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India’s troubling miracle

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India’s troubling miracle

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A sex worker in an Indian red-light district stands behind one of the billboards for the large sex-safe campaign aimed at high-risk groups in much of the country. Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images

New HIV infections in much of India have dropped by half since 2000, a globally unmatched achievement. But some of the reasons make it a less-appealing example

Stephanie Nolen

Chennai, India — From Saturday’s Globe and Mail Last updated on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2009 02:58AM EDT

When government health workers gave Thenmozhi and her friends condoms, they would blow them up and bat them back and forth in the streets of their slum in Chennai, giggling. It didn’t really occur to her that she ought to use the condoms with her clients, the neighbourhood men who paid her for sex, to protect herself from AIDS.

That was a disease of other people, other countries. Thenmozhi (who like many in her community uses only one name) had many problems – a drinking, philandering husband who once set her on fire when he got angry, and feeding her children with no job and a Grade 3 education – but AIDS was not one of them.

And then five years ago, a different kind of health worker dropped by her two-room flat – a woman Thenmozhi knew, who made about $50 a month selling sex like she did. She sat on the cement floor, helped Thenmozhi pick through some rice and told her there was AIDS in India – in fact, right there in their crowded fishermen’s slum in the capital of the southern Tamil Nadu province. It had recently killed a man they both knew.

She invited Thenmozhi to a community centre, where she heard informal lectures about the virus and how sex workers must band together to insist clients use protection. When she left, her handbag was full of condoms and the results of her free HIV test: negative.

Thenmozhi went on to do a most remarkable thing: “After that, I always used a condom. With every man who paid.” And when she passed the age of 40 last year and transitioned into the role of madam – renting her bedroom to younger women and their clients – she handed each of them a condom, too.

Although her actions may seem logical and obvious, AIDS-education programs around the world have found that people rarely do the logical, obvious thing and use condoms once they learn about the risk of HIV. They may use condoms sometimes, in some cases. They almost never use them with the zealousness of Thenmozhi.

And yet she is no aberration. She is simply one example of the way the country has cut its rate of AIDS infection in half in the last decade, moved away from the brink of catastrophe and quietly achieved a great but unheralded public-health victory.

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I married at 13, and had two children, but my husband left us two years later. That year I married again – but my second husband was not a good man. He set me on fire in an argument. I was going to go to the police, but he pleaded for forgiveness. I thought it was a question of my prestige in society, so I stayed, but then he left us. My children never went to school because I could not afford proper clothes for them. I started in sex work when I was 18 – I needed to pay the bills. Now I rent my room to friends who need a place to work discreetly. I want an income for myself. If a woman charges 500 rupees [$11] for a half hour, I get 200 [$4.50] rupees of that for the room. Now that we have learned about AIDS, even if someone gives us more money for sex without a condom, we refuse. A woman who is very desperate might be tempted – but in case we indulge in that, we go immediately after for a blood test. – Thenmozhi, 40, in Chennai, India

In southern India, HIV incidence (the rate of new infections) was 2 per cent per year in 2000; by 2007 it was just below 1 per cent. In the north, where HIV is far less prevalent, there was no large decline, but also no increase.

Only much-smaller Thailand, which implemented a mandatory-condom campaign in its sex industry in the 1990s, has ever posted similar declines.

What has happened here is starting to draw global attention. Yet so much of this story is unique to India, with its strengths (such as pro-active governments) and its weaknesses (particularly the rigid control kept over its female citizens) that it’s questionable how much its example can be applied anywhere else.

When India announced in 2007 that it had 2.3 million people living with HIV, rather than the 5.7 million reported the year before, the government first attributed much of the change to better data collection. Many in the AIDS field were skeptical.

“We and all the other AIDS organizations think the number of people accessing services is increasing, so why are the infection numbers so low?” says Anjali Gopalan, head of the Delhi-based Naz Foundation and one of India’s most prominent AIDS activists.

Northern states have weak mechanisms for reporting AIDS cases, while marginalized populations such as the transgender sex workers and drug users she works with are never part of door-to-door surveys, she says, so tens of thousands of cases may be missing from the official statistics. And in all regions, many people are still going without adequate treatment.

Nevertheless, more and more research points to a substantial change in sexual behaviour and with it a decline in the spread of HIV. Syphilis infections, which closely mirror HIV, have had an almost-identical drop.

“The decline is real. The numbers have plausibility and credibility,” says Prabhat Jha, an epidemiologist who directs the Centre for Global Health Research in Toronto, and was an architect of India’s early AIDS-control program. “There has been a profound change in behaviour among clients and sex workers that accounts for most of the drop.”

While India has a significant population of intravenous drug users – as many as half of whom, in some areas, have HIV-AIDS – the bulk of the HIV transmission in this country happens through heterosexual sex. Men, often married, pay professionals for sex, get infected and then pass the virus to their wives or regular partners, who infect children at birth.

