Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin

Queer love in Mizoram under the shadow of the church

01 April, 2018

FOR MAHLUI, it was love at first sight. One day, when he was in the tenth grade, Mahlui’s friend brought along a new acquaintance to visit him in his hostel room. With her pale complexion, long black hair and large eyes lined with kohl, Mahlui was instantly infatuated with this new girl. Although they became friends, he did not confess his feelings towards her. Besides, they met each other infrequently, since the girl lived far away from the city, and commuting options were limited.

“She was my dream girl,” Mahlui said to me about that first, but lasting, impression. He did not want to be identified by his full name. In his adolescent years, Mahlui was at constant loggerheads with his parents, who insisted they wanted to see their daughter dressed in clothes meant for girls. He reluctantly wore the uniform skirt to school and dresses with ballerina shoes to church—the two places that were non-negotiable for his family. “Six days a week, I was a boy. Only on the seventh day, I had to dress up like a girl,” he said, recalling his teenage years.

Mahlui and his dream girl lost touch in the years after school and moved on with their lives. She dated a few guys before marrying a much older man, a Revival speaker in the Presbyterian Synod, and had two kids with him. Meanwhile, Mahlui dated other women, even getting married twice. In the midst of this, if they did run into each other, there would usually be an air of formality, nothing beyond an exchange of pleasantries. There was one particular encounter, however, on a day when she was on her way to pick up her daughter from school, which stuck in Mahlui’s mind. There was something different about it. “That day, after we crossed each other, I turned back to look at her and so did she,” Mahlui said. “It was like the way they show lovers crossing paths in the serial Kasauti Zindagi Ki.”

In 2012, Mahlui’s dream girl, now a 30-year-old woman, lost her husband to cancer. Bitter family squabbles at her in-laws over the next two years led her to leave the house. She and her kids moved into an empty flat in the same building. Mahlui had also just left his second marriage, which was riddled with challenges, including disapproval from his wife’s family about his gender identity. “Her father told her that if she really wanted to marry, she should marry the mentally unstable person next door. At least he is a man,” Mahlui said. It was around this time that the two of them rekindled their friendship. Mahlui started visiting her at her home frequently on the pretext that he was keeping her company because she felt afraid to live alone with her children (although her in-laws lived right above). Eventually, Mahlui moved in.

“They knew him as my childhood friend so when he moved in with me and my kids, they didn’t think much of it,” the woman said, referring to the reaction of her ex-husband’s family. “But after a while, our relationship was discovered as we became serious.” Soon, she felt compelled to leave her kids behind with their father’s family. Mahlui’s family, on the other hand, was aware of the real nature of their relationship. His parents did not object to it but that is not the same as accepting the relationship, the couple said.

The two got married in a private ceremony. These days they spend much of their time in prayer, seeking guidance and acceptance. They used to go to church together until the woman’s family found out about their relationship. “We stopped going to avoid people talking behind their backs, so our family would not face public shame,” she said. “If people see less of us they will not talk about us.”

Mahlui runs a small business out of a dimly lit rented room attached to a matchbox-sized bedroom in a central market in Aizawl. This is their home, recreational space and place of worship, a space where they can live together as husband and wife. Posters of Jesus Christ and the Last Supper adorn the walls. They can smoke, drink and pray on their knees here. There is an easy domesticity between the two. When I visited them in September last year, the woman busied herself, fetching snacks and soft drinks for us, while Mahlui spoke to me in the tiny shack in which they now live. “Although I dated other women, I never really loved any of them,” he said.

But simply retreating from the public gaze has not made their lives easier. Mahlui struggles with the obstacles his transgender identity poses for them. Although he and his wife want to live a simple married life, doing so is in conflict with their religious faith. “It is very difficult because I can’t tell people that she’s my wife. Even the kids can’t come and stay with us because I’m not a man. We are not a normal couple,” he said.

When I brought up the recent Supreme Court judgment giving transgender people legal rights, Mahlui said, “I don’t care about the government or the court. My problem is I don’t know if god will allow me to be a man or not. No government can overrule him.”

