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‘We demand a sexual minority commission’

Ashok Row Kavi was one of the very first Indians who came out to assert their sexuality to the world. He has been the most vocal advocate of LGBT rights for four decades and is Editor of Bombay Dost and Chairperson of Humsafar Trust. An interview:

What has changed in the last few decades as far as the LGBT community is concerned? I met a gay rights activist in Germany who said ‘homosexuality is the new fad’ in the West.

We as a community were invisible in the socio- political landscape from the mainstream. Unlike today, where LGBT is part of all aspects of national life, whether it is art, music, theatre or films. But I have to say that it has still not dawned on the political class, and the mainstream doesn’t understand equality in this highly hierarchical society that we live in.

Are you referring to the equality of the LGBT in society?
I’m also referring to the LGBT community. It has been tough for the community. We will have to fight at every stage for same sex-marriage to be legalised in India. Even the Special Marriages Act is not gender neutral. Homosexuals are not allowed surrogacy or adoption. NACO doesn’t even allow homosexuals to donate blood.

At last we have been able to decriminalise homosexuality in India — one-fifth of humanity…
India has had long traditions where sexual minorities, transgender, etc., all have a place in society. It was a BJP government’s home ministry that didn’t oppose the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Muslim clerics are dead against it. Churches openly say they will not obey the judgement (of the apex court). It was the RSS that welcomed it and said has no objection to what two consenting adults do inside a closed room.

How will equality come to all sections of society, irrespective of their caste, creed and sexuality?
There will have to be a fight within. For instance, there are a lot of people within the LGBT community who oppose convergence of health and other issues with the LGBT movement. Take the fact that there are 30,000-40,000 street children in Mumbai but LGBT people are not allowed adoption. The LGBT community should create a conducive environment with the government (should not always be at war) to work with them, and not against them, for certain issues important for the LGBT community.

Like what issues?
For example, homosexuals are at high risk as far as HIV/AIDS is concerned. There are an estimated 38 million homosexuals, about 20% of them could be infected. LGBT community should be able to work with government agencies on such issues.

There’s a need of holistic approach…
Not just holistic approach, we demand LGBT participate in the core of national life. The Minorities Commission, the SC/ST commission, the OBC commission has the Constitutional sanction and statutory parliamentary recognition. On the same lines, we demand a sexual minority commission, with its members from one of the Hijara gharanas and other LGBT communities.

You have been there for so long, a witness, an activist and a participant. What do you have to say about the younger generation of the LGBT community? Aren’t they privileged compared to past generations?
LGBT community has no institutional memory. There was a time not long ago, the community was in existential fear of AIDS. People were dying. The bodies would arrive in plastic bags. Their family wouldn’t accept the bodies. We have cremated so many at people at Humsafar (Trust). The fight for survival started in 1990 that lead to decriminalisation. They (the younger generation) think it’s a joke. There has to be convergence.

What do you mean?
There has to be convergence of the three. MSM (men who have sex with men) and hijra, still have hidden nature of work, are under high risk of being infected, HIV+. Then the convergence of male sex workers — there has been an increase in their numbers. And drug users, especially in Punjab and western UP. There are gays, prostitutes, drug users, and hijras, making the problem three times bigger to contain spread of AIDS. It’s not about a community, this issue concerns the whole society.