In 1997, Prof. Jha – who is Indian-born but grew up in Winnipeg – found himself in Kamithipura, the teeming red light district of Mumbai. He had just been hired by the World Bank to design a national AIDS intervention for India, and with him was another Manitoban, Frank Plummer.

Now the director of the national Centre for Infectious Disease Prevention and Control in Ottawa, Dr. Plummer was then a microbiologist renowned for his work in the early days of HIV in East Africa. Prof. Jha wanted his assessment of India’s situation.

“Frank looked around, and he said, ‘This looks just like Nairobi in 1984,’” Prof. Jha recalls. Those words made him shudder: He was well aware of the horrifying swath of destruction AIDS went on to cut through the slums of Kenya and so many other African nations.

But the parallel was obvious: In India in 1997, HIV infection was exploding among sex workers, drug users and truck drivers in congested urban areas. But almost no one knew about the disease and no one was doing anything to protect themselves or their other partners.

In a country of this size, with a frail public health system, it was an unfolding disaster. The newly-formed National AIDS Control Organization said the country’s infection rate was the fastest-growing in the world. Prof. Jah ran mathematical models that predicted more than 20 million Indians with HIV by 2010.

But it didn’t happen. The aversion of this crisis has many who work in AIDS control feeling justifiably proud – theirs is a significant achievement in a field notable for its rare victories. Billions of dollars and 15 years of effort in the worst-affected nations in Africa have yielded declines in HIV infection of at best 5 or 6 per cent (except possibly in Uganda, which saw a very sharp drop in the late 1980s – the reasons are hotly debated today).

Ask those involved, such as Prof. Jha – who had a $200-million budget from the World Bank to try to stop infections – what worked, and they list mass distribution of free condoms; the use of “peer educators” such as the sex worker who visited Thenmozhi; and a media campaign full of frank messages.

All of which have been tried, and tried, and tried in Africa, with only meagre impact. So why did they work in India?

Windows of opportunity

The first difference is timing. HIV was spreading quickly in Africa by the mid-1960s, yet it was 20 years before anyone tested an African for it.

By the time real efforts to stop the virus got under way, hundreds of thousands of people had already died and in many countries 10 to 15 per cent of the general population was infected.

The first HIV cases in India, on the other hand, were not found until 1986, here in Chennai, when two men tested positive. For the next few years, there were only a handful of cases.

By the time some far-sighted bureaucrats got on the job in the mid-1990s, HIV was just at the 1-per-cent rate which epidemiologists consider its viral tipping point – and, most critically, not yet in the general population but still largely confined to high-risk groups.

“We still had a window of opportunity,” recalls S. Ramasundaram.

Today he heads the department of public works in Tamil Nadu’s state government, but back then, he was a director in the health department, and was handed the new AIDS file.

He had a background in demography – and looking at Prof. Jha’s models of projected spread of HIV, he had a similar full-body shudder of horror.

“I argued with the government. Very rarely in development do you get a crystal ball. I said, ‘If you don’t do something, it’s going to be doomsday.’”

Mr. Ramasundaram was talking – urgently and often – to state leaders, and that is the next key difference from Africa. Tamil Nadu is the state that has posted the greatest gains on HIV and its government has been active and engaged since the day those first cases were reported – in sharp contrast to the denial with which many African leaders first confronted HIV.

(The huge sizes of Indian states – Tamil Nadu’s population is 64 million, larger than three-quarters of African countries – and the differences between them make comparing Indian states and African nations more accurate than using India as a whole.)

Mr. Ramasundaram launched an AIDS-control organization at arm’s length from the government, to minimize bureaucratic slowdowns and corruption.

He brought in the best private advertising agencies in the state, gave them a budget bigger than Coke or Pepsi (then the biggest spenders) and had them vet all their ads with people living with HIV.

Then he blanketed the state: billboards, cricket stadiums, movies and newspapers in every language.

“There were so many messages on HIV then – the Chief Minister called me and said, ‘You’re frightening people.’ I said, ‘Sir, that’s the point.’ He said, ‘It looks like we have a big epidemic!’ I said, ‘No, we want to prevent a big epidemic.’”

Next he turned to community groups that were already working in slums and with sex workers, and tasked them with going door-to-door to spread the word.

The leader was Lakshmi Bai, a fast-talking, whirling-sari-clad social scientist with years of experience with sex workers, including not only women but gay and transgender men.

She eschewed the idea of a straight-up AIDS program; instead, she involved the sex workers in projects to build their self-esteem, organized them into collectives with food and clothing banks, and pushed them to confront government with their needs.

