Sister Pavithra’s vision for the Church’s role in promoting transgender welfare has not gone uncontested within the Church itself. Caritas India, the Catholic social development arm in India, started developing a program last year to assist the trans community. But the organization faced backlash after its director, Father Frederick D’Souza, said that the Church’s official stance was to support only “biological transgenders,” individuals who, without the use of hormones or surgery, develop genitalia that conflicts with the gender they were assigned at birth.
“Feeling and perception are entirely different than reality,” D’Souza told me when asked why the Church would make a distinction between these individuals and others who identify as transgender. “The Church has difficulty, because that goes beyond the definition of male/female and God’s own creation. So that orientation is difficult to accept.”
Sister Pavithra doesn’t appear bothered by the Church’s ideological split regarding trans people. “We take them all up,” she said simply. “We are 6,000 sisters. We have so many institutions. We are known to the society. Unless and until we take them up, how will they come up?” She is convinced that any of the Carmelite nuns in Kerala who disagree will come around, especially as the convent’s superiors generally believe in helping the transgender community. “They have various opinions,” she said. “If we consider everybody’s opinion, nothing will take place in the world.”
But Sister Pavithra worries about the future of Sahaj and Mallika’s ability to make the executive decisions needed to keep the school afloat. The Carmelites invested roughly $8,000 to buy furniture and supplies for Sahaj, and Sister Pavithra attributes part of the school’s difficulties to its rushed opening and Mallika’s lack of administrative acumen.
“Any new beginning has got its own problems. It takes time, even for a normal school. A transgender school? We have miles to go ahead,” the nun said.
For now, Mallika plans to have Sahaj continue as a shelter for trans people, and then try to persuade them to take classes while there. “Let them come here and use this shelter, and if they find that they don’t have education and they want to learn, we are always ready to educate them,” Mallika said.
Sister Pavithra is no longer focused on recruiting students for Sahaj. Instead, along with other Carmelite sisters, she has conceived of a new initiative to help trans youth by educating children in Carmelite-run schools about what it means to be transgender. She hopes that by speaking to their own students, sisters will be able to foster empathy for trans people in the Catholic community and encourage trans students in their schools to come to them for support and counseling.
The sisters are committed to offering these trans students financial support to complete their higher education, in part to dissuade them from ever going into sex work. Rather than funnel students into Sahaj, the Carmelites hope to ensure that they never drop out of school to begin with. Plans for the initiative are just starting to come together, but Sister Pavithra hopes that they can launch the program when the Indian school year begins in June.
“Of course it can happen in Kerala,” Sister Pavithra said. “These are all the initial struggles to take up a new responsibility. I said, ‘Mallika, you are the first generation. Us sisters, we may be part of it, and maybe [by] the third generation, we will see the fruits. It will take.’”