Thursday, October 27, 2011

Preaching to the Choir: Tourism, Sexuality and the Church

There is good reason for the representatives and leaders of the Archdiocese of Goa to be terrified when they are reported to be on the same side as the Hindu Right on any issue. Regardless of whether they have a valid point or not, the Hindu Right seeks not to encourage a discussion, but to impose its fiat, and quell discussion. The Catholic Church in India, like any of the other minorities cannot afford to lend its shoulder, willingly or unwillingly, to such a power, no matter what the provocation, for eventually, this power that they support, will grow to consume them.

The reference is obviously to the debacle surrounding the cancellation of the ‘knowledge session’ on LGBT tourism at the Goa International Travel Mart. Most news reports on this episode suggested that Hindu rightwing groups, and the Catholic Church were in solidarity on this issue. When spokesperson for the Bharat Swabhiman trust Kamlesh Bandekar indicated that they would “lobby hard with…like-minded people against such a trend” one wonders if he had the Catholic Church in mind.

If one is not to join forces with the likes of the Hindu Right, then the option for democratically inclined individuals and groups is not to oppose outright, but to engage in critique. Critique then, is what this column will attempt, not only the Government’s plan, but of the response of the Archdiocese, through its social justice organ the Centre for Social Justice and Peace (CSJP).Link

The statement of the CSJP was deeply disturbing because it seems to have drawn from a well of homophobia, of the kind that has led to violent hate acts against persons of different sexuality. In suggesting in its statement that, “The organisers have stayed short of including paedophiles in their list, since child sex is also a preference of a few” the CSJP is making a number of critical mistakes. Sexual acts between members of the same sex are based on consent between two adults. Paedophilia is markedly not based on this consent. Furthermore, relations between homosexual persons are not based on sex alone. It is also, and primarily the desire of persons of the same sex to emotionally relate to each other. Finally, transgendered persons are markedly not about sex, but about gender change. The CSJP seems to have not realised that sexuality is not about sex alone.

In phrasing its statement the way it has, the CSJP appears to have drawn on the kind of phobic stereotypes that see people of differing sexuality as sex-crazed, immoral seducers and rapists. This is not just unfortunate, but profoundly irresponsible, because it is these sorts of positions that encourage society to the violence against these groups. Furthermore, this hate-act stands in violent contrast to the position of the universal Catholic Church. No matter what our differences with the position of the Church, one has to admit that it has actively sought to not engage in, or condone, homophobic violence. In its critical document, ‘Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons’; the emphasis is, as you will see, ‘care’. The statement of the CSJP is thus not only guilty in light of secular principles, but also in light of the larger principle established by the Church.

This column is not a defence of the plans of the Dept. of Tourism. It is merely the desire to see in operation a more humane and critical approach to the situation. Indeed from within the Christian oeuvre, the reported statement of Fr. Francisco Caldeira, "We cannot alienate these people. No one can prevent them from coming here, but why does the government need to be oriented towards them," is much more acceptable, and can form the basis of reasonable critique of the Department’s plans.

The basis of the social teaching of the church rests, among other fundamental principles, on a recognition of the dignity of the individual. From the reports available, it is not clear what exactly the Tourism department had planned. Some suggest that what was being attempted was merely a sensitization to LGBT issues, which judging from the statement of the CSJP would have been highly welcome. However, the explanations offered in the wake of the hullabaloo reveal another, not surprising dimension of the tourism industry. The statements of Rika Jean-Francois, Thomas Bomkes, who represented international industry, and those of State tourism director Swapnil Naik indicate that what motivates the agenda is not only a desire to humanely respond to the needs of LGBT persons, but to also exploit their difference commercially. This would follow the trend in large parts of the world where LGBT right are recognized, where what was originally a movement for the recognition to be able to love (in the sense of an emotional relation) without prejudice, has largely been commercially colonized to allow persons to have sex. This arrangement is perverse given that not only is the individual exploited by the system itself, but under the influence of this system, individuals tend to see others merely as providers of sexual pleasure. As with most forms of consumerist exploitation, that allow us to feel like we are exercising a choice, after the initial buzz of hedonist indulgence, we are left with the same craving for affection that we started out with.

The dilemma of contemporary times however, is that the two come in a package. For all its problems, the tourism industry has also been the vehicle for great amounts of liberation. Despite initial opposition, by the Church and segments of Goa’s elite, tourism was the critical tool that allowed for a widespread destruction of the feudal system in Goa, offering otherwise impoverished tenants the economic options to materially improve their lives. It allowed women and children to escape patriarchal abuse, even as they continue to uphold the standard model of the family. If we have not been able to prevent this material explosion from sliding into the desert of the soul that tourism in Goa now represents, then it is because we have failed our mission. It is a failing of the Church, of the Department of Tourism, and of our society at large, that it has not been able to use this material wealth to allow for a concomitant explosion of the intellectual and sentimental (both being forms of the spiritual) options of those who have been materially liberated.

There are two images of the Church that I hold particularly dear, the first of the Church as confessor, a spiritual and moral guide; the second, that of the Church as pilgrim. The pilgrim stands as a symbol of one who is cognizant of not holding the entire truth, and simultaneously vulnerable, bereft of power, and yet committed to the journey. We may be well-served by these images when we contemplate the response of the Church to situations that demand a response. As a pilgrim Church, we are not in the position to dictate or command. More so in the context of the rise of an authoritarian power like the Hindu Right. We cannot comprehend the manner in which an act that on the surface appears abominable may bring liberation. As such, the job of the pilgrim confessor is to accompany us, whispering insistently at all times the options before us, actively constructing alternative paths for us to follow. In addition to being unacceptably homophobic, the CSJP in its statement seems to have held out the Goan social structure as based on an unblemished moral and value system. Something it is not, and never ever was. We would benefit more perhaps, if rather than flinging diktats, it accompanied Goan society; insistently, even to our annoyance, being our moral compass, while simultaneously leaving us, as does its image of God the Father, free choice.

(A version was first published in the Gomantak Times 26 Oct 2011)

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