“You don’t think only about just one disease. You can’t talk just about AIDS,” explains Ms. Bai, who now runs the non-governmental Tamil Nadu AIDS Initiative. “But when you are doing all these things together, they are going to listen to what you are saying about HIV.”

“My body is a temple and I have to take care of it – the director has told us we are precious people and God’s spirit lives in us,” says Thenmozhi, speaking with the kind of reverence that many sex workers seem to have for Ms. Bai. So, she added, condoms only make sense.

High-risk focus

The Tamil Nadu program benefited from bitter experience in Africa, where the thinking had been that for each dollar of AIDS prevention funding, 20 cents should be spent on the high-risk groups and the rest on the general population.

By the late 1990s, Mr. Ramasundaram explained, research had made clear that there would be far more impact from spending the whole dollar on those high-risk groups – and keeping the virus out of the general population. Condom use by sex workers rose from 40 per cent to 90 per cent in three years.

Meanwhile, the billboards and movie ads were addressing a particular population: “Don’t treat Tamil Nadu as an African country … the literacy level is higher, the adaptation to change is faster and the technology absorption is higher,” Dr. S. Vijayakumar, now head of the state AIDS agency, says (with a certain smugness that often characterizes the reflections of those in the field here).

However, in terms of one key bit of technology, there was indeed a crucial difference in India: Condoms had been actively promoted here since Indira Gandhi’s population-control policies of the 1970s.

Also, there was little of the cultural distaste and discomfort that has greeted condom campaigns in Africa – and no conservative Christian church to lead a public outcry about abstinence.

There were, however, plenty of trained lab technicians and statisticians and the sort of qualified staff an AIDS program needs, the human resources that are so often lacking in Africa.

And there was cash. When Mr. Ramasundaram set up his new state AIDS organization, the World Bank offered up millions of dollars, which meant he didn’t have to compete for scarce state-health resources.

“It was crucial that we had that source of funding,” he says.

International agencies rushed to support India’s AIDS response in its infancy; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone pledged $342-million (U.S.) over 10 years from 2004, its largest program anywhere.

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I was married at 14, and had a daughter at 16, but my first husband drank himself to death after two years. When I was 20 I married again but my husband kicked me out when I complained about his rowdy behaviour. Now I support my two children. At home I do tailoring for people in the neighbourhood, and that earns about $100 a month, but it’s not enough for our expenses, which are $250 a month. So I work out of a [madam’s] house – there’s no other option. I’m trying my best to feed my kids and give them everything – so on other things I compromise. I will stretch myself to any level to make sure my kids are fine. My mother lives with me, and she knows what I do – she cries about it a lot, and hopes I will be able to stop soon. I have about 10 clients a month – it was a client who first wooed me into it. After just a few months I met the people from the Tamil Nadu AIDS initiative and they told me about condoms. Most of our clients are middle-aged men whose wives are old with no inclination for sex. They come to us for oral sex, for a kind of sex they don’t get at home with a wife – they can’t try out different positions – with us in a half hour they have us jump upside down. All of us, every time, use a condom. We’ve got the message and we listen. Whether a man admits he goes to others for sex or not – I say, I have sex with several people and I might give it to you and you’re going to take it to your wife. – Sivagami, 33

Darker side

But there are also less-pleasant truths about India’s victory over HIV. Beyond literacy, condoms, blunt ads and brilliant bureaucrats, one thing more than any other has checked the spread of the virus here: the oppression of Indian women.

The extreme control exerted over women’s personal lives – first by their parents, then by their husbands and in-laws – means that very few ever have the opportunity to have a sexual partner other than their husbands.

Where 25 per cent of men report more than one sexual partner, less than 2 per cent of women do. Married women get infected by their husbands, and sometimes pass HIV to their children, but the virus stops there: They do not have other partners to pass HIV on to.

This is a marked contrast to Africa, where it is now clear that the “concurrent sexual network” – the tendency for both men and women to have overlapping partners rather than serial ones – has been the key driver of the epidemic.

(Meanwhile, discrimination has played a sharply different role in the spread of HIV among men who have sex with men – it has extremely limited AIDS organizations’ ability effectively to provide these men condoms and information. As a consequence, they have HIV infection rates 10 times those of the general population.)

There is, in fact, a broader issue of culture at play in India’s AIDS success story, the sort of squishy subject that makes AIDS researchers flinch because it lies so far outside tidy quantifiable data.

But many in the field agree that Indian society remains rigidly hierarchical, still infused with the powerful role of the caste system, and people are accustomed to the strong role of government in their lives.

That’s a contrast to many African countries with weaker states and more egalitarian societies. And it meant that when the Indian government sternly told people to use condoms and cut back on partners, they listened.

Zero patient

Mr. Vijayakumar believes that in the next couple of years, his AIDS control agency can drive new infections down to zero. It’s a breathtakingly ambitious goal – it has never been done anywhere else – but he brandishes an impressive array of maps, charts and software programs to demonstrate just how he is going to do it.

