Homophobia Is A Human Rights Issue

"In order to prevent and control HIV we must protect and promote the human rights of the homosexuals - the most vulnerable and typically marginalized sections of society" said Dr Mandeep Dhaliwal of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Dame Carol Kidu, the only woman amongst a 108 member strong parliament of Papua New Guinea (PNG), also feels the same. According to her any type of phobia is difficult to address, as phobias are based on unreasonable and illogical thinking. This is more so in the case of homophobia as deep rooted stigmas fuelled by conservative attitudes are hard to dispel. Read more

These discussions happened with Citizen News Service (CNS) Correspondent at the High Level Dialogue in Hong Kong to mark the International Day Against Homophobia as meaningful, and genuine. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (ACPOM) and the Center for Comparative and Public Law (CCPL) at the Faculty of Law, The University of Hong Kong also released the key findings and recommendations of the UNDP-APCOM study entitled: "Laws affecting HIV responses among men who have sex with men and transgender people in Asia and the Pacific: an agenda for action" during this High Level Dialogue to honour the International Day against Homophobia on Monday, 17th May 2010.

Discrimination and stigma in the name of tradition, religion and culture continues to plague the lives of LGBTs (lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders), denying them the basic human rights to live with dignity and equality. This has had far reaching ramifications in proper implementation of HIV/AIDS control and treatment measures. Justice Michael Kirby of Australia, feels that this discrimination stems from the infantile desire (rather disorder) that everyone should be the same. Diversity in any form is not tolerated easily. In fact it is looked down upon. From early childhood we are tutored to tread the well worn path. Swimming against the tide may be a good quote, but it is not encouraged in real life situations. Perhaps, any deviation from accepted norms is perceived as a threat by society at large.

The process of conformation starts from early childhood. In India, a male child is preferred over a female one. If God wills otherwise, then at least the girl should be fair in complexion and beautiful. She should grow up to be a coy, submissive and stereotyped woman who remains incomplete till she finds a proper groom (obviously of the opposite sex). Even while choosing a profession she is encouraged not to tread the male bastions. A man is supposed to be ruthless and brash, a woman meek and humble. Otherwise the former is ungenerously labeled henpecked and the latter is called unwomanly. It is something like one being of the right dimensions to fit into the photo frame which has already been made. If you do not wish to be hung as a picture, then you better be hanged.

A man is supposed to marry a woman with the sole aim of carrying forward the family name by producing a reasonable number of children –all the better if it is one boy and one girl – a rosy picture of a complete family. Even if one is heterosexual but does not wish to sire children, he or she is considered to be deviant and wayward. It is a comical but sad situation where we are judged not on the basis of honesty, integrity, justice but on how we dress, what we eat, how much we earn and what are our sexual preferences. We hide our intolerance behind the veil of religious and traditional values. We forget that everyone may not be fond of raising children or getting attracted towards the opposite sex, just as everyone cannot be a good surgeon or a good mathematician. But then, do we forsake our right to lead a decent life and be labeled as criminals? Well, this is exactly how the LBGTs are treated by us.

Justice Ajit Prakash Shah, the recently retired Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, has tried to set right this denial of equality and dignity to this marginalized section of society by declaring Section 377 unconstitutional last year. This was a very similar argument which was also used by India's first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru for repealing the very abhorrent Act related to certain tribes. Justice Shah's landmark judgment on same sex behaviour, might have created a lot of dust and heat, but it has woken up the Indian society from its deep slumber. People are at least debating this issue openly and not in hushed tones. Even the government is contemplating a nationwide discussion on it. Justice Shah has drawn clear lines between constitutional and public morality. Yet the two cannot exist in isolation. All law abiding citizens are duty bound to uphold constitutional morality which is always based on equality and freedom. Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the Indian Messiah of the dalits (down trodden) used the same argument to uphold constitutional morality while he fought for protecting rights for the underprivileged victims of a casteist society (dalits).

Shivananda Khan, who was conferred upon the prestigious Order of The British Empire (OBE) by the British Queen, for his services to HIV/AIDS prevention and among marginalized communities in South Asia, and who leads the Naz Foundation International (NFI), is optimist that though we have a long way to go, attitudes are changing slowly but surely. He found this High Level Dialogue a pleasant change from the murkier happenings in 2001 when some men of Naz Foundation in Lucknow, India were beaten up by the police and no one raised a voice against the atrocity. But today, people from various strata of society - be they judges, religious leaders, parliamentarians, social activists, journalists - are coming out of their closets and are joining hands to work for a better and just society. Unless we bring the LBGTs into the mainstream society, let them breathe freely and treat them with dignity, it will be difficult to control the epidemic of HIV/AIDS which will not only devastate lives but also increase the burden on economies, all over the world.

We must remember that our freedom ends where someone else’s begins.

One cannot be branded a criminal merely on the basis of sexual identity. Deviations from preset norms should not form the basis of ostracism. Inclusiveness should be the guiding principle of a prosperous society. Discrimination is the anti-thesis of equality, and it is the duty of all right minded citizens to drive away discriminatory practices from all walks of life. Only then can we qualify to be truly liberated.

Shobha Shukla
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service(CNS), Director of CNS Diabetes Media Initiative, and CNS Gender Initiative, has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP, and teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She is an invited journalist supported by the United Nations Development Programme(UNDP) and CNS, reporting on the International Day Against Homophobia from the above-mentioned High Level Dialogue in Hong Kong. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

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