Ten years ago, Bharathi, then a teenager, would dance with other transgender friends in the streets of Chennai for money. But now as a Protestant pastor she leads the faithful in worship and plans to minister to her fellow transgenders.
Pastor Bharathi, 28, of the Evangelical Church of India, a Protestant church active in South India, is widely considered the first transgender pastor in the country.
“I feel like a special person,” she says. But her life has been full of tears, agony and hardship.
Born as Bharath Raja, she was the third child and first son to a Hindu family near the coastal district of Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu state.
“I realized I was different as I was growing up. Deep down I felt I was a woman while all the while I was being treated like a boy,” she told ucanews.com.
Her family was angry at her feminine traits and repeatedly told her to act like a boy. The taunts and pressure were so great she even attempted to kill herself.
It was during her struggle with her sexuality in school that she was introduced to Christianity. “I believed in Jesus from a young age,” she said.
Her father would often beat her for attending church, she recalled. But she held firm to her faith.
After finishing her schooling and being unable to take the pressure from her family any more, she ran away to the state capital Chennai and joined a group of transgender people.
"I learned their ways, culture and how they survived in difficult situations. I felt comfortable with them," Bharathi said.
Transgender people generally live on the margins of society and work as commercial sex workers or beg for a living, according to Angel Glady, a transgender activist and member of an NGO working for their welfare.
India has an estimated 500,000 transgender people, who can be generally seen on the streets and at railway stations begging for money. They also do street performances to make a living since they are not accepted in normal social life.
"Suicide rates are highest among us, most have psychological problems, and generally their average life expectancy is less than others," Glady told ucanews.com.
"Everything is difficult for us ... obtaining food, clothing and shelter," Angel said.
Luckily, there has been more political acceptance for transgender people in Tamil Nadu over the last six years. The state has introduced several welfare measures for transgender people like free sex change surgery, housing, separate welfare boards and accepting transgender people as a “third sex.”
In 2007, Bharathi underwent sex change surgery to complete her transformation into a woman. All the while she kept her faith in Christ and love for working among transgender people, she said.
Bharathi’s break came when a Protestant helped her through a theology course to become a pastor. In 2011 she graduated in theology and became the first transgender graduate of India's Serampore University in West Bengal.
“She is a dedicated and committed person and a unique personality," said Bishop Ezra Sargunam of the Evangelical Church of India.
“We had no issues with a transgender person doing ministry work,“ the prelate said.
Glady, a Catholic, said Bharathi being accepted into a ministry "is definitely a sign of our acceptance" in Christian society.
Rural parishioners with whom she works accepted her for who she is.
“She is good in teaching scriptures, and does good work in our community,” said Dayalan, one of her parishioners.
Bharathi’s estranged family finally accepted her after she became a pastor.
“One can live a holy life despite being a transgender,” said Pastor Bharathi, who now plans to set up an orphanage for HIV positive transgender people and a counseling center.
“I am not angry with God for creating me like this, I only see myself as an instrument to glorify his name,” she said.
“One day I hope to get married and lead a beautiful family life,” she said with a smile.
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