ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Love and God on the Margins

The first female rector of St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, New York, the Reverend Winnie Varghese, daughter of Kerala Christian parents, is openly and proudly gay.

The receptionist at the guest house of the United Theological College (UTC) in Bengaluru (Bangalore) looks blank when I ask for the room number of the Reverend Winnie Varghese. She consults a male staff member who seems equally clueless. “From New York?” I prompt her. The woman’s face brightens. She tells the man in Tamil, “Ah, antha ponnu (that girl)”. Few people on the vast UTC campus would know that this unassuming slip of a ponnu, wearing an aquamarine handloom kurta and looking every inch the daughter that she is of Kerala Christian parents, is the 42-year-old rector of St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, New York’s oldest site of continuous religious practice. Fewer still would know that she is the first female rector in the Episcopalian church’s 350-year history, and was openly gay when she took the cloth over two decades ago.

On the afternoon I meet her, she has just returned from an interview on Q Radio, India’s only internet radio channel dedicated to the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) community. On the previous day, she had delivered a talk at the Indian Social Institute (ISI) as part of a campaign against homophobia. Among the many hurdles before the Indian LGBT community – which include guilt, conflict about identity, social stigma and parental rejection – are the strictures that some religions have laid down against homosexuality. This can be distressing for those who wish to pursue their faith, and Winnie Varghese, seen from their perspective, is in an enviable position: not only does she practise her religion but she also preaches it. When she was made rector in 2012, she had already been living for some years with her partner Elizabeth and her two children, and she was quoted (in The Local, 15 October 2012) as saying that St Mark’s welcomed “those who felt ostracised by the church for being who they are and for who they love”.

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