COMPARED TO THE REST OF THE NORTHEAST OF INDIA, which witnesses high levels of insurgency and civil unrest, Mizoram enjoys relative calm. The state ranks high on human-development indicators, including high literacy rates and life expectancy. Its scenic capital, Aizawl, stretches across landlocked hills encircled by an unending stream of cotton wool clouds. It has all the trappings of a colonial hill station and churches tower over every veng, or locality. More than 86 percent of people in the state are Christians.

Christianity began to dominate the then Lushai hills with British occupation in the 1890s. Among the first missionary workers to settle there were those from the Presbyterian Church of Wales. These workers were the first to introduce print into the local dialect, Lushai, using the Roman script. Any written documentation of gender and sexuality among Mizo tribal clans was largely coloured by the worldview of colonial officers and missionaries trying to make sense of the customs and habits of the indigenous population. For instance, missionaries could not tell men and women apart because of the way they dressed. In the “Pua Bangla logbook 1890-1930,” an entry dated 16 January 1894 reads “men and women so much alike … at first we took all men for women.” In a 1909 executive order, HWG Cole, the British superintendent of the Lushai Hills, ordered “all tuai”—effeminate men—“who are clearly of the male sex should abandon wearing women’s clothes, behave like men, pay revenue and do cooly work.” The order mandated that village chiefs report cases of unnatural offences, even in the absence of complaints, failing which severe punishment could be meted out. The Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner wrote in his book The Great Game East that the “drums and dance, which they”—the Christian missionaries—“previously had found shocking were ‘sanitised’ of sexual and violent themes” before they became “an important part of Mizo Christianity.”

NE Parry’s book, A Monograph of Lushai Customs and Ceremonies, contains the earliest record of same-sex relations. As the superintendent of the Lushai Hills from 1924 to 1928, he described the customary punishment for mangkawluk, or sodomy. “In the olden days, the pathicus or his father had the right to kill the sodomite or the sodomite had his nose and ears split open,” Parry wrote. A hundred years later, in independent India, after a century of serial proselytisations, the new rulers of the hilly state—the church—proposed to deal with homosexuality in similarly draconian ways. The Presbyterian Synod, the state’s largest Christian denomination, demanded to reinstate the defunct 1909 executive order, as they believed it was in line with the Christian doctrine. The order, of course, had no legal standing after Independence.

Section 377, drafted by Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1861, is a different matter. A colonial-era law, Section 377 of the Indian penal code criminalises all “carnal intercourse against the order of nature,” namely those sexual acts that do not lead to, or are not for the purpose of, procreation. This section has been the basis for deep discrimination against the queer community. The movement to repeal this act was primarily initiated by the AIDS Bhed Bhav Andolan, which published “Less than gay: a citizen’s report” in 1991, a document on the status of homosexuality in India—which has given significant shape to the legal battle for LGBT rights in the country. Among the many intimate testimonies in the report was a letter by an anonymous person from Mizoram. “Until last year I was desperate to have a lover or boyfriend for both emotional and physical support, but I have reformed from this year,” read the letter. “I am going to be gay forever but I am so very discouraged by the environment around me that I have decided not to worry anymore.”

In 2008, a study on sexual and gender minorities in Mizoram carried out by the Synod Social Front Executive Committee—a body that aims to extend the influence of the Presbyterian Church in economics, politics and education—described the LGBT community as “nominal Christians.” The researchers observed that queer people did not take religion very seriously even though 97 percent of them said that they attended church—all of them attended Sunday school as children—and 63 percent felt that it had meaning in their lives. More than half of these respondents considered their lifestyle sinful because the Bible said so. Although less than half of the respondents said they were “called names, teased and shown contempt with words because of their identity,” 66 percent said they feel guilty because of their identity. A significant majority said they had tried to repent and change their lifestyle at least four times. The report took no cognisance of the role that the Church plays in inducing this guilt.