His office collects data from every possible source – from blood banks to maternity hospitals to neighbourhood clinics for sex workers – and can pinpoint where each new infection comes from.

He has a three-pronged strategy based on continued prevention messages, better reach of the interventions that prevent parents from infecting children, and continued work with the high-risk groups.

“We should be able to do this,” he says, working long past dark in an office where a steady flow of assistants ebbed in and out bearing yet more charts and data sets.

“I have a plan in place – my problem is my high-risk groups. If I can bring them into the health fold we’ll certainly be able to do it.”

But Mr. Vijayakumar is watching his budget shrink, and government, donor and public attention shift away from HIV, as success itself eases the sense of panic.

Many say the shift in government funds is justified, given how few people HIV kills in comparison with basic public-health problems such as water-borne diarrhea, child malnutrition, smoking or road accidents. The Gates Foundation is redirecting its funding to issues such as maternal and newborn care.

Yet HIV remains of critical concern here: With 2.3-million infected people, this country has the third-largest burden of HIV-AIDS in the world, and has succeeded in getting treatment to fewer than half of the people who need it.

The successes achieved have been mostly in the richer south of the country. The outstanding question is the north, with much weaker governments and health systems that have yet to embark on serious AIDS-control programs.

Other factors make the north vulnerable too. “There are large numbers of migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and they are a huge worry,” says Mr. Ramasundaram. A major factor in the African pandemic has been workers spending months or years away from their wives and paying for sex in their host cities.

Overall, the precise situation with HIV in the north is unknown – mother-child transmission could be exploding.

India’s AIDS interventions have been relatively cheap – a tenth the cost of Thailand’s sex-worker and condom intervention – but they are not free. “The era of ‘Big HIV’ in India may be over, and we know that once condoms become common in commercial sex, they stay common,” says Prof. Jha. “But there is a huge ‘if’ – the Indian government has to continue to pay for the cheap and effective ways to curb HIV for at least the next decade, especially in North India.”

In Chennai, Lakshmi Bai, who has lived through a rare, radical shift in sexual behaviour, is as often gloomy as she is encouraged. “So much life has been lost,” she says – a fact often glossed over by the bureaucrats and researchers excited about the falling infection rates. While many HIV-related deaths are not reported as AIDS, at minimum several hundred thousand Indians have already died of the disease, Prof. Jha estimates.

“Everything is not rosy here,” says Ms. Bai. “There is so much to do! I’m quite worried about sustainability, with the funders leaving. Even now, with all this ‘empowerment’ blah-blah, sexual decisions are taken by men.”

There are 50,000 Tamil Nadu sex workers on her books today, but new young girls – and young men – show up all the time. “If you’re not going to continuously address, what will happen? If these things are not done – disaster only.”

But when Thenmozhi sits in a circle with the women at the drop-in centre, when they joke and gently mock their clients, the married men “who say they can’t eat the same food every day,” disaster seems far away. The women bemoan their troubles – shirking husbands and mounting bills. But AIDS is not one of them.

Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail’s correspondent in South Asia.

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August 30, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Hypocrisies of the Indian gay man

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Hypocrisies of the Indian gay man image0011

Ashley Tellis

First Published : 28 Aug 2009 12:00:00 AM IST

Last Updated : 29 Aug 2009 12:13:10 AM IST

http://www.expressbuzz.com/edition/story.aspx?Title=Hypocrisies+of+the+Indian+gay+man&artid=rxhn6UV6Rjw=&SectionID=f4OberbKin4=&MainSectionID=fyV9T2jIa4A=&SectionName=cxWvYpmNp4fBHAeKn3LcnQ==&SEO=HIV/AIDS,%20pathologisation,%20NGO

The Indian gay subject announces himself as having conquered the homophobia that prevents men in India from taking on the label ‘gay,’ makes them shun the gay man as a figure of sickness, doomed to a lonely and painful death (hence the preponderance of gay men in India marrying women), disallows a comfort in their skins in bed with another man. However, why is this out and proud subject having unsafe sex? What does this really say about him?

The Euro-US has spun theories around this in the face of repeated studies that show that

despite the fact HIV/AIDS there, unlike in the Third World, has been a gay disease and wiped out generations of gay men, gay men continue to have unsafe sex. These theories argue that gayness has abjection at its heart, that gay men internalise the debasement of their lives, the loss of so many lives to HIV/AIDS and this makes them not care, which is why they have unsafe sex. Terms like ‘bug chasers’ (HIV negative men who seek sex with HIV positive men to get infected) and ‘gift givers’ (HIV positive men who seek to infect HIV negative men) exist in the US where bad epidemiology meets homophobic media representations and the pathologisation of the gay subject returns. However, all this presumes well-established ideas of a gay identity and community. It works within the logics of either an abject identity embracing its abjection or of a refusal by that identity of the control of it and its sexual practices.

