Rights Here, Right Now: Where Are They For The Gay?

The XVIII International AIDS Conference (IAC) will take place in Vienna, Austria, (18-23 July 2010). The conference theme, Rights Here, Right Now, (which also aims to address the issues of men who have sex with men (MSMs), particularly in relation to HIV/AIDS), opens in the backdrop of a rainbow of hope and despair. There are some recent cheerful tidings to pep up an otherwise gloomy scenario for this marginalized community. Read more

The good news first: ---
Iceland's 67 years old gay PM Johanna Sigurdardottir married her long term same sex partner—writer Jonina Leosdottir on Sunday 27th June 2010, the day a new law took effect in the country, defining marriage as a union between two consenting adults regardless of sex.

Argentina on 16th July became the first Latin American country to legalize same sex marriages, following a landmark Senate vote, backed by President Cristina Fernandez's government.

Its first gay marriage is set for August 13, in Buenos Aires between actor Ernesto Rodriguez Larrese, 60, and Alejandro Vanelli, 61, who have lived together for 34 years. The couple had been denied a request to wed at the same location three years ago.

Maria Rachid, who heads the Argentine Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual Federation, said she expected around 100 same-sex couples to wed around the same date.

India’s first old age home for gays is being constructed in Rajpipla in (Gujarat) on the banks of Narmada by gay prince and scion of Rajpipla royal family, Manvendra Singh Gohil. A French couple, who will be the first residents of this home, plan to provide employment to their fellow occupants by involving them in a project for growing Spirulina, an important ingredient of health drugs. Gohil is the first Asian to initiate a project to deal with issues faced by old gay men. He runs a charitable trust, Lakshya, which is a community-based organization working for HIV prevention among MSMs.

Yet, the woes of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders (LGBTs) outweigh these stray rejoicings. In many countries, due to the existing social taboos, and criminalizing same-sex policies on one hand there is a high level of violence (in the form of rape, physical abuse, assaults, etc) against people with different sexuality, while on the other hand, most of these cases go unreported, due to the heavily biased attitude of the police against them.

John Godwin, a consultant to the UNDP, elaborated (in a recent conference) on data which demonstrates the precarious position of the Asia-Pacific’s HIV response. In its report, the UNDP believes that the already critical situation is “likely to get worse” if countries fail to act.

19 out of 48 countries across the Asia-Pacific region criminalise consensual male-to-male sex. Of these 19 countries, 16 are former British territories where anti-sodomy laws were introduced during colonisation. Despite the ascension to independence by all 16 countries, this remnant of colonialism remains in their penal codes.

Sex between adult males was decriminalized in India's National Capital Territory of New Delhi, by a landmark judgment given by Chief Justice AP Shah and Justice S Muralidhar about one year ago. But Supreme Court proceedings are still pending and the application to other jurisdictions has not been determined by the laws of the land.

Depression, harassment, relationship problems, loneliness, and social isolation, are among the few pressing mental health concerns that torment MSMs, sex workers and transgenders.

According to Aniruddh Vasudevan,  Director of Shakti Centre, Chennai , "Mental health issues and other barriers MSM have in accessing services need to be addressed too.  In a study done in Chennai,74% of MSM and transgender respondents had never accessed HIV services. When there is adequate self-esteem and self-respect, there is a natural desire to be healthy, to take care of one self, to engage in safer sexual practice. So none of what we do will be successful if we ignore mental health issues."

This could just be the tip of the iceberg. Despite what we claim, the assumption that HIV interventions are reaching out to all MSM and transgender people is probably not right.

Dr Venkatesan Chakrapani of India feels that “There are barriers at the individual level regarding health. The situation needs to change so that MSM and transgenders have better understanding about health issues and increased access to non-discriminatory health care services Among the health care providers, in general there is a negative attitude towards both MSM and transgender people. At the policy level, focus should not only be on  bringing down the HIV prevalence as a whole, but also upon the individual. Currently HIV counselling is not dealing with broader sexual health issues. We need a robust comprehensive national health strategy for sexual minorities to address issues related to physical, sexual, and mental health."

Shivananda Khan, who is  internationally recognized for his services to HIV/AIDS prevention among marginalized communities in South Asia, and Chief Executive, Naz Foundation International, rightly feels that this issue has two components –the legal component, by way of primitive and punitive laws and the insensitive and biased attitude of the administrations, and the second component, which involves behavioural attitude of fellow citizens, which treats MSMs and transgenders like social outcasts and perpetrates a whole range of inhuman and violent actions against them.

The need for collaborative and holistic approach to help better the quality of life of MSM and transgenders is undoubtedly compelling, and goes beyond HIV prevention, treatment, care and support programmes. What is needed is a political will for enforcing the law and people recognizing the value of dignity and a societal acceptance of these values. With dignity, the right to life and dignified livelihood of everyone has to be respected. It cannot be forgotten (as is envisaged in the Indian Constitution) that discrimination is the antithesis of equality, and that it is the recognition of equality which will foster the dignity of every individual.

It is hoped that the call of XVIII IAC 2010Rights Here, Right Now” will translate into actual and meaningful action on the right to dignity and self-determination, to equal access to healthcare and to life-saving health programmes for all, especially the marginalized sections of society.
Shobha Shukla
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS), has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP, and teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

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