The next year, on 2 July 2009, in a landmark judgment, the Delhi High court read down Section 377 to exclude consensual sex between adults in private. It used sections from the constitution that enshrined the right to privacy, non-discrimination on the basis of sex, freedom of expression and protection of life and property to assert the legitimacy of LGBT rights. While there was considerable celebration among Delhi human-rights activists and lawyers representing sexual and gender minorities, the Presbyterian Synod of Mizoram and civil-society bodies, such as the Young Mizo Association, strongly opposed the order. “Homosexuality is against all religious ethics and the culture of Indian society,” the church wrote to the union government. “We feel that the Indian society is safeguarded by the IPC section 377 from unnatural and anti-social behaviour.” The synod argued that homosexuality threatened the very basis of the family structure and that it is “against the natural order of God’s purpose in creating both sexes.”

In December 2013, the Supreme Court recriminalised gay sex by overturning the 2009 judgment, arguing that the LGBT community formed a “miniscule minority of the country’s population.” In failing to take seriously the many testimonies that spoke of indiscriminate abuse suffered by the queer community at the hands of the police, their families and state authorities, the apex court deprived the community of its most fundamental legal rights. A few months after this judgment, in 2014, a different bench in the Supreme Court gave legal recognition to the transgender community as a third gender category. This was a substantial victory as it directed the government to institute provisions such as health benefits, quotas in jobs and the inclusion of the third category in admission forms, passports and voter identity cards. In its judgment, the court made multiple references to Section 377 and evoked the same sections of the Constitution that were used to make a case for the 2009 Delhi high court judgment. It stated, “Each person’s self defined sexual-orientation and gender identity is integral to their personality and is one of the most basic aspects of self-determination, dignity and freedom.”

In Mizoram, it is evident that courts do not hold much sway over locals. Instead, the Church commands moral authority on matters of interpersonal relations and alternative sexualities. The synod’s break-up with the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 2012, over the ordination of gay ministers, created more furore in the state than the decriminalisation and subsequent re-criminalisation of same sex relations by Indian courts.

Up until 1980, the United Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in the US had voted against the ordination of gay candidates. The reunited Presbyterian Church (USA), which brought the two factions together, allowed the ordination of non-celibate gay men and lesbian women in 2010. Two years later the Mizoram Synod delinked their ties with them. In June 2012, the Mizoram Synod stated the open practice of the Presbyterian Church (USA) ordaining gay ministers and officiating same sex marriages was a reason for their breakaway. “Given the legal standing of section 377 in India, the Church felt it was important to witness our faith and stand on the issue,” Reverend Zosangliana Colney, who served as the Secretary General of the Synod Executive Committee, said.

The ordination of gay and lesbian pastors in the Synod is still a pipe dream in Mizoram, where even women are not allowed to become preachers. However, Reverend Lalramliana Pachuau, senior executive secretary of the Synod, is not rigidly opposed to the idea of ordaining women pastors. “Amazingly enough, Khasi society is matrilineal but they would not accept women ordination. Evangelists in Shillong cite scriptures in the Bible that do not allow women to be ordained as ministers. The Presbyterian circle shares this kind of biblical interpretation,” he said.

Many churches in Mizoram do not entirely cast out their sinners, as some news headlines suggest. Those found to be in same-sex relationships are singled out and given a cooling period of six months to rethink their choices. During this time, they are not banned from coming to church, but encouraged to seek spiritual counselling to guide them “back to the flock.” However, they cannot “partake in the Holy Communion, preach, read the Bible, lead prayers, be part of the choir or play deacon,” according to Reverend Pachuau. “Gay couples will always be a part of the church but they cannot participate in the ministry.” He claims that to date, no one has been excommunicated for being gay or in a same-sex relationship. Most times, churches do not need to go that far.

RECONCILING HIS QUEER IDENTITY with his faith took a toll on Mahlui, who began struggling with depression. In 2014, a Baptist minister introduced him to a woman on Facebook, with whom he started talking online. Bohboh, 28 years old, identifies as a patil—a term used for lesbians or women who dress up like men. She had started reading the scriptures in a different light after several fellow Christians told her that she would go to hell because of her sexual orientation. A little less than ten years ago, she moved to New Delhi, where she divides her time between working in a non-profit and pursuing church activities. Unlike many queer people from the Northeast, who express themselves more freely in the comfort of anonymity that a big city offers, Bohboh is more careful about who she comes out to.

“Pastor Puiia thought I could help Mahlui come to terms with her sexuality and faith,” Bohboh said to me when I met her in New Delhi. In the beginning she had trouble getting Mahlui to open up. “I told him that we will go to heaven as Christians but he refused to believe me and even stopped talking to me.” A few months later, however, Mahlui had a change of heart and together they started an online support group for LGBT Mizo Christians on Facebook with another founder based in Shillong.

The group, Bohboh told me, is an underground collective, operating as a loose network that might meet on and off. They printed a booklet titled, “Redemption as an LGBT Christian”—a primer on the basics of sexuality and gender, which also tackled biblical verses condemning homosexuality by countering them with verses that emphasised general principles of acceptance. The book contains a foreword written by Mahlui on his childhood and struggle with accepting himself as a Christian. “I started liking this girl in class 8. It worried me a lot,” he wrote. “I asked god why he made me feel this way, like a man in a woman’s body because I did not have any feminine trait in me.”

Evangelical preachers such as Pu Sawma argue the church has been sitting idle on transgender issues. “They’ll never dedicate a sermon on transgenders, who only come up in jokes. My heart breaks for them because they are not like that out of choice. They were born that way and we have to do something for them,” he said.

As a self-identifying “butch,” Bohboh came out to her cousin and her “tomboy” friends. “One of my younger aunts accepts gay relationships but not the sex part,” she said. Bohboh faces a lot of resistance from tuais and patils, many of whom have called her a “false preacher.” She said that they would always try to first change how they feel, as she herself had once attempted. “I tried dating a guy. It was mostly online but I wanted to puke every time he would sweet-talk me. He knew I was patil and had girlfriends before but he wanted to help me.”

The patils, she explained, have been made to feel like outcasts from the church, where all they have heard is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and many of them have accepted that they are going to hell. “Once I wore pant-shirt to church and on that day, the pastor from the pulpit made fun of tomboys and everyone in the church laughed,” Bohboh said. “I felt so bad. I asked god why were we created only for people to laugh at us.” Just as she was looking for answers to her anguish in the Bible, she came across a link on Facebook. In the link, a gay American pastor explained how Jesus talked about three kinds of eunuchs. “For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

“This verse encouraged me to start reading the bible from a gay perspective,” Bohboh said. She wrote the booklet over eight months, compiling information from the website and the “Blue Book” published by TARSHI, a New Delhi based non-profit. In the book, Bohboh warns against pastors and preachers who try to cure homosexuality. “It is forbidden in the Bible. God has already died for our salvation,” she wrote. “Priests, pastors, etc. have influenced the minds of Homosexuals and Bisexuals that they can never attain salvation as long as they are gay. This is why gay people tend to commit suicide.”

I asked what kept theologians or pastors in Mizoram from reading the Bible through this lens. “They believe in the doctrine that they have been trained in,” Bohboh replied. “Even in gospel camp, the Presbyterian Church would tell tuais and patils that they can be saved as long as they changed. A friend of mine attended this camp and tried to change herself after being ‘born-again.’ A couple of weeks later, she attempted to take her own life because she couldn’t reform herself and thought god must hate her for not being able to.” It is because of Bohboh’s interventions that her friend is alive today.


IN OCTOBER 2013, GOOSH VANGCHHIA, a young florist, appeared on a local talk show on the LPS channel to discuss his gay Christian identity. In a state where all discourse on sexuality is tightly controlled by the church, this was an unprecedented moment. Vangchhia, widely respected as an English teacher in his hometown Lunglei, became the first public figure in Mizoram to come out as a gay man. The interviewer asked about his journey with God. “From a very young age our family was truly devoted to God,” Vangchhia replied. “But I came to know of its value only recently.” When he was younger, Vangchhia was a proud quasi-femme who dressed up flamboyantly in church. While he did not face active discrimination from the church, he had heard many preachers condemn and make fun of gay and transgender people from the pulpit.

“People really looked down on me. However, I was persistent and still loved god,” he said in the interview. “After I was reborn, my faith in god became stronger and now I’m just like an infant.” He was referring to his recent participation in a gospel camp, organised by the Synod and LPS channel exclusively for Christians categorised as “not normal.”

“At the time, I was drinking and partying too much. I lived that kind of lifestyle that wasn’t really healthy and had my share of gay life sexual experiences,” he said. Vangchhia was surprised to find the speaker at the camp approach the queer community with warmth and acceptance, something he was not used to. “Pu Sawma told me my past was already gone but the present was in my control. If I stopped smoking, drinking and having sex, I will be loving God everyday.”

A week after the camp ended, Goosh cancelled dinner plans with his friends and threw out all the women’s wear in his closet. He was born again.

Bible camps—or “camping” as it is often called in Mizoram—are a common feature of Christian life in many parts of the world, organised especially for the youth and those deemed social misfits such as drug and alcohol abusers, sex workers and the queer community. The Synod Social Front conducted the camp Vangchhia attended in 2013. It does not mention outreach with the queer community on its website, although it does for drug and alcohol addicts and people living with HIV.

When asked about what purpose gospel camps serve for the LGBT community, Hming Mawia, the Executive Secretary of the Synod Social Front Executive Committee, promptly said, “Revival.”

“The mission,” Mawia said, “is to provide them the real life of Christ, to convert them into Christianity.”

But are they not already Christians?

“They aren’t deep into Christianity. They have to join the church service and activities and live like others,” Mawia insisted.

Noting the “success” of the first one, the Synod organised another camp in 2015, which the preacher Pu Lal Sawma presided over. “At least half of the participants have gone back to their natural ways and are counselling other transgenders,” Pu Sawma told me. While counselling queer people, Pu Sawma says that he usually begins with asking them to accept the “disability” they are born with.

I asked Dustin Lalkulhpuia, who anchors a sports show on the LPS Vision cable network, about why his channel chose to play a role in organising these camps. He told me that the network wanted to actively support the integration of queer lives with Christian doctrine. “The main concept of the camping was to make these gay people not feel reluctant to take part in church activities,” he said. “You can’t exclude these people from church, by rule. If they are coming up for activities, you can’t reject them.” When asked if he had ever heard about of any queer members being excommunicated, Lalkulhpuia said he never heard of such a case. “For a church member to face excommunication, they have to write a confessional letter to the church elders as it happens in the case of people who have pre marital sex.” Lalkulhpuia claims that unless the concerned person submits the letter, the church has no authority to excommunicate them. Pu Sawma offered his rationale for this rule. “If someone with an addiction has to be born in Christ, then he has to leave drugs. The same thing happens for transgender. They have to crucify those feelings within. We have to suffer to follow Jesus.”

Much has been written about the revivalist side of the Church, where many of its practitioners adopt an inclusive approach to their queer congregation, instead of stern condemnation. Reverend Lawmsanga wrote a paper titled, “Misuse of Sex between Same Sex” which said, “While condemning the homosexuals, it should be known and accepted that they are also ‘souls’ who need salvation and redemption like everybody else and every sinner.” Presbyterian theologians Marvin M Ellison and Sylvia Thorson Smith said that, “While outright hostility toward homosexual persons has been replaced by tolerance and just as often by pity, Christians are admonished to love the sinner, hate the sin.”

THE PROBLEM WITH SPIRITUAL COUNSELLING is that salvation or redemption—ergo, acceptance—is contingent on bringing about a change in behaviour. This condition makes the conflict between queer people’s sexual orientation and religious faith even worse, according to Maengi Tlau, a clinical psychologist in Aizawl. Most of her clients, she says, are self-referred, and they would not have come to her unless they were experiencing associated mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, given how taboo the subject of sexuality is.

“Families don’t want to accept that their child is facing these issues, and it’s difficult to tackle this issue without them since Mizo society is heavily reliant on the family structure,” Tlau said. “On top of that, they don’t have an advocacy group speaking out for their rights. I work in the psychiatry department of a government hospital, where there isn’t any specific help provided to them, like a helpline.”

Although Mizoram State AIDS Control Society has worked on HIV/AIDS prevention in the state since 1990, they keep blinders on when it comes to communities that have not been classified as carriers or key risk groups. Betty Lalthantluangi, the co-director at the organisation, admitted the staff is not equipped to counsel the queer community. “We don’t really deal with their issues of gender and sexuality because we ourselves don’t have enough literature or training in it,” she said. “Some of the young MSM struggle with their faith and sexuality for which we have no answers.” The organisation then turns to spiritual counsellors to step in, who try and help the individuals accept themselves without crossing the boundaries set by the church.

The Mizoram state government has done very little since the Supreme Court judgment on transgender rights. So far it has only formed a committee under the social welfare department, which conducted baseline research to study the problems of the transgender community in 2015 and suggested measures for its welfare. The study found that nearly 35 percent tended to be socially reclusive and about 40 percent of transgender persons were not religiously involved. More than half were mistreated at work, did not have health insurance and fell in the low-income bracket. The last five reports from the National AIDS Control Organisation show that not a single person under the third gender category was accounted for in their targeted interventions. When asked about the implementation of these measures, Laldikkimi, the co-director of the social welfare department said that the department was overburdened with the welfare of the disabled, women and children. “Except for the study in Aizawl city, we haven’t done anything due to funding constraints. Since this issue is not very pressing, it often gets neglected,” she said.

The marginalised existence and the absence of social support has taken a considerable toll on the mental health of gender-variant individuals. In academic research, the only study conducted so far was by the psychologist Lalhmingsangi Pachuau, who compared straight and gay men on clinical scales of depression, aggression, life satisfaction and subjective well-being. The heterosexual sample scored higher on well-being and satisfaction with life than the homosexual sample, who scored higher on distress. A thought-provoking revelation in Pachuau’s research shows that the heterosexual male sample scored higher on the subscales of physical aggression, anger and hostility, indicating that gender-conforming behaviour, even when it is threatening or harmful, is tolerated over behaviour that goes against the teachings of the church.

CONSIDERING SHE HAS INADVERTENTLY BEEN CALLED A PREACHER, it was hard to resist asking Bohboh if she harbours any interest in becoming the first gay woman pastor. She shook her head but said, “I want to be a free evangelist for LGBT people and learn more about the bible so we could have more debate on this topic.” For now, her dream is miles away, as is the possibility of coming out publicly.

When we last spoke, in February, she was in Aizawl conducting the first ever prayer meeting for the Mizo LGBT Christian community. The site of the meet, which was to be held in a rented accommodation in the city, shifted to Mahlui’s home at the last moment after the landlady gauged what they were up to. “She knew we were LGBT and were organising a prayer group. But she didn’t allow us after realising that we weren’t trying to cure anyone,” Bohboh said.

Vangchhia no longer looks to the church for spiritual validation. He runs a full-time operation out of Hrangbana Business House in Chanmari in the centre of Aizawl, and his business is in high demand with the city’s high-society, government, private companies and even the church. With Vangchhia’s educational background, creativity and position in metropolitan culture—he is the creative editor of the newly launched magazine Mizo—he is enviably seen as the pinnacle of where most gay men want to be in Mizoram today: out, proud and successful.

But his comfort with his sexuality is not simply because of his career or social standing. In his days as a born-again Christian, he says he was extremely judgmental. “I had become so self-righteous, a ‘Christian Taliban,’ who thought he was very pure in the eyes of the lord since I was really abstaining myself. I knew then that self-righteousness would not deliver me to God,” he said.

Away from the abstinence-centred approach of the church, Vangchhia found his personal salvation in passionate readings of the scriptures. He argued that verses condemning homosexuality are taken out of context from the Bible. “Christ has saved each and every one of us, including gays and lesbians,” he said. When we spoke over the phone two months ago, he appeared excited about being the maid of honour at his best friend’s wedding. “I’d like to think that someday I would get married. But to a boy, not a girl.”

Two months later, he told me that he would not be the maid of honour. The Baptist church did not give him permission.

Makepeace Sitlhou is an independent journalist based in Guwahati, Assam. She tweets at @makesyoucakes. She is a National Foundation for India fellow.