What’s HIV got to do with homosexuality?

This week, as a band consisting mostly of religious groups attempts to stop the repeal of Section 377, the government has been asked to supply data on how many homosexuals in the country have HIV.

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What’s HIV got  to do with homosexuality?

This week, as a band consisting mostly of religious groups attempts to stop the repeal of Section 377, the government has been asked to supply data on how many homosexuals in the country have HIV. What is the connection between this disease and human rights, and is it valid, asks Apoorva Dutt

Jayesh Vas, 27, calls himself a “slacktivist homo”, shorthand for the fact that though he is an out-of-the-closet gay man (“Blurted it out at 21 and never looked back,” he says proudly) he has never followed the legalities and politics of being gay in India with particular enthusiasm.

“I was very happy though, about the repeal of Section 377,” he remembers. “Though I have never been harassed, a number of my friends had been.” The appeal was filed by an eclectic mix including religious groups, yoga guru Baba Ramdev and children’s rights groups. It is being heard by the Supreme Court, to make being gay a criminal act once again, he says, in a resigned tone, that he was expecting it. But what surprised him was the news item that caught his eye a couple of weeks ago. “The Supreme Court has asked the government to explain how many gays in the country have HIV,” says a disbelieving Vas. “I was so angry — what does a deadly disease have to do with basic human rights?”

This week, the health and family welfare ministry has informed the the Supreme Court that there are roughly 28,000-31,000 ‘men who have sex with men’, or MSM, in the country who are at ‘high risk’ for contracting HIV. But how was that data being compiled? “Well, no one came to my doorstep to ask if I’m gay or not, so I doubt they have an accurate number,” cackles Vas. “I don’t understand why this information is important.”

Aiding the fight
Unfortunately, it is. The question of LGBT rights in India has always been entangled with the question of HIV and its prevalence within the community, as Vikram Doctor, a gay rights activist working with Gay Bombay, points out. “A lot of people forget that HIV was the reason used in the very beginning to combat Section 377.” Doctor goes on to explain that when activists and lawyers began fighting this case over ten years ago, it didn’t look like the judiciary would be sympathetic to the repeal from the angle of “only human rights”. “The government wasn’t even willing to call us ‘gay’; the technical term used was ‘males who have sex with males’, or MSM. So we brought in the question of HIV. It is an undeniable fact that percentage-wise, MSM have a higher proportion of those who are HIV-infected.”

The petition, originally filed by a group called the Naz Foundation, said that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code made it difficult for them to educate homosexuals on the risks of HIV/AIDS, and therefore, infringed upon the group’s constitutional right to health. This argument was supported by the health ministry, but opposed by the home ministry on the grounds of public morality. So, data on HIV might actually aid the fight to legalise homosexuality. “As you know, there is no known cure for AIDS,” says Aditya Bandopadhyay, a lawyer and gay rights activist. “The only way forward is prevention. This can only happen if an environment is created where there is access to knowledge. This, in turn, will only happen if homosexuality is decriminalised.”

Nagesh Agarwal, 45, is a gay man who has been living with HIV for the last ten years. Originally from Delhi, he relocated to Mumbai in order to head a theatre group. Since then, he has been actively involved in street theatre aimed at increasing HIV awareness, as well as promoting gay rights. “In my spare time, I also counsel HIV-positive people through a partnership with a gay rights NGO in the city,” says Agarwal.

“As a gay man who has come to a grave realisation of the risks of unsafe sex practices, as well as worked to prevent the same happening to others, I know that knowledge is the only way forward. 7.3% of MSM are likely to be infected with HIV, according to the latest affidavit. Criminalising a gay person’s very identity is not moral from either a health or a humane point of view.”

Gay rights has science on its side
The reason that asking for this data has made many uncomfortable is that groups tend to use the prevalence of HIV as being the responsibility of the gay community.

However, Bandopadhyay maintains that it is good that the data is being asked for. “Asking for the information is the right step. The fact that the gay population exists in huge numbers should be revealed.” He admits though, that any number they arrive at would at best be “an estimation”. “The scale used customarily estimatesthe homosexual population to be four to 10% of the population.”

“These are extremely dubious estimates,” says Karan Purohit, 35, a queer writer and academic. “When I can’t even tell my parents I’m gay, is the government really going to be the first to find out?”

According to a study released in 2010 by the government’s National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) - the most common cause of transmission of HIV is heterosexual sex, which accounts for 87.1% of infections, even if the LGBT community includes a higher percentage of HIV-plagued people than the straight population.

“If HIV-infection is playing a role in deciding gay rights, by that logic, heterosexual sex should be banned as well,” points out Purohit.

Senior counsel Fali Nariman, appearing on behalf of parents with gay children, pointed out that at the time of the writing of the Indian Penal Code, a Constitution was not in place, which should be taken under consideration now, under the right to health provision. Bandopadhyay believes that the anti-repeal group is trying to equate an entire community with a disease.

“Their side (those opposing the repeal) is the prejudiced side. What gives me hope is that gay rights have science on their side. Equating homosexuality with HIV is tantamount to blaming the rape victim for a rape.”                                    

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