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Let he who is without sin: The Mizoram church & homsexuality

The Church’s all-pervasive influence in Mizoram has meant an unusually harsh stance against homosexuality. Fear of backlash and social boycott have forced the LGBTI community to keep a low profile, writes Makepeace Sitlhou.

Makepeace Sitlhou  12th Oct 2013

Aizawl Theological College (ATC)

eviticus 20:13

"If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense."

s more states in America and other first world nations are joining the bandwagon for marriage equality, section 377 is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court of India with the Central Government shifting its stand on the 2009 judgment from time to time. The Delhi High Court repealed Indian Penal Code section 377 in a landmark judgment in 2009, decriminalizing intercourse between consenting adults of the same sex. Meanwhile, there have been several petitions filed against the decision. The Lawyers Collective website mentions, "Following the High Court decision, 15 Special Leave Petitions (SLPs) were filed in the Supreme Court appealing against the said decision on behalf of mostly faith-based and religious groups from all parts of India".

In June 2012, the Presbyterian Church of Mizoram, the largest church denomination in the state, snapped their ties with the Presbyterian Church of North America after the latter allowed ordination of gays as priests. "We, the members of Presbyterian Church of Mizoram, cannot accept ordination of homosexual people as pastors and regard homosexuality as against the teachings of the Bible and Christianity," said D P Biakkhuma, a church elder and secretary of the Synod Executive Committee (SEC), the second highest decision making body of the Presbyterian Church in a Times of India report dated June 12, 2012.

Mizoram is one of the 'seven sisters' in North East India. The leading Christian state of the country, it is credited with a high literacy rate, and curbing underground terrorism, a lingering issue that its counterparts like Nagaland and Manipur continue to struggle with.

When asked if the move to break ties with Presbyterian US counterparts reflects a rigid stand on homosexuality, Reverend Zosangliana Colney, the Synod secretary at the Presbyterian SEC, said in an email interview, "The Mizoram Presbyterian church accepts the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the infallible Word of God and that we use the teaching in the Bible as the only rule of faith and duty and as such some people might find that our stand is rigid. At the same time we try to adjust ourselves to the need of the hour without compromising on biblical principles. We feel that going against the teachings of the Bible, as against losing fellowship and funding, is more harmful in the ministry of our Church".

In view of the Delhi High Court judgment and the LGBTI movement in India, as well as the scientific views of WHO and Diagnostic Statistical Manual for Mental Diseases that have revised their classification of homosexuality as a disease or a mental disorder, Reverend Colney upheld the biblical references, above all, for the church: "Modern science, society and laws change with the times in order to suit a particular group of people or country, and some religions may also evolve with time, but the Mizoram Presbyterian church is, in fact, more committed to the Biblical truth and its teaching,"

Opinions on homosexuality are uniformly homogenous in other Christian states in the North East such as Manipur, where biblical views impact opinions on homosexuality.

Marvin (name changed), a schoolteacher in Aizawl and a member of the Presbyterian Church, keeps a low profile. "In Mizoram society, even if people have their own ideas, if it clashes with the church they won't be open about it. Whatever the church says becomes the law in the state and has already influenced governance as well. Even political leaders don't cross the church leaders", he said. In a community where sexual expression is suppressed under the threat of excommunication, same-sex relationships are kept out of the knowledge of public domain. Marvin has been in a relationship with his partner since 10 months, although the latter does not reside in Aizawl. "We're not open about our relationship since I'm the first guy he's been with and his family is very active in their church."

Goosh Vangchhia, a part time college lecturer in Lunglei (a town in Aizawl) and part-time fashion editor embodies a kind of exception to the general norm of maintaining discrete sexual identities. He said: "I go to church and dress myself as however I want. I'm also quite active in the church youth and choir group activities. I've even suggested to the Baptist youth group fellowship on ways that we can reach out to people like me instead of judging them."

How does someone as open about his identity as him not face negative reactions or worse, expulsion or excommunication?

"People here respect educated people. This has influenced how people perceive someone like me, who did his education in Delhi", he responded. Goosh describes most Mizos as being afraid of the word 'gay' and of the idea, itself because verses in the Bible deem homosexuality to be sinful. He said, "Tuai means sissy in Mizoram. I used to be very downhearted with this word but I now identify myself with the word."

Organizations like Suraksha International and Mizoram State AIDS Control Society (SACS) have been working towards HIV/AIDS prevention in Mizoram since the nineties. Dr. Eric Zomawia, the Project Director of Mizoram State AIDS Control Society (SACS), says that the acknowledgement of MSMs in society has increased even though there is little or no acceptance. "The MSM community is still a closeted group but many have already come out openly and do not hesitate to come to the counseling centers, especially those who dress as females."

Health preventive work in many countries has often been contentious with religion especially when public health messages directly contend what is preached. A popular reference to this is Pope Benedict's (XVI) first papal visit to Africa in March 2009, when he had stirred a wide controversy over his statement, "AIDS is a tragedy that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems".

Many believe that the advent of Christianity in the North East helped to modernize the tribal communities towards mainstream society. While the lost sheep may have found a shepherd in Christ, the alleged 'black sheep' continue to wander to find acceptance in their own home. Despite the Delhi High Court judgment, sexual minorities in India struggle with discrimination, violence and a lack of respectful acknowledgment of their rightful existence. Will the Supreme Court judgment that repeals section 377 lead towards better understanding and inclusion in the society? Will the constitution of India include 'sexual orientation' as one of the grounds to not discriminate against in its 'Right To Equality' articles 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18?

With tribal Christians asserting their rights to equality outside the north-east, despite their inclusion under 'Scheduled Tribes' in the constitution, there's still a longer and silent struggle for inclusivity for gender minorities in the seven sisters.

Makepeace Sitlhou is Community Editor with The Alternative (www.thealternative.in) and writes on issues of gender, human rights, sexuality and marginalization. She has completed her Bachelors and Masters in Psychology from the University of Delhi.

 
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