“70% Of Gay Indian Men Married To Women”: Humsafar Trust
When Pallav Patankar began feeling suicidal, he sought help by writing a letter to the magazine Bombay Dost. He was only a teenager, so there were limits to what the editorial staff could actively do to help him. Bombay Dost was India’s first registered queer magazine, and assistance to teenagers could potentially run afoul of sex laws, or worse, reinforce homegrown stereotypes that most gay men are pedophiles. “I was feeling at that time that the only thing I could be when I grew up was a hairdresser or something [stereotypical] like that,” said Patankar, who is now 37. “I needed to talk to someone.” Today, he is the director of HIV programs for the Humsafar Trust, an organisation born out of the Bombay Dost that aims to give people like the teenaged Patankar the help they are seeking.
According to the National AIDS Control Organisation’s (NACO) Department of AIDS Control, roughly 0.36 per cent of the Indian population is living with HIV/AIDS. NACO’s statistics show that 7.8 per cent of the country’s gay men are HIV positive or living with AIDS. In India’s hijra community, where stigmatisation and discrimination often push transgendered people into a life of sex work and prevent them from receiving adequate medical care, the rate is far higher—independent studies conducted by Humsafar Trust put the number at somewhere between 29 to 40 per cent. In Mumbai, owing to the high density of population, these percentages are believed to be even higher. We spoke to Patankar at Humsafar Trust’s third-floor office in Santa Cruz—a chaotic work environment he jokingly refers to as “200 flaming queens going crazy”—to find out the obstacles his organisation faces in controlling Mumbai’s AIDS crisis. Edited excerpts:
How did the Humsafar Trust come to exist?
Bombay Dost [the magazine] started in 1990. It was created by Ashok Row Kavi who was seeing what the AIDS epidemic was doing [in the West] and started to worry about the effect it would inevitably have on India. Most people didn’t even know how to use a condom back then. So, he created the magazine as a way of talking directly to the Indian [LGBT community]. Originally, the magazine was intended to sell for Rs20, but a lot of people didn’t want to sell it or go near it. It was before the Internet of course, and Bombay Dost had dating and hook-up ads for gay men. So, what ultimately ended up happening was that the magazine would end up getting sold in the black market as pornography for Rs200 a piece, ten times the value. Despite all of this, people [like myself] would go onto discover the magazine and seek help [from the editors]. The overwhelming response gave birth to the Humsafar Trust in 1994.
Were you taken seriously as an organisation by the government?
The national director of Health and Education, and the Ministry of Health didn’t want anything to do with us at first. Ashok had to lobby very hard for funding. He believed that government-based funding would lead to increased sustainability and it has.
What percentage of your funding comes from the government today?
Ninety to 95 per cent.
One of your duties as director is to organise interventions. Can you give us a rough idea of what one of these interventions is like?
Sure. An intervention worker goes to a sex site and provides useful information about HIV/AIDS, and safe sex. [We] try to do this in a non-threatening manner, in a way that helps people accept their sexuality.
Forgive our ignorance, but what is a sex site?
A sex site is anywhere where [gay men] are meeting for sex. Most probably, it’ll be a public toilet, or a beach. The participants involved will know the time and place to meet at the site. They’ll know the lingo, the coded language to use. An outreach worker doesn’t go there to catch people in the act, of course. He’ll go to befriend these guys at the site, and initiate a conversation about safe sex.
Why are interventionists so crucial to the process of limiting the transmission of HIV?
Well, the majority of men at risk are not talking to a doctor about this or anyone else. Gay Indian men are married to women at rates as high as 70 per cent, if you can imagine. So, this is not a group that feels comfortable [coming out]. Ask yourself: Why would someone choose to have sex on some beach? By engaging in public sex, these men are essentially saying, “I don’t have a private place to be [with my partner]. My family doesn’t support this behaviour. My landlord might remove me from the property. A hotel might kick me out.” It’s not only Mumbai; this is a pattern we see throughout India.
You mention that the majority of gay men are married to women. Doesn’t that put a lot of women at the risk of HIV/AIDS?
Yes, of course.
How many women have been transmitted HIV/AIDS from a closeted partner?
We haven’t been able to assess that [number] in any meaningful way. We’ve tried to help refer women to family planning organisations by reaching out to gay men who are married to women. But the [problem] is that very few men want to participate and be outed.
Why are the rates of heterosexual marriage so high among gay men in India?
We’re not a welfare state. When you’re old, it’s [the family unit] that ends up taking care of you and supporting you. Many gay men feel that pressure very acutely. They fear the insecurity that comes with not having that protection late in life. It leads to a lot of trouble. For example, I get men coming to me here asking, “Can you help me make the case that [my wife] is of a bad moral character so I can divorce her?” The answer is no. It’s a shame we can’t be there to urge a man not to get married.
Is class a factor in this marriage issue?
It happens everywhere [along class lines] but it’s more common in the middle- and lower classes. I think it’s easier to be rich and gay in this country because of education levels in [the man’s] family. Also, among lower classes, there’s the unspoken truth that sons who become husbands act as currency. We do still have a dowry system even though many don’t want to acknowledge it. So in rejecting marriage, there can be economic fallout.
Are you pleased with the progress you’ve made in slowing down the transmission of HIV/AIDS?
Right now, we have seven targeted interventionists working in this city on a regular basis. Humsafar is now present in five states. But there’s a lot of work to do.
What are the goals right now for the gay rights movement in India, and where does it stand at present?
India is a country of over one billion people. We have vastly different mindsets. Some of us are living in completely different time periods. Right now, the gay population is fighting against those obstacles to achieve our constitutional rights. The conservative opposition is fighting to maintain social norms. But we believe that no society is static. Norms change. India at different eras means radically different things: tenth century, 15th century, 16th century India. We have a long way to go presently because we still accept colonial British mores, Victorian era mores, as our own. What I hope to see is an India where we no longer need Humsafar, where we no longer need “queer” film festivals, where we no longer need separations like this from the rest of Indian culture. One day, I’d just like it to live in a unified India.