In India, there is no identity or community as such, or if there is, it is articulated only as a pious non-sexual identity working on HIV/AIDS prevention. The focus is on NGO-fangled identities like ‘MSM’ and ‘kothi’ or at best hijras. This is because of the politics of funding (no NGO would be funded if they claimed their base was upperclass, uppercaste men who identify as gay. They have to produce malformed, unevolved categories like ‘MSM’ and ‘kothi’ for Third World street cred) as much as hypocrisy of the upperclass, uppercaste gay Indian man.

Because, in the toilets of clubs and farmhouse parties and bedrooms in India, gay Indian men are having unsafe sex with each other and

nobody is talking about it. Practically all my gay friends have had unsafe anal sex, and repeatedly, and when asked why, do not have clear reasons. Why is there no study of the practices of upperclass, uppercaste gay men by NGOs? Why are other groups created, stigmatised, used, marshalled but the gaze never turns on oneself?

To complicate matters, the Indian gay man is also having sex with men who do not identify as gay. How many times does it happen that the Indian man (for whom sex is just a hole to shove his pole into, whether it is a woman, man or hole in the wall) just spits on it and is ready to shove it in, in the heat of the moment, as it were and for whom condoms is a waste of time and a reduction of pleasure?

How many times does the gay Indian man stop this? Why are ‘MSM’ and ‘kothis’ pathologised and not Indian gay men? Well, partly because it is these men who run or work for the NGOs and can not pathologise themselves, but also because it would be uncool to recognise that these men hate themselves enough to have unsafe sex or love the thrill of it enough to have it.

The question is: why do these people have

unsafe sex? A hijra or a street-based sex worker does not have control over the identity of her/his clients or their adherence to safe sex practices. But what about the upperclass, uppercaste gay man? He does have that control. If we

really think that homosexuality is a serious cause of HIV/AIDS in this country, why don’t we focus on our own sexual practices instead of a behalfism through which we justify our

own existences? Why don’t gay Indian men talk about their own sexual sense of self and their own sexual practices?

What I fear we will discover, if that is done, is that we have gift givers and bug chasers among us who do not even have the guts to own up to it. At the heart of it, are conceptions of self and sex that are in dire need of change. Gay men in India should concentrate on themselves before going off to cure ‘Other’ groups, mythical and otherwise, of HIV infection. Nobody hates us more than we hate ourselves. We do not revel in our abjection; we merely inhabit it. We talk about safe sex for other people, not for ourselves. Instead, we write and celebrate court judgements in which we seek state survelliance and ask for the right to privacy at the same time. Surveillance for the others, privacy for ourselves. Hurrah for the hypocritical Indian gay man.

Ashley Tellis is an academic. Feedback to this article can be sent to failedsubjectivity@gmail.com

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August 30, 2009 at 6:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

In the pink of wealth

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In the pink of wealth

By: Hemal Ashar Date: 2009-08-30 Place: Mumbai

Entrepreneurs are tapping into the gay market, realising the power of the pink rupee client

The reading down by the Indian High Court of Section 377 that criminalised homosexuality, is proving to be the proverbial wake-up call for the desi entrepreneur. The Indian businessman may be opening up to the growing power of what Vivek Anand, trustee, Humsafar, who is also on the advisory board of the gay community magazine Bombay Dost, says is the power of the "pink rupee". Adds Vivek, "Gay money power is called the pink dollar in the US and here, it is the pink rupee." Incidentally, even the rainbow is associated with the gay community, with the different colours standing for diversity.

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Niche magazine launched for gays
The re-launch this year of Bombay Dost, which has arisen like a phoenix from the ashes of its financially troubled past, shows that think pink may become a savvy business mantra. Nitin Karani, editor at large for the magazine that has two issues a year (one issue priced at Rs 150) says, "The magazine closed down seven years ago because of a financial crunch. This time, we have seen money from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and have to make it financially viable in some time. There is greater acceptance, but challenges like gays afraid of ordering the magazine at home and reluctant to go and buy a copy from stalls do exist."

Hard-selling to gay clientele
Vivek says, "Corporates are realising that the purchasing power of a single, gay person may be much more than a married man with a family. Lifestyle stores, music outlets and clothing companies are becoming aware that there is a ‘pink rupee’ market out there. In three years, Bombay Dost should become financially viable."

Serious gay-themed movies have a market
More filmmakers are exploring the gay theme in different ways. Earlier, films with alternate sexuality themes fell into parallel cinema or were festival films, but now, several are theatre releases. Shamim Sarif’s I Can’t Think Straight, a movie about two women in love, will release in theaters on September 11.

