the mad pace and crazy English.  I think she's starting to wag her head involuntarily for yes, no and not really.  We are in the Executive Lounge at the end of a long day, because they serve beer and have wireless, watching the lightning over the Bay of Bengal.  God is good. 

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Post Bombay attacks this is what security looks like at the Chennai Marriott.  

After a quick stop in Brussells for a waffle, we are here. 

Today, November 12, we met at the Asha Nivas Conference Center for 12 hours of conversations about sexuality and faith.  

First, I am reminded of what a wonderful city Chennai is.  Over masala chai at Mocha, I learned why it felt so nice to be in Chennai.   The street culture in Indian cities varies from cit y to city.  Where I come from in Kerala, women expect to be harassed or at least stared at for walking down the street, especially alone.  After a certain hour, it is “unacceptable” to walk without a man.  In Chennai, men step aside to let a woman pass and don’t seem surprised by a friendly smile or a question for directions. 

Chennai has a lively coffee shop culture.  Alcohol is prohibitively expensive and sold only in 5 star hotels and there with a 50% sin tax, unless bought at a wine shop, and no one in our group could remember if the drinking age was 18, 21 or 25.   Coffee shops are all the rage for the young and educated.  It’s a fairly elite, English speaking crowd, and not one I’m used to seeing gathered informally in the middle of the afternoon to use free wifi.  I sat in Mocha and listened to two long time HIV/AIDS activists, Magdelene Jeyaratnam and Joe Thomas catch up about their years of activism in Asia.  They are long time work colleagues through one of the sites Joe manages Aids Asia, but had not met in person until today.  I sat quietly in awe.   I couldn’t say yes, I too understood the intricacies of local politics in Manipur,  tell my funny “getting through immigration in Myanmar” and yes, I would be on my way to Kabul as everyone else seems to be these days … .

Today has been full of people like this doing remarkable work.  Elizabeth and I are not as jetlagged as we thought we’d be.  Thanks  “No Jet Lag!”  but I did fall asleep completely asleep in our 8pm break out session.  I like to think it’s because the kitchen gods took pity on me and for our dinner fried up a Kerala style fish fry in coconut oil.  If you haven’t had it, I think it’s like the difference between the hills people and valley people in Manipur, either you get it or you don’t. 

This morning we began with a Bible Study, not sure how that got assigned to me.  We were so behind by the time we got to it, that I cut it short.  Romans 8, the second half, the creation yearning to be birthed that ends with “for I am convinced that neither height nor depth , nor principalities, nor powers, nor things below, or things above can separate us from the love of God.”  A liberation reading of the text sometimes just pays attention to the meanings those familiar words based on the lips reading.  You know, George W. Bush or a transgendered woman in Chennai.  Of course our prejudices, our small mindedness, culture, the church, Christians, parents and bad Biblical scholarship do their best to separate many of us from the God that seeks us out, but that seems like a dangerous place to put yourself.  I can’t recommend it, as a member of the clergy. 

Then we lit the Kutthuvilakku.   It’s worth a google.  We didn’t burn anything down, but I don’t think we did it particularly gracefully.

Then we began the marathon sessions from remarkable scholars, activists and clergy.

Dr. Pratap Tharyan
“The Evidence –Based Perspective and the Faith Based Perspective” on the biology of queerness.
Dr. Shivaji Panikkar
“From Structural Queerphobia to Queer Political  Assertions: Indian Cultural Practices”
Dr. Randall Giles
“I am different from others and it is a cause to celebrate”
Dr. Joseph George
“Involve Christian leadership to strengthen the sexual minorities”
Dr. Miriam Samuel
“Is the trans gendered person my neighbor”  (the answer was yes, totally!)
Ms. Madgelene Jeyaratnam, Director of the Counseling Center with out and proud colleagues:  Ms S. Noori, Saleem, Gabriel, Teja, Vikrant and Danam.

What was that the Anglican Communion Office keeps saying about how difficult it is to listen to the voices of LGBT Anglicans around the world.  There were a lot of Church of South India people at this conference.  Clergy, lay and transitioning (or seminarians, whatever) and last I checked that’s Anglican Communion.

We are going to hear more about the “reading down” of Section 377 tomorrow.  The church in India has an opportunity to run with the language of “constitutional morality” that the Delhi High Court has claimed, a morality for the common good that is a higher cause than popular morality.  Wow! 

The religious and political right have organized to take this to the Supreme Court of India when the time is right.  We are getting ready to begin to equip the rest of the faithful in India with progressive, inclusive, liberative, gospel language of justice as we reclaim a more just India from one more vestige of oppressive colonial law.    One of my mother’s relatives began the longest running case in the courts in India over church property.  We are not afraid.

Elizabeth has fantastic pictures up on facebook, and I’m off to try to borrow a few.  Not sure why I still look short in pictures here in TN.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sexuality and Faith, November 12,13, Chennai, INDIA

I leave for India Monday to attend a consultation in Chennai entitled "Sexuality and Faith."   I have been an Episcopal Priest for almost 10 years, an Indian for 37, and I had not planned, in the words of Mordecai,  for such a time as this.   Because of dumb luck and kind friends, I know this meeting is happening.  Because I am a sucker, I will frame a few of the conversations we will have together.  Because God is great, I will hear anew the words of gospel liberation entrusted to every generation in every culture in my home.  I did not think to imagine this day.

This consultation is for Indian Christians, primarily Christians engaged in the HIV/AIDS work in India.  The statement of purpose is below.  The list of speakers is impressive.  Almost all from distinguished local Universities and a few visitors from the U.S. like me.   It makes me wonder who we've decided we're listening to in our Anglican Communion listening process.  If you are interested in supporting these kinds of conversations, please contact me.  We would like to do this annually, all over India.

I will  post and/or twitter [wsvarghese] while we're meeting.  Please include our meeting in your prayers.

Chennai, India
November 12-13, 2009

            The purpose of this consultation is to engage Christians in conversations regarding Christian faith and human sexuality, with a particular focus on enhancing sexual health in relation to HIV and AIDS.

            Discussing the relationship between human sexuality and faith proves difficult in almost any part of the world.  Yet if religious leaders are to be both pastoral and prophetic, education and dialogue are imperative.

            As India confronts the world-wide pandemic of HIV and AIDS, certain formerly taboo topics must be examined.  Not only must the sexual orientation and practices of heterosexual persons be explored openly and candidly, but also the sexual orientation and practices of other persons, such as men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender persons.    The latter two groups are highly stigmatized by both society and religious communities in India.  Their needs are overlooked, even at a time when UNAIDS is emphasizing that prevention (and other) messages must be specifically targeted their way.

            The recent ruling in the Delhi High Court overturning legal discrimination against same sex relationships has been met with great hostility by certain leaders within the Christian community.   Often the human rights of gays and lesbians are totally devalued

This conference on “sexuality and faith” will provide traditional and alternative Christian voices and visions of mission and ministry.    Possibly the deliberations will yield a public statement that will provide a contrasting theological perspective on issues related to human rights and sexual health.

Persons, who are generally marginalized and stigmatized in conversations among Christians, would have an opportunity to share their perspectives.  This consultation would provide an opportunity for persons in the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender community of India to speak in a safe understanding setting, as well as for other Christians who stand in solidarity with them.

Sponsored by: Concern for AIDS Research and Education Foundation, India
In association with: Center For the Church and Global AIDS, USA