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Why we need to break the chains of gay people
September 27, 2006
The backlash against the movement has also started building up and now covers a whole spectrum from lunatic fringe right-wing groups to the equally loony liberals.
Some of the voices for keeping the sodomy laws are the usual set of culprits with the same old tired arguments confusing same-sex love with pedophilia, equating homosexuality with species suicide, and even a rather funny Shiv Sena argument that if 'all women became lesbians the population would collapse and India would get de-populated.'
However, what interests me now is the way the political class is appropriating and co-opting the gay movement without looking at the health angle. In fact the only sensible statement till date that I can relate to has been the affidavit from the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) saying that Section 377 has 'become a hindrance in reaching out to and accessing population on the margins of society like men-having-sex (MSM) in the national effort to prevention and control HIV/AIDS.'
The real success of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) movement in India over the last decade has been to get gay men, hijras and male prostitutes into the inner core of the government's health programmes.
I remember that when I attended my first AIDS Conference in Montreal in 1989 (it was actually the Fifth International AIDS Conference) the Indian health ministry had insisted that there were no homosexuals in India and gays existed only in the 'decadent and debauched Western world' (in fact, these were the exact words used by the health official in Montreal).
The fact that in the year 2006, the budgetary guidelines published by NACO, mention MSM and hijras (eunuchs) as the 'core population infected and affected by HIV and AIDS' is the biggest achievement till date for the GLBT community. The recent letter was the icing on the cake which means the gay movement will most probably see the light at the end of the tunnel.
As a plenary speaker at the recent Outgames in Montreal where a pre-games human rights conference brought out homosexual issues into brilliant focus on a planetary scale, mine was strangely the only argument to look into the health issues of the emerging gay communities in Asia.
It is no use having our human rights if millions of our communities are decimated by HIV, AIDS and new drug resistant sexually transmitted infections (STIs) now spreading rapidly in the gay ghettoes of San Francisco, New York and Berlin.
In India, the first sentinel surveillance of hijras at Mumbai's Sion Hospital in 2005 gave a horrendous 49.5 per cent prevalence, which means one out of every two hijras will be dying if we don't get them medication soon.
It has to be understood that the gay movement in China and India are presently poised on a single track engine that really must run on two tracks. One track is the health issues of sexual minorities. By tackling them head on, hijras, gay and lesbian communities can be empowered to take charge of their lives, engage their mental and physical health issues and join the mainstream of national life.
The other track is the human rights one. By removing laws which criminalise same-sex activity, these communities can join the mainstream, demand rights which facilitate access to health facilities and get on with their lives. Today, it is a criminal offence if a doctor does not report a patient with anal STIs because he can be arrested for being an accessory to a crime already committed (anal sex).
The ridiculous argument that there have not been many prosecutions under Section 377 is laughable. Ask any gay man how many times he has become a victim of violence, extortion and blackmail with just the subtle threat of a policeman, goonda or even a friend trying to put the soft touch. Every gay man I have met carries at least one sorry tale of violence from police, goondas and assorted anti-socials who thrive on the gay world.
Among lesbians, one of the biggest problems is alcoholism and it needs to be tackled as a mental health problem on a priority scale. This came out along with depression and lack of access to both counseling on sexual rights. Lesbians amazingly have been the first ones who have started fighting heterosexist society by eloping and willfully living together as same-sex couples in Asia.
In this they have stolen a march over gay men, a majority of whom are married to women and immediately jump on a bisexual and 'bi-curious' bandwagon. The few gay couples I have met are happily stuck in a never-ending rut of partying and liberal mumbo-jumbo.
The fight to remove anti-sodomy laws is much bigger and goes beyond being just a fight for sexual rights. It cannot possibly move forward without a whole gamut of reforms around women's issues. The anti-rape laws have to be reformed along with Section 377; they are humiliating for women who can be questioned in court over intimate details which need to be heard in camera.
Male rape has never been addressed except under Section 377 where even the victim can be jailed for 10 years, which is why it is seldom reported. Rape and molestation of minors needs separate laws on the statute books and needs to be separated so that same-sex relations and pedophilia are not mixed into an unholy cocktail.
In fact, the Lawyers Collective has a whole slew of reforms suggested through consensus from workshops held all over the country. But, of course, the present movement against Section 377 will be the main battle ram to break through this bottleneck in the reform of such laws.
I think the next step is going to come from the Women's Health Movement. I wonder how many have observed that we have no faculty which looks into anything but the reproductive health of women. Women who are post menopausal or old have not a single department in any hospital I know in Mumbai. Obviously the gay movement can be a great ally for women in their fight for their sexual rights.
And though I think Arundhati Roy is an unreadable author who has strayed into magical reality from the world of fiction, she may have an inkling that breaking the chains of gay men, hijras and lesbians in this country would be the first step in finally winning that crucial battle for women.
Ashok Row Kavi is India's leading gay rights activist.