When Nuns Tried to Kick-Start India's First Transgender School

It didn’t exactly work out as planned.

Faisal, one of the transgender residents at Sahaj, a school-turned-shelter in Kerala, India.
Faisal, one of the transgender residents at Sahaj, a school-turned-shelter in Kerala, India. (Teresa Mathew)

On a sunlit day in mid-December, humid and ripe as South India winters tend to be, six Carmelite nuns invited the transgender activist Vijayaraja Mallika over for tea. They sat inside the Provincial House of the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (CMC) to discuss Mallika’s new venture: a school for transgender people in the state of Kerala. The sisters knew Mallika was still looking for a building to house the school she had named Sahaj, which means “natural” in Hindi. They asked if Mallika wanted to see what they were willing to offer her.

Splitting themselves between an auto-rickshaw and a public bus, the sisters and the activist rode past palm trees, tech offices, and paddy fields to the spot they had in mind: an unused building that the CMC convent had once intended to turn into a dormitory.

Mallika looked at the size of the structure, the roomy kitchen and sunny terrace. She was so overwhelmed that she burst into tears. The building was not only a concrete way to get her school started, it was also indicative of an entirely new support system. The Carmelites, she realized, could become unlikely allies for transgender activists pushing for education and acceptance in Kerala.

Sister Pavithra, a counselor and social worker, first learned of the school last November, when CMC nuns attended a local meeting of social workers and sisters. There, Mallika spoke about how she had looked at almost 700 properties to no avail; some were too small, while others closed their doors when the owners learned what would be done with the space. Sister Pavithra took up the issue with her convent’s administrative council and advocated that they retrofit one of their vacant buildings into a school.

The six council members approved the lease, with the blessing of the local bishop. It was an important endorsement in Kerala, where the Church is a powerful social and political arbiter in a state that is nearly 20 percent Catholic. The Church has no official doctrine regarding transgender identity, but most Catholic churches (especially in the United States) have distanced themselves from the issue. However, the Carmelites are Catholic nuns whose mission revolves around three elements: prayer, community, and service. For Sister Pavithra and her convent’s council, helping the trans community through education seemed like a natural blend of the latter two elements.

When the school was inaugurated on December 30, 2016, media organizations reported that Sahaj had 10 students and intended to offer accredited online classes through the National Institute of Open Schooling as well as vocational training to trans dropouts in their 20s and 30s. It was the first school of its kind in India, and the first time the Catholic Church had gotten involved in such a capacity with the issue of transgender education.

Vijayaraja Mallika and Sister Pavithra collaborated on Sahaj (Teresa Mathew)

But three months later, Sahaj has no teachers, no accreditation, and no students. Mallika never got around to hiring teachers, and the few students who briefly attended left, partly due to a lack of direction for the program. Sahaj is now functioning only as a shelter: The dormitory and kitchen are used by four trans people training to become workers for the forthcoming metro system. The school isn’t suffering because of a lack of need in this conservative South Indian state. Instead, various factors have impeded the school’s success: social stigma, weak direction, and a failure to anticipate the needs of the larger trans community.

According to a 2014 government survey, there are an estimated 25,000 trans people in Kerala, out of a total state population of over 34 million. (By contrast, California has a transgender population of around 218,000, out of a total population of roughly 39 million.) Kerala boasts a higher literacy rate for both men and women than any of India’s other 28 states. But 58 percent of transgender students in the state drop out before completing 10th grade and 24 percent drop out before ninth grade, driven in large part by familial abandonment and bullying from their peers. Mallika is well aware of the physical and verbal abuse transgender youth face in schools; she attempted suicide twice as a student.

Educational challenges are compounded by employment discrimination. Of the 4,000 trans people in Kerala’s 2014 survey, only 11.6 percent had regular jobs, and 89 percent reported mistreatment at work. (Those surveyed were either of working age or were not attending school.) All the respondents said they had been denied a job due to their gender identity. Despite graduating second in her class from Calicut University and earning a graduate degree, for example, Mallika was fired from a job after three months once her employers learned that she was transgender. Faisal, one of the trans people training to work for the metro system and currently staying at Sahaj, dropped out of school after being bullied and blamed by teachers for provoking the mistreatment. What followed, Faisal said, was a dim period that involved working in a hotel, suffering from sexual harassment, and being either underpaid or not paid at all by a boss who suspected that trans people would not dare to go to the police for help.

In 2014, India’s Supreme Court ruled that transgender people could officially identify themselves as “third gender” on official documents and determined that they were entitled to the same rights as any other group—including inheritance, employment, and marriage rights. At a state level, Kerala created a Transgender Policy in 2015, which adds additional protections for the trans community. But neither the Supreme Court ruling nor the Transgender Policy has significantly altered much in the everyday lives of trans people. Mallika and Faisal, along with others in the community, say they have seen little improvement in social or economic discrimination since the policy’s passage.

Faisal believes that the social stigma trans people face in Kerala is partly due to a lack of a hijra community in the state. Hijras are transgender, intersex, and transsexual people who live within a strict hierarchical community, and are found mostly in neighboring Tamil Nadu and further north in states like Maharashtra and Gujarat. While hijras are rarely integrated into society, they are often viewed as divine and are a known entity that does not arouse the same suspicion as trans people in Kerala. (Hinduism has a long tradition of embracing gender fluidity; in myths and religious texts, a god may appear as male and female at different times or even at the same time, and human beings can undergo sex changes through curses or blessings.)

Many hijras and a majority of trans people in Kerala work in the sex trade to support themselves; Mallika and Sister Pavithra both estimated that roughly 90 percent of trans people in the state are sex workers, though there is no hard data on the subject. Faisal believes that part of Sahaj’s enrollment problem is that trans sex workers don’t want to risk a loss in income by attending an unproven school—especially if they may not get a job afterward. “More people will come only when we have an employment opportunity,” Mallika said.

Both Mallika and Sister Pavithra said it was difficult to persuade sex workers to leave behind a life they had grown accustomed to in order to fit into the comparatively regimented world of a school like Sahaj.

“Once they are into sex work, it is very difficult to get them back to a track,” said Sister Pavithra. “We cannot blame them, because society never accepts [them]. We have not given them any earning system other than sex work or begging.”

“After 9 [p.m.] it’s not easy for us to get out [of Sahaj’s dormitory] because it’s run by sisters,” Mallika said. “I haven’t seen very many transgenders who can be in a restricted system.”

What’s more, the Carmelite sisters occasionally try to persuade trans people to wear clothing associated with the gender they were assigned at birth. According to Sister Teslin, one of two nuns currently staying in Sahaj’s building, the nuns will sometimes try to curb behaviors that they fear may alienate society from trans people. Sister Teslin said the sisters just want trans individuals to be able to “blend in, gain acceptance, and avoid ridicule.” She stressed that the nuns do not believe in so-called “conversion therapy” or in changing trans people’s minds about their own gender identity.

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.’”