On our first night in Mangalore, our hosts at Karnataka Theological College arranged a meet-and-greet between our group of 13 and their seminarian students and some faculty.
Our hosts prepared samosas and chai for mingling outdoors cocktail party style. We then moved to sit in a large circle in their auditorium and shared our names. We were each given a single beautiful rose as a welcome. Then the floor opened up for questions.
After a few exchanges, I decided to ask the pressing question on my mind. In 2009, the Delhi High Court ruled that a portion of Indian Penal Code 377 was unconstitutional, specifically the part that deemed homosexual acts as illegal. That was a huge victory for LGBT people in India. However, this past December 2013, the Indian Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision and re-criminalized homosexuality.
I told the group of seminarians that I worked at a LGBT community center and have witnessed the devastating and harmful impact of church rhetoric against the dignity and self-esteem of LGBT people. I asked them whether their churches and this college took a stand on this recent issue.
Silence ensued. I looked into their eyes to see their reactions. Did I cross the line? Did I offend our host community by asking this question? Or perhaps did a cultural and language divide make my question incomprehensible?
After a few moments, a couple professors shared that they have addressed this issue in class but that, for the most part, it was a taboo topic in a very socially conservative culture. However, none of the students responded. I feared that I might have caused unnecessary discomfort on our first opportunity to meet each other. I wondered if any of them had ever met an openly gay man before. I worried whether the other students would speak to me in our time remaining here.
Afterwards, a professor related to me that leaders of the various main faith groups in India came out in support of re-criminalising homosexuality. Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders all publicly condemned homosexuality, making their positions clear to the Supreme Court.
When I heard that, I felt that the question I posed was not only appropriate, but necessary. Here were seminarians that would soon be leaving school to lead their churches and communities. If anything, my question might open the space for greater dialogue in this school or someone’s local community about this traditionally taboo topic. Hopefully, it would lead to the de-stigmatizing of LGBT people and eventually create the political will to dismantle IPC 377.
The next morning, in chapel, I saw one student I had met the night before and approached him to say hi. He immediately smiled, and said, “Come here. Sit next to me!”
My heart softened. I realized that despite the different positions we might hold on this issue, here in this place we were welcomed with open arms. I also realized that even though we must be aware of being in unfamiliar surroundings, I should not let that stop me from being authentic. Sometimes it’s a fine dance, but nevertheless it’s important to show up fully as I am.
– Joselito, student