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God doesn't discriminate between gay and straight, people do.

Dec 10, 2010

It is about time India realised that gay rights are human rights. And that being gay is about as wrong as being straight is says Anjali Gopalan, a champion of LGBT rights in India and the head of Naz Foundation.


OneWorld South Asia: Do we have any data on or estimates of what percentage of the Indian population falls under the LGBT category?

Anjali Gopalan: There is absolutely no data on the population of LGBTs in India. This is because there is incredible amount of funding required to do a search of that kind. Also, this is not easy information to get from people. Many people don't identify themselves because of the stigma attached. 

OWSA: Your organisation has championed the cause of LGBTs in India. How would you rate the status of the gay community in India as?

AG: One of the things that happened recently was the Delhi High court judgment regarding section 377, which is very positive and de-criminalises homosexuality. But clearly that does not mean that people who belong to this community, their rights are protected. It has just “de-crimianalised” homosexuality, it hasn’t really secured the rights of the gay or LGBT community. I think that is where the next battle has to be. Though we got a fabulous judgment from the Delhi High Court, but in the Supreme Court it has been challenged by religious groups! So, the battle is never ending. The judgment is brilliantly framed and it is so situated in the constitution that the judgment can’t be set aside.

Other than that, one of the major changes that have happened is that we can no longer sweep it under the carpet, no longer can we say that it is a western phenomena and it does not exist in India. But does that mean that attitudes have changed in the larger community? I don’t think so. It takes time. It happens in any area. Change happens but it happens over a period of time. I think a lot of this happens because people don’t know what homosexuality means, what LGBT means and the kind of images portrayed by the media are also extremely negative. So, that is why the change hasn’t happened as fast as we would have wanted it to happen.

OWSA: But that is in urban areas. What is the status in rural India?

AG: In rural areas, according to my experience, there is a certain level of acceptance of male homosexuality. It is because male sexuality, per se, is viewed differently than female sexuality. Whether in rural or urban areas, lesbianism challenges patriarchy like nothing else does. So, it is very tough for women who are lesbians wherever they are. However, in urban areas, there is a certain level of anonymity. Women can be protected to some extent because of that.

OWSA: Today what all is being done to secure equal rights to LGBT community?

AG: One of the good things that have happened over the years is that a number of LGBT groups have emerged which weren’t there earlier when we had started our work, and it is they who will actually take the battle forward.  But it is a long-term battle. Securing rights is never easy. Even though, most of our rights are enshrined in the constitution. But unfortunately, law is one thing, constitution is one aspect but reality is a whole different ballgame. So, it’s very important that the community takes this forward. Over a period of time rights like marriage, adoption, and inheritance get secured. This is a right that all citizens in the country should have. Why should anyone be denied that right?

There is some level of change. It is also happening because for the last many years, we have been talking to the general community, talking to them about homosexuality. Some amount of change has happened. But is it at the level we would like to see it happen? Obviously not! Because it’s a very long process. One is that we have to work in a larger environment to change a larger environment. That is why 377 has been challenged.

OWSA:  How do you respond to those religious and political leaders who say that homosexuality is nothing but a corrupt influence of the West and the western media?

AG: This is where I think I have to be really patient. For me, any religious person who says that homosexuals are aberrations, that they should be punished, that even God says that they were unnatural or wrong. My answer is that, if you believe in God who preaches this, he must be vicious because he is the same God who created homosexuals. For me, it’s completely illogical. As for politicians, there are so many of them who are gays and are having sex with men but very often we find that homosexuals who have sex with men or are attracted to the same sex are also the ones who will take a very negative stand. What is important is that we have to create an environment where people don’t have to hide who they are or they don’t feel judged. That is were change will happen. We have to continue working at changing a very negative environment. Because that is where it’s coming to the religious and political leaders as well as other people. It is coming from an environment which does not know how to respect differences. It is coming from our culture which is so steeped in class and caste. I think it is somewhere in our blood to discriminate. We should learn to respect diversity.

OWSA:  A number of reports on AIDS this year claim that there has been a decline in the incidence of fresh AIDS cases in India. They also lay stress on more ‘targeted interventions’. In a recent interview with OneWorld, you said that both the claim (reduction in HIV cases) as well as the approach, i.e. focus on targeted interventions was wrong. Could you elaborate?

AG:  When you have targeted interventions, you are only looking at certain groups of people. So, the targeted interventions work with men having sex with men (MSM), with sex workers, injection drug users. So anyone who doesn’t fall in those categories doesn’t believe that they are at risk. We know for a fact that the majority of the women who are infected are not the sex workers but wives who have got infected from their husbands. There has been absolutely no effort to reach out to them. Certainly, it is a very difficult group to reach out and that is a weak link in HIV prevention because it is very difficult to negotiate condom use which is what HIV demands at every sexual encounter – in a marriage or in a long term relationship.

Sex workers are a captive audience in some way. For instance, young people, we haven’t been able to reach out to young people who are becoming sexually active at a much younger age these days. There has been so much resistance to sex education in schools. So, we haven’t been able to reach them. But I don’t mean that targeted interventions are not good. 

We do need targeted interventions with those groups because they need information of this kind. But you need to situate that in larger environment which reaches out to more people. That is what I mean when I say that I have a problem with targeted interventions.

OWSA:  Will decriminalising of prostitution and MSM (Man having Sex with Man) help decline the incidence of HIV/AIDs among sex workers? How?

AG: I am an advocate of de-criminalising rather than legalising specially of sex workers. Rights are a different issue. According to me, when you criminalise an act you drive the people underground and then it becomes difficult to reach out to them. So, if you de-criminalise them, they are at least not hiding from you. So, you can get information out to them.

Especially with the sex work community, right now, the GoI is planning to put in a clause in the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (IMTA) law, where they want to criminalise the client of the sex worker, which is based on the Swedish model. I believe that the clause is inappropriate in the Indian context. Given the highly corrupt police force we have, they might use this to harass these women even more. We need to be careful about what we are doing with the law. But de-criminalising will certainly help. It will help them access services, health, civil societies to get information to these societies in a sustained way.  It will help them fight for their rights if they are decriminalized.

It will allow us to get information more openly from the LGBT community. It will allow them to access relevant services. For example, access to information, access to medical services, and access to medication. All these are keys to help decline the incidence of HIV/ AIDS. In the 1980s, when Australia put up these messages it spoke openly. There is documented evidence that HIV/ AIDS has declined tremendously since. We need to talk openly about sex, about the roots of transmission and back it up with services like free drug distribution to people in government hospitals.

OWSA:  Fighting a law is one thing, and fighting social stigma quite another. What activities/campaigns does Naaz undertake to build more sensitivity to the cause in Indian society?

AG: We have a drop in centre and we do encourage interaction with the people and the community so that the people can understand the issues at hand. We do a lot of training, counseling. We have been working with the police for many years. We work at it on a regular basis. Every Tuesday, we conduct trainings at the major police stations of Delhi where we talk about section 377, LGBT issues and interestingly we have found that over the years the attitudes of the Delhi police have changed. We don’t see the kind of arrests which used to happen earlier. That kind of harassment has gone down. But that doesn’t mean that the cops have completely changed? Clearly not! But there are some changes which are hopeful.

I am a strong believer in continuing to talk about these issues to anyone who is willing to listen and anyone who is asking questions without alienating them. Because I think the key is to find balance with the people who are anyways, resistant to these issues. Care should be taken that you don’t “rub it the wrong way.” You have to make them understand that people who are LGBTs, it’s very natural and normal for them to be that way. It’s not an abnormal behaviour nor is it unnatural. You can’t force someone to become straight. It’s important to constantly engage with people so that they learn, unlearn, relearn. So, it’s not that easy. But we can’t stop working towards that change.


Anjali Gopalan is the Founder and Executive Director of The Naz Foundation (India) Trust, an NGO dedicated to the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India.Since founding Naz India, Anjali has spoken in numerous international venues about the importance of advancing research to aid HIV prevention, and also on the importance of providing quality care to those living with the HIV infection.

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