This article originally appeared on VICE India.
Christmas tends to be a difficult time for the queer folk. The festival that celebrates family and togetherness isn’t exactly forgiving to those who have been abandoned by their kin or have had to walk out. This festival used to be my jam. I was the all-out Catholic kid who was hopped up on sweets around Christmas. I was in the choir, in the youth group, in the caroling group and every other church body where my overflowing Christmas glee could find its outlet. I was once touted to be the next boy to join the order of priesthood from my church. But instead, I chose to come out of the closet.
Now, I have had my beef with the Christian faith and its staunch views on homosexuality. But after several heated debates about gay rights with people from my parish—both of my age and older—I decided to walk away from all of it. To this day, quitting church is the only thing I have managed to pull off cold turkey. I just didn’t feel like I belonged in this community. And hence, Christmas, my favourite time of the year, a time we spent building makeshift stars to hang outside the church or recreate the nativity scene through micro figurines, became the loneliest time of the year.
But I wasn’t the only queer person from my hometown church who felt left out. Daniel Mendonca, an intersex social worker, was prominently out there before I ever came out. And I always wondered why he stuck around the church knowing how hateful Christians can be. And he told me about a priest who is changing the Church’s perspective, one Christian at a time. His name is Father Thomas Ninan.
Father Thomas is rather shy. I have been trying to lock him down to be a guest on my podcast for ages, but I couldn’t. So when I finally got a chance to speak to him, I figured what better way to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year than to present this wholesome story of a priest bridging the gap between the Christian Church and estranged queer individuals.
A self-professed nomad, Father Thomas Ninan belongs to the Indian Orthodox community, the oldest Christian Church in India. When you talk to him, there’s an immediate warmth to him. “I am originally a Mallu but now I am a bit of everything,” he says, laughing unabashedly. He got his calling to join the order at the age of 25. He was a priest at 30 and like most other Christian priests, he too was homophobic. “In 2008, I was confronted by own homophobia when at a youth conference, I witnessed something crazy. When asked how many of the youngsters want to get married, some of them wrote down that they can’t because they are gay. This was the first time I had witnessed something like this. The priest in charge of the conference lost his cool and ended up conducting a separate workshop on how the Christian faith has no place to accept homosexuality.”
Father Thomas admits that he himself looked at the idea of queer lives through a theoretical lens. Things changed when he went to South Africa to pursue further theological studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. There he made friends with those who were openly gay and unapologetic about it. He remembers the time he spent in the country fondly. “Even though South Africa legalised same sex unions in the 90s, they had their own issues and I decided to dedicate a part of my course to studying homosexuality. There I learned that you cannot discriminate against a person because of who they are. I had to go deeper into my own belief system to discover this. I left South Africa in 2013, abandoning all my notes and books I had amassed, thinking that no one will ever care about this back in India.”
Back in India, he spent two years with a parish in Uttar Pradesh, but a nomad like him could not find happiness here. He had spent time in his career engaging with substance abuse victims and patients suffering from HIV/AIDS and he wasn’t content with what he was doing. “I asked myself, ‘Is this the purpose of God? To be cushy in the confines of a church?’” Thankfully, around the same time, a vacancy opened up at the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), the ecumenical forum for Protestant and Orthodox churches in India. The vacancy came about at a much lower salary, but he took a huge risk to get into a project that no one was sure had a future beyond one year.
From 2009 to 2014, he was engaged with the NCCI to create a policy guideline on how to deal with HIV/AIDS issues, where only a small paragraph was dedicated to the topic of homosexuality. But from 2015, the council started engaging churches to conduct sensitisation workshops on same-sex unions and transgender rights though they got no response. “However, one church agreed to the workshop in 2016, and then it was almost as if an embargo was lifted,” he says. “The topic was met with a lot of compassion and empathy. In fact, some of the theological colleges would also respond and at least one student in every college would present a paper on homosexuality.”
The real test for NCCI was the year 2018. The year Section 377, the law that condemned gay sex and termed it illegal, was being heavily debated. While there were several religious bodies that protested the abolishment of the law, certain Christian bodies such as the Utkal Christian Council and the Evangelical Church of India were vehemently against the idea of gay rights. Father Thomas saw this as the right time to focus harder on his mission. “In July 2018, we had an interfaith consultation, right before the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam. This consultation became the focus of the court and the media.”
One of the statements that was referred to in the Section 377 hearing was by the NCCI. The Supreme Court pointed out to the other Christian leaders the example of his church organisation willing to accept its queer members. There was no turning back for Father Thomas and his team now. Section 377 got read down and his team got working on a module that churches across the country could access and use it to sensitise themselves. Through networking, theological faculty and queer volunteers are joining forces to work on this module, including prominent queer activists such as Romal Laisram and Rohan Mathews from Bangalore and Rachana, a transwoman from Hyderabad.
Father Thomas states, “We have barely scratched the surface. The Roman Catholic Church is still ardently against queer lifestyles. We will strive to make each church in India an all-inclusive space. One of the NCCI’s events was held in Montfort Bhavan in Hyderabad, a place run by Catholic brothers. The event inspired a Brother to start something similar in his own church. Even Utkal Christian Council came around and told my superiors that they were wrong. So things are changing at the grassroots level.”
When asked what it is like working with Father Thomas, Daniel Mendonca exclaims, “It’s rather rare to find priests like Father Thomas. He’s not like others who claim that Jesus Christ loves everyone equally, but don’t show it. He, on the other hand, is leading by example and showing a new path to the LGBTQIA people.”
Another success story where Father Thomas’ endeavours shone through was in the case of Santa Khurai, a transwoman from Imphal. She states, “I am an indigenous Meitei trans woman, and yet Fr. Thomas didn’t hesitate when it came to helping me out. He understood the politics of my community and he respected my gender identity. We travelled to different churches in the Northeast sensitising the churches around different regions of the Seven Sisters.” But Father Thomas not only helped Khurai speak up about her identity but also went out of his way to help crowdfund her SRS (sex reassignment surgery).
Stories like these are what keep us hoping for a better future for India’s LGBTQIA+ population. Thanks to Father Thomas Ninan, the churches are slowly opening their doors to the countless wayward queer youth who never thought they would belong. And eventually, that’s what miracles are.
Merry Christmas, to you and your chosen family.
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