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HIV, sexuality and identity in India

There has been a legitimate emergence of sexual minorities in India over the last decade. But even as transsexuals or sex workers exult in the opportunity to