World Half Full
Transgender Christians form their own church
Pakistan’s Christian transgenders — often mocked, abused and bullied — say they’ve finally found some peace and solace in a church of their own, reports AP.
The First Church of Eunuchs, as it’s called, is the only one for transgender Christians in Pakistan. “Eunuch” is a term often used for transgender women in South Asia, though some consider it derogatory. The church’s pastor and co-founder Ghazala Shafique says she chose it to make a point, citing at length verses from the Bible showing eunuchs were favoured by God.
In Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, the church sits in the shadow of a towering brownstone cathedral, where they say they don’t feel welcome. “People look at us with eyes that are laughing at us,” says Nena Soutrey, a transgender woman whose life has been a series of beatings, bullying and abuse. “No one wants to sit near us and some even say we are an abomination. But we’re not. We are humans. We are people. What is wrong with us? This is who we are.”
While Christians and other religious minorities can often face discrimination and feel their place is tenuous, they can find support among themselves. It’s different for transgender women and men, who regardless of their faith, are often publicly bullied and humiliated or even face violence in deeply conservative Pakistan, even though the government has recognised them officially as a third gender. For transgender Christians it’s even worse: they are a minority within a minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim country and are the ones most often rejected. Often disowned by their families, they resort to begging and work as wedding dancers; some are often sexually abused and end up as sex workers.
At churches, they are told to sit at the back and sometimes told not to dress as a woman. Arzoo, a transgender woman, says in churches with separate women’s and men’s sections, she was bounced back and forth, told by the women to sit with the men and told by the men to sit with the women. “I found myself in such a confusing situation,” she adds. She also says she loved to sing the hymns or recite the Bible, but in churches she attended they asked her not to sing. “I don’t understand why they feel like this. We are human too, born of our parents. The way God created them, God also created us.”
The church is set up in the courtyard outside Shafique’s home, in the same sprawling compound as the cathedral, protected by high walls and a steel gate. Brightly coloured carpets give warmth to the concrete yard; badly worn pale blue plastic chairs serve as pews. But there’s no mistaking the humble church belongs to them: A giant two-metre billboard emblazoned with a large cross proudly announces in English, “The First Church for Eunuchs.” While Shafique celebrates the nearly three-hour service, it’s the congregation that takes the lead.
Shafique, a rare female pastor in Pakistan, was first approached about starting the church by an unexpected advocate, a Muslim — Neesha Rao, Pakistan’s only transgender lawyer. Rao tells with pride how she begged on the streets for ten years to put herself through law school.
Rao says she was moved by her transgender Christian friends who were often afraid to announce their faith, fearing further abuse, but also couldn’t find solace among fellow Christians. “I am a Muslim child and a Muslim transgender, but I had a pain in my heart for the Christian transgenders,” she says, outside a Friday evening service, which she attends every week, though standing behind the worshippers.
Shafique belongs to the Church of Pakistan, a united Protestant church of Anglican, Methodist and Reform Churches. So far, her efforts with the hierarchy to get her church recognised have been rebuffed. “They tell me there are theological issues,” she says. “I am still waiting to hear what those theological issues are.” She is sharply critical of clerics who would rather their transgender congregants were invisible or stayed away all together and of parents who reject their transgender children.
“Church elders have told me they are not clean . . . that they are not righteous,” she says. “We reject them . . . and then they become so broken and then they get into all bad things. I say we are to be blamed, the church and the parents.”
Pakistan’s recognition of a third gender — a remarkable move for the conservative country — was life changing because it allowed transgenders to acquire identity cards, needed for everything from getting a driver’s licence to opening a bank account. “This is a great step,” Shafique says, before adding it hadn’t quite changed attitudes. Parents often refuse to give their transgender children their birth certificates needed to get an ID card or forbid them to use their family name.
For Soutrey, the church is a refuge from a lifetime of pain. Tears well up and her voice cracks as she tells of how her mother died when she was just 12, and her brothers beat and insulted her. Finally, she fled to live on the streets and found acceptance within the transgender community. She has stopped going out at night because of harassment and abuse.
“First thing I want to say is no one should have to suffer as transgenders suffer,” she says, between her tears. “People treat us worse than dogs,” even in mainstream churches she attended. “This church is important for us because we are free and happy sitting here, worshipping the God who created us.”
ABOVE A prayer service at Pakistan’s first church for transgender worshippers in Karachi, on Friday Nov. 13, 2020
PHOTO AP Photo/Fareed Khan
No one wants to sit near us and some even say we are an abomination. But we’re not. We are humans. We are people. What is wrong with us? This is who we are.
Bhutan votes to decriminalise same-sex relations
On December 10, Bhutan’s parliament voted to decriminalise same-sex relations, amending an existing law that penalised what it deemed “unnatural sex”, AP reports. The amendment was approved by 63 out of 69 lawmakers, with six abstentions. The amendment now needs to be approved by Bhutan's king to become law. The penalty for engaging in prohibited sexual conduct has been up to a year in prison.
"I haven’t stopped smiling since yesterday. I am eagerly awaiting His Majesty’s assent,” said Tashi Tsheten, a Bhutanese activist who has worked to change the law. He says the amendment means LGBTIQ people will be able to lead a better and more dignified life after facing years of stigma and discrimination.