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Annual Gay Rights Parade Addresses Discrimination, Ambiguous Legality Throughout India

Global Press Institute - Thu, 8 Dec 2011 06:31 GMT
Author: Global Press Institute
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NEW DELHI, INDIA -Madan, 21, who declined to give his last name, journeys more than 500 miles from the small town of Jabalpur to New Delhi, India's capital, every year to participate in the gay pride parade, which is held annually in November. The trip is 800 kilometers, but he says that this is a once-in-a-year occasion that allows him to be his true self and be open about his sexuality. Madan is gay. Dancing and waving his rainbow flag, he says that the congregation of Indians who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex, LGBTI, at the parade gives him the courage to express himself. But he says he wishes he could feel free to be himself year-round. "I want the celebrations to continue for the entire year," he says with moist eyes. "I am tired of living as someone else." Madan says that even though the High Court of Delhi decriminalized homosexuality in the capital in 2009, his family and friends still don't accept his sexual orientation. He says his parents were shocked and ashamed when they learned he was gay and even threatened to commit suicide. "I want my parents and friends to accept me for who I am, not for who I pretend to be," he says. Blowing air kisses to other young men at the parade, he says he maintains hope that his friends and family will accept him one day. "It seems there is still time for such a thing to happen," he says. Indians flocked to the capital from around the country to participate in the fourth annual gay rights parade last week. They say that despite legal advances in recent years, stigma against homosexuality in India remains strong, even among police and high-ranking officials. Advocates have taken it upon themselves to set up and work with organizations to promote LGBTI rights. They say the next step is nationwide legalization and policies to back it up. The current attitude toward homosexuality dates back to 1860, when India was under British rule, says Rajiv Dua, a gay rights activist. Great Britain introduced Section 377, which criminalized "carnal intercourse against the order of nature," into its colonies' penal codes. The High Court of Delhi decriminalized homosexuality in 2009, ruling that the section violated basic human rights. But the ruling applies only in the capital city. The Supreme Court has yet to follow suit to decriminalize homosexuality nationwide. Despite the legal advances, many Indians who identify as LGBTI say they are still discriminated against for their sexual orientation. Dev Singh, 22, who goes by "Divya," a feminine name, travels 250 kilometers from the town of Jaipur every year to participate in the city's gay pride parade. He says that his boss fired him from his job after finding out that he was gay. "There was no problem [when] I went to work like a man, but my ordeal started the day they got to know I'm gay," he says with tears in his eyes. Singh says he has been fighting to get his job back for the past three years. Meanwhile, he's been working as a peer educator with a nongovernmental organization that advocates for LGBTI rights. Manvendra Singh Gohil, former prince of Rajpipla, is the first openly gay royal to talk publicly about his sexuality. Gohil, whose family disowned him for being gay, says that discrimination in the workplace against people who identify as LGBTI is prevalent here. "Unfortunately, homophobia still exists, in spite of the fact that homosexual acts have been recorded in ancient Indian writing, including the Kama Sutra," Gohil says. Gohil says that gay people who are HIV-positive face a double stigma in the society. "First, the stigma of facing an unfriendly world and then the double 'shame' suffering from the deadly disease," he says. "The situation is very sad for the LGBT AIDS patients." Gohil now works to improve the health of people who identify as LGBTI through his charity, Lakshya Trust, a community-based organization that works for HIV and AIDS prevention among men who have sex with men, MSM. He says he is also establishing for MSM a community center and a home for the elderly, which will also have a medical aid and counseling center. The National AIDS Control Organization, the government agency established to address AIDS in India, estimates that HIV prevalence among MSM, while stable, is 7.3 percent compared with 0.31 percent of the total adult population. Subpopulations with the greatest risk of exposure to HIV, including MSM, are to receive the highest priority in intervention programs under the National AIDS Control Program, according to India's Department of AIDS Control's 2010-2011 annual report. The program has achieved coverage of nearly 80 percent of the MSM population, according to 2010 U.N. report. But Gohil says that the stigma attached to homosexuality here hinders his organization's efforts. "Unfortunately, even our volunteers have faced harassment at the hands of police while attempting to reach out to community or even distributing condoms to them," he says. "The police would accuse them of promoting homosexuality." Sonia, 25, who identifies as transgender and says she doesn't have a last name, says that she has also encountered problems with police in her community in Delhi. "We face a lot of harassment at the hands of police," she says. Police declined to respond to Gohil's or Sonia's allegations of harassment. Others say it's not just the police who reject homosexuality here. Ghulam Nabi Azad, India's minister of health, said in July while speaking at an international conference on HIV and AIDS that men having sex with men is unnatural and a disease. The minister later said he had been misquoted. But Dua says that it's a societal, not just an individual mindset. He says the health minister was just echoing popular sentiment. "The same has been said by politicians from the opposition parties and religious leaders," he says. "But India, which bids for a U.N. Security Council seat as permanent member needs to be more proactive on human rights for all, and that includes LGBT. This also includes delivering on access to health services for LGBT people, sex workers, drug users, etc." Despite the opposition, Dua says there has been some progress, such as the annual parades in the capital that have also expanded to other metropolitan areas as well. "LGBT people have become more visible," Dua says. "The legal nod has created space for dialogue and discussion with other stakeholders within and outside government. The recent protests across India are reflective of that space created by the legal nod." Dua says that the movement needs to expand in order to advance. "The movement needs to be broad-based," he says. "LGBT from backward and rural areas need to be brought to the forefront of debate on LGBT rights to reflect their realities as well." Dua says that decriminalization by the Supreme Court and policies to implement this decriminalization must follow the Delhi High Court decision. "Once the legal issue is settled in Supreme Court, the next thing would be is to get more affirmative policies on LGBT people at workplace, sexual harassment policies, issues of inheritance for same sex partners, domestic violence, anti-stigma and discrimination policies in health care, etc.," Dua says. A filmmaker who goes by Onir has made multiple films on homosexuality. He says that the media, and particularly the Indian film industry, can play a role in promoting awareness by generating a debate about the stigma that LGBTI people face. "This is a fact that gays are facing bias everywhere and are forced to live a dual life," he says. "Talking about their plight through films may be controversial but will certainly generate a healthy debate." To give LGBTI people a voice in this debate, Gohil says he has started gay magazines to provide a podium for them to share their concerns. "We have a start making them a part of the mainstream instead of sidelining them," he says. "That's why these magazines are available on general stands trying not to make them a taboo." Gohil says that while legal reform is a start, it's not a panacea. "Gay rights can't be won in the courtrooms but in the hearts and minds of people," Gohil says.

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