In an interesting move coming straight from the Vatican, the social service wing of the Catholic Church, Caritas Internationalis, has decided to launch a programme for transgender people in India.
The programme was first reported on by Vatican Radio on October 10, and aims “to fight against an openly discriminatory mentality” about the Indian trans community. Rev. Frederick D’Souza, executive director of Caritas India, had even said he would consider recruiting trans people into the organization.
Attempts to integrate the community into the national mainstream are usually welcome, but given the struggles they face, there is reason to be wary of the Caritas programme.
Because of its strong Catholic roots, the organization has expressed some rather negative views about trans people. For example, they only support those who they call “biological transgenders,” or trans individuals who have not made any modifications to their ‘God-given’ bodies. Hyderabad-based transgender activist Vyjayanti Mogli, whom Cake spoke with, sees that as an issue.
“One of the problematic teachings is ‘hate the sin, not the sinner,’” says Mogli, speaking about trans identities, “but we don’t consider this a sin at all. So if someone says ‘Oh, we love you all, we just don’t love the sin,’ it means you don’t love us.”
Caritas also perpetuates the idea that gender is natural and innate, whereas it is a social construct, one that is assigned to us at birth. The organization appears to be at a loss when it comes to trans identities and trans politics. As Mogli tells us, they are confusing transgender people (who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth) with intersex people (who are born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that is not “typically” ‘male’ or ‘female’).
These intricacies have clearly escaped Caritas, but they’re powering on nonetheless. Caritas Internationalis has made a name for itself globally as an organization that works with marginalised groups. In India, its programmes focus on several high-risk, underprivileged groups like Dalits, forest communities, Cancer patients and others. But given Caritas’ understanding of the trans community, there are limitations to what they intend to do.
Mogli says that of roughly 2.6 crore transgender people in India, some 65000 may be intersex. And of that, only 160 to 650 will experience gender dysphoria. So if that’s the group that Caritas is targeting, it will count for very little: “They’ll get 200 people to always toe the line of the church, and they [transgender people] may be elected as Trans bishops or whatever, just for them [Caritas] to be able to say ‘you dare not call us Transphobic.’”
By insisting that they don’t approve of transgender people who change their bodies, Caritas has already neglected the community they want to help. There is little recognition of the fact that Indian trans identities like Hijras, Kinnars, Jogappas and others, as well as fluid sexuality, have always been present in our history.
Though well-intended, the proposed programme is a lot like the recent Transgender Bill, which leaves it up to the state to decide who qualifies as trans and who doesn’t. Similarly Caritas sets the standards, which, as Mogli says, “is heavily problematic, and draconian.”
Caritas has not publicized the details of the programme either, and the only mention of it on the website is a single banner image that reads “Transgenders and Caritas.”
When we reached out to Caritas for their response on what the programme intends to do, here is what Rev. D’Souza, had to say: “Caritas India works with Eunuchs (Hijiras) on health related issues to accord them better dignity. We believe that they are socially discriminated and often suffer humiliation. It is in that context we stated that we would like to work with Eunuchs where they are staying as a community or a group, since it becomes easy for us organize them. Our definition of transgender is hereby clarified as Eunuchs those born that way. In this context, we stated that we are happy to recruit them into them in Caritas India.”
There are ways in which the Church can become an ally to LGBTQ people, but it must examine many of its own shortcomings before it can do so.
Update: This article was updated to show the response by Caritas India which was sent to team Cake via email on November 3.