Actor Deepti Naval has directed a movie called Do Paise Ki Dhoop, Chaar Aane Ki Baarish about a gay lyricist (Rajit Kapur) who has left his boyfriend (Milind Soman in a cameo), an ageing prostitute (Manisha Koirala) and her physically-challenged, in a wheelchair son. Professor N Sardesai, who is on the censor board, says the film is excellent and has been "passed with no cuts but with an ‘A’ certification."

Nightclubs catering to gay party-goers
Vikram Doctor of Gay Bombay says, "Party venues may still be reluctant to be identified as gay spaces, but currently at least four nightclubs in Mumbai do host regular gay parties." Just a few years earlier, Vikram claims, "Places that were going to close down like the now-defunct Velocity and Mikanos, used to be gay party venues. Now so many clubs and nightclubs are more gay-friendly, because of changing attitudes but yes, it makes business sense too."

Sperm banks come of age
Even that entirely serious business of procreation may be eyeing the homosexual bank. Says Dilip Patil, managing director of the sperm bank Cryos International, India, "The cost for using services of sperm/egg banks differ. Yet, the average cost of one frozen sperm sample (for the recipient from an international standardised sperm bank like Cryos) would be around Rs 3,500 and that for a batch of donor eggs would be about Rs 1 lakh."

Though no figures are available, Patil adds, "With more gay couples making their relationship public due to favourable legislation, we expect more of them to come forward to get samples from our bank. Enquiries post the reading down of Section 377 have increased, though not all have translated into homosexuals availing of the facility."

Advertising gets into the mood
The advertising world is feeling the pulse of the market too. Amul butter, that quirky, amusing barometer for all things Mumbai-centric, had an advertisement showing the Amul girl mascot offering buttered slices of bread to two girls. The caption: ‘Out of the closet, out of the fridge’ shows its support to the recent change in the law.

The pink fridge and the rainbow colour background of the July 2009 hoarding are self-explanatory.

A year ago, Virgin Mobile had an advertisement in which a girl manipulates her parents to say yes to her going on a picnic to Goa with boys, by making them paranoid that she may be a lesbian. The ad can be construed by some as homophobic, but the point is that the homosexuality theme was touched upon. A bus stop near the Nehru Planetarium and old Lotus theater in Worli advertises Absolut. While there is no overt reference to any gay theme, the rainbow-coloured line and the slogan: ‘In an Absolut world, everyone is equal’ may be open to interpretation.

Globe trotting greenbacks
www.Indjapink.co.in, a website created by Delhi-based fashion designer Sanjay Malhotra, which offers customised tours for gays across the country, may be breaking new ground in the Indian travel industry. Recently, a clutch of travel professionals attended a course at the Shreyas building in Babulnath, on new trends in the industry, where teachers spoke about gay tourism as a future avenue. An online store called Azaad Bazaar aimed at the gay community, went ‘live’, a little before Mumbai’s Gay Pride march.

The money, honey
Perhaps the most visible manifestation of the growing gay market is the Gay Pride also called as the Queer Azaadi March (QAM) which took place from August Kranti Maidan to Chowpatty on August 16, 2009, like last year. Says Vikram, "Gay Prides are commercialised in Western countries. Sponsors may line up here too in the future, but not everybody thinks it is a good idea to become totally commercialised. I am worried about people piggybacking on the community."

Chayanika of the Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action (LABIA) group says, "Commercial sponsors may use overt controls like what we can say and can’t during Pride. Some times, the product that sponsors a Pride or a gay initiative may promote an event or push a line that is contrary to the statement we are trying to make. There may be a conflict of interest."

Wake up, and…
It is not just fashionable or politically correct to be a gay rights supporter, it might make good business sense too. During this year’s general elections, a network of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons met with political parties in Mumbai to highlight their issues and emphasise their power as a vote bank. Activist Ashok Row Kavi had then said, "We are 45 million across the country, they (the political parties) should notice us."

It is a statement that has started to find resonance in the commercial sphere as well.

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August 30, 2009 at 6:30 pm

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Why Asia’s Gays are Starting to Win Acceptance

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Nepal’s Supreme Court has already ordered Nepal Government to make Same-sex Marriage Law (SSML) within 6 months.

(More than) 6 months are already over. But Nepal has not made SSML so far.

What Shri Sunil Babu Pant is doing? If nothig else, he could have at least filed a contempt of court petiton in the Supreme Court.

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August 26, 2009 at 5:02 pm

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Married Gay Men and their social implications Ashok Row Kavi

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Married Gay Men and their social implications

Ashok Row Kavi

http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/ndtv/new/ndtv-show-special-story.aspx?ID=275&storyid=NEWEN20090105073

Thursday, August 13, 2009, (New Delhi)

image001

One of the most common problems I’ve faced as a community counselor is of married gay men and their issues. I still remember a young married man who wished to know how to "balance" his life with a wife at home and a male lover in the army, of all things. The issues got sticky as the army lover wanted to come and meet him at home now knowing that along with the parents he would end up meeting his "stepwife" (suatan in Hindi).

In a very forgettable instance, I remember a young man planning to marry a woman knowing full well that he would not meet his conjugal obligations. The idea behind the marriage was to grab an apartment offered by his employer at a throwaway prize for only their married employees. The plan was to divorce the hapless woman after a year and get in his gay lover to live-in an ever-so-happy pink future. When I pointed out that a divorce might mean the wife getting the apartment besodes alimony payments, he asked me about pre-nuptial contracts. When I said they were illegal everywhere in the Union of India except in Goa, he huffed out of the office and never returned, till eight years after he walked in a bitter man very sick with AIDS related complications.

The sad stories are still continuing and seem to provide an endless drama of sorrow and tragedy. My community based group, the Humsafar Trust, does what are called "tracking interventions" every 18 months. These are structured questionnaires which are answered by random men in sex sites through what are called "time-location- clustering", a social marketing techniques to get some credible information about any population.

What came about was startling. Around 50 to 55 per cent of men-who-had-sex-with-men (MSM) were mostly also having sex with women, Of these around 25 to 30 per cent were heterosexually married to women. Besides, all these bisexual men were having two female partners on an average every month and on an average these men were also having sex with between 5 and 7 male partners a month. In other words, there was a huge bridge MSM population that was having sex with both men and women.

Now just suppose that the HIV or STI prevalence among exclusive gay men was a high 20 per cent. This "high pressure zone" was the tank from which HIV and STIs "flowed across the bridge of bisexual men into the female population. That being the case, the government’s HIV prevention programs had to be made more integrated by asking MSM to use condoms with both men and women. Besides, the female partners, the wives of MSM also had to be treated for STIs to prevent what was called "the ping pong effect".

In this, if the man alone went for treatment without getting his wife also treated, she might re-infect him even if he did not have sex outside marriage with men or women. The NACO’s programs in Phase III of the National AIDS Control Program (NACP III) finally got on board the wives and female partners of MSM. However, it is the social implications of gay men married to women that will become more obvious as the days go by.

Men get married not only to reproduce and have stable social relationships but also for inheritance and familial stability. I many joint and extended families, young men do not get powers of attorneys in family business’ till they are married and become "responsible house-holders". The imperative to marry is sometimes greater on men than women despite the fact that a single woman is more stigmatized than a bachelor.

However, as Section 377 is read down and society "unravels" into liberal globalised economies, things will rapidly change. It is not un-common to see parents now groping with young men who bring him their foreign male spouses to introduce them to parents. Also men living as "single" gay men in other cities cities also feel they have more space to have relations with both sexes without being hauled over to be forced into "arranged marriages".

Whatever it may be, the future will be fraught with a lot more social heartbreak, need or counseling and "upstream marriage services" before the dust settles after the re-interpretation of Section 377. The main goal though should be a mentally and physically healthier society, never mind the ranting and raving of the loony Right wing forces..

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August 21, 2009 at 4:34 pm

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Married in Public, Gay in Private–NDTV show tonight-Friday night 9.30 pm

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Married in Public, Gay in Private
By Sutapa Deb, Wednesday August 19, 2009

http://www.ndtv.com/news/blogs/double_lives/married_in_public_gay_in_private.php

Not many people would have paid attention to an item buried in the newspaper about a murder most foul in the crowded textile city of Kanpur – a murder apparently prompted by a surreptitious relationship.

Rajendra Kumar Dwivedi was 38-years-old and married to Shakuntala for 15 years. The couple had no children.

Dwivedi had not held a regular job for some time. Four years ago he struck up an unlikely friendship with a man from a different economic and social background. He was the Deputy Chief Medical officer of Allahabad, Dr K D Raj Srivastava. The doctor was married and had a 28-year-old son.

Dwivedi’s family says it was an adulterous gay relationship, but neither men were out of the closet.

Dwivedi died of head injuries on July 20 after he was allegedly beaten by the doctor’s son

While the police are investigating the case, the doctor and his son are absconding.

The murder pointed to a disturbing and hidden phenomenon of men who engage in sexual activity with other men, regardless of the fact that they are married to women and have children. None of these men are known socially as gays or bisexuals.

There is now a supportive and vibrant gay movement in the country, yet only a small population is visible and identified as gay.

Many men who have sexual relations with other men do not consider themselves as gay nor are they labelled so by others.

The meaning of gay is often mistakenly associated with the stereotype of men who are effiminate or transgenders.

There is a diverse group that is not taken into account. Now public health professionals have started using the term MSM to refer to all men who have sex with other men, whether they identify themselves as gay, bisexual, transgender or heterosexual.

Though there are no precise numbers of MSM, the numbers are believed to be surprisingly large.

Many live as heterosexuals among their community, marry and have children.

Those who were not married, would eventually get married.

Little data is available, but there is anecdotal evidence from MSM who visit cruising sites, gay bars and gay parties to meet others.

The issue of being married in public, gay in private raises a range of ethical concerns, particularly those involving their wives.

But as we speak to a crosssection of MSM, we find an unwillingness to explore these concerns in depth. It stems from their understanding that THEY are the victims…having been pushed underground by a society that has stigmatised male to male sexual relations.

Last month the Delhi High Court overturned Section 377 of the IPC, which criminalised gay sex between consenting adults. It was a victory but the reality on the ground is slow to change and negativity around MSMs continues to exist..

They say that to belong to the mainstream, the straight world, and to maintain bonds with their families and community, they are compelled to marry.

In South Asia, marriage is compulsory for social and religious reasons. Some choose to marry since in a patriarchial society, there is convenience in marriage. It also provides the perfect cover.

With MSM leading double lives, a majority of wives remain unaware of these clandestine encounters for years.

Little is known of what they go through when they learn their trust has been betrayed.

We find MSM are candid about their personal lives, but reluctant to allow us to meet their wives, even in cases where they are out of the closet to them.

Watch our special show, Married in Public, Gay in Private, Friday at 9:30 pm (IST) on NDTV 24×7.

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August 21, 2009 at 4:28 pm

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I don’t blame Baba: Manvendra

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I don’t blame Baba: Manvendra

VINITA CHATURVEDI 20 August 2009, 12:00am IST

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There’s one thing about Baba Ramdeobaba! He has this endless penchant for getting into controversies.

Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/photo/4764554.cms

Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil

After calling homosexuality a ‘mental and psychological disease,’ the yoga expert has now gone ahead and publicly claimed that ‘this disease can be cured through yoga and pranayam.’ As these statements cause a lot of furore in different quarters, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, country’s first royal to go public about his sexual preferences, tells NT that he’s ready to take up Baba’s challenge head-on!

‘I don’t blame Baba, but his ignorance’
The prince of Rajpipla, who has also been featured in Oprah Winfrey show, blithely refutes the "tall claims made by Ramdeobaba." He reiterates his point, saying, "I’m also a trained yoga teacher and have been practising it for almost 25 years now. The first yam of Ashtangyog is satya, which means acceptance of truth. Asanas are the fourth step of this ancient science. When Baba is faltering at the first step itself and rejecting the basic principle, obviously his foundation is weak! Moreover, he hasn’t done any study on homosexuals, whereas I have been closely working with the community for HIV/AIDS awareness for the past 10 years through my NGO. In fact, initially I was surprised to know that even doctors weren’t aware about the problems and issues of the homosexuals because our education doesn’t equip them with this knowledge. So, I don’t blame Ramdeobaba, I only blame his ignorance!"

‘Cure me if you can!’
Ignorance or not, but now that baba has thrown down the gauntlet, Will Manav (as the prince is popularly known) take up the challenge? He answers without a moment’s hesitation, "Of course! Anytime! I am ready to stay at Baba’s ashram for even one year if need be! Let him cure me if he can!"

It’s time to steer his thoughts to some happier incidents, the recent gay parade in Mumbai for instance, where his presence attracted a lot of attention from the world media. Manav immediately perks up and says, "Despite the swine flu fear, at least 2000 people walked in this parade and many of them were our ‘straight’ supporters. It was heartening to see the parents walking with their gay children and doctors, engineers, lawyers supporting us. With Delhi High Court endorsing our cause, the social support is coming our way in abundance and we are no longer the criminals!"

My boyfriend’s from Nagpur’
The prince has another reason to smile these days. The royal, who has been longing for love for years and even went to the UK in search of love, has finally found his soul mate. He surprises us with his revelations, as he says, "I have found my true mate and boyfriend in Prajwal, and he’s from Nagpur. We are in a relationship for the past few months and Prajwal, who’s working for a well-known pharmaceutical company, has also told his family about us." Now that the congratulations are the order of the day, is he also planning to adopt a child anytime soon, as he had declared sometime back? "I will adopt a child eventually because our centuries old lineage requires an heir to carry out special social and religious duties. The question of adoption will arise only at the time of my succession," says Manav.

Celluloid calling!
Succession issues may not be imminent on his horizon, but what about the film that was being planned on his life? To this the prince says gleefully, "There are plenty of films coming up and all have been inspired by my life. There’s an English film, an American film and also a documentary film by an Italian filmmaker coming up based on my life story. I’m waiting to see how they are presented."

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August 20, 2009 at 11:06 pm

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