Sept. 12, 2019: Until two years ago, Ankit Bhuptani never imagined bringing his significant other for talks on Hinduism that he is regularly invited to deliver. “Organisers of events now ask if Nilesh, my partner, will also be attending. The simplest way that Hindu priests are engaging with me now is to ask about my partner in the same way that they would inquire about the wife of a heterosexual man,” he says. For the gay rights activist in Mumbai, gestures like these are indicative of the slow shift in how religions are engaging with the queer community a year after the Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality and read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code on September 6, 2018.
Richa Vashista, a former mental health professional at Humsafar Trust, says that the first response of parents who bring their children for counselling is always that homosexuality is wrong. They also often seek religious sanction to justify their views. For a queer individual already under pressure from the family, not having religion on their side often leads to an existential crisis. “When religion and sexuality come into question, it can lead to mental health concerns, depression and suicidal tendencies,” she says.
That, says Bhuptani, is on the cusp of a churn. The 27-year-old who runs the Queer Hindu Alliance, a forum which provides consultation and assistance to families of gay Hindus and faith leaders to understand homosexuality, says Hinduism, in particular, is non-discriminatory. “Inclusivity is the default setting of Hinduism. No Hindu religious text says that homosexuality is a sin,” he says. He rues, however, that Hindu faith leaders and preachers have shied away from acknowledging homosexuality and addressing queer identity.
A growing number of Muslim clerics in Uttar Pradesh, too, says Arif Jafar, a gay-rights activist working with Naz Foundation International, is showing an openness to engage with queer identity, unlike even a couple of years ago, when queer young people attempting self-harm was high in the community.
“This is happening not just in big cities like Lucknow and Kanpur but also in rural pockets of India’s most populous state,” says Jafar, who was arrested by the UP Police in 2001 on charges of promoting homosexuality. The reason behind this, he says, is because more and more Muslims are reading translations of the Quran and interpreting its teachings for themselves.
“That’s how you know that clerics are wrong. They give you only a selective interpretation of the text,” Jafar says.
Sukhdeep Singh, editor-in-chief of the news portal Gaylaxy, says while Sikhism is comparatively less hostile in its attitude towards queer people, there is pronounced homophobia among a section of religious leaders in the community. He blames India’s colonial hangover and the seeping influence of other faiths for this.
“Certain Sikh religious leaders look at homosexuality as a social evil. In the year since the SC judgment, people don’t express homophobic opinions so openly, but there is more opposition to gay marriages in gurdwaras,” he says.
The Sikh community and religious leadership, in Singh’s opinion, are yet to engage in an open debate on homosexuality and religious identity. “If someone takes up the project of interpreting the Guru Granth Sahib, I am sure they will find it to be more inclusive than we believe it to be,” he says.
Taashi Choedup, a 28-year-old queer Buddhist monk living in Bodh Gaya, however, continues to be a sceptic. “People ask me how can a queer person be a Buddhist monk and take a vow of celibacy. But the vow of celibacy is to restraint your sexual attraction, it doesn’t mean that you don’t feel it. I still feel attracted to people of the same sex. I practise my faith while keeping my sexuality intact,” he says.
Choedup also feels that the absence of criminalisation will not hasten inclusivity in religious institutions. “Families and bureaucrats who form and implement policies are driven by faith. We are all raised by faith and cultural beliefs and not by the Constitution,” says Choedup.
The most joyful aspect of living in a Buddhist commune for Choedup, who was raised in a Hindu family in Hyderabad, is his largely judgement-free environment. “There are people who question me. I remind myself that these exceptions do not represent the whole faith. For anyone who is different, it is a continuous negotiation with family, faith, friends and work. My faith has helped me deal with my sexual identity,” he says. The way ahead, says Bhuptani, is clear. “Now that our survival is safe, we can talk about rights,” he says.
Bhuptani’s views have brought him a fair share of detractors and critics, who contend that same-sex relations have no place in Hinduism. “People who hold these views are running away from the core values of Hinduism, which has no judgement and no set of commandments,” he says.
While the Bible leaves no room to recognise the wide spectrum of sexualities, things have been shaken up since Pope Francis told church leaders at a Synod of Bishops at The Vatican last year that they must be compassionate to LGBT members of their communities. At present, says Jiby Joyce, programme manager, Diversity and Inclusion in Asia Network (India), “Many Rainbow Catholics feel they are not allowed to participate as fully as they can in the spiritual and sacramental life of the church. The homophobia of earlier times continues to influence many Catholic communities who fail to welcome LGBTQI+ Catholics as fully as they should.”
The Rainbow Catholics Mumbai (RCM), too, is trying to address this. They found unexpected support when, in October last year, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archdiocese of Bombay blessed the group’s intention to start an online platform to support and guide queer individuals and ensure that they do not lose faith in the church. The group, fronted by fashion designer Wendell Rodricks and Ruby Almeida of the Global Network of Rainbow Catholics, is designing strategies on how to work with family members of queer Catholics in order for the community to accept them.
The National Council of Churches (NCCI) in India, an umbrella body representing orthodox and protestant churches, has been working since 2009 with at-risk individuals to prevent HIV. But the SC verdict has split some of its members. Father Tomas Ninan, who took over as general coordinator of the programme in 2017, says that a process of sensitising church leadership across levels is underway. None of the 30 member churches which make up the council have, however, officially supported Fr. Ninan’s views, even though it is contemplating starting an accredited course in gender and sexuality at its institute in Nagpur.
Acknowledging centuries of religious isolation for queer Christians, Ninan says that the priority is to create a platform where stories of pain will be heard. “There is now more space for listening and trying to understand people who are of different genders and sexualities. To what extent that will bring about a change in church policy is to be seen,” he says.
Father Phillip Kuruvilla, who previously headed the NCCI, says that it is vital for religious leaders to proactively find scriptures in their religious texts in which homosexuality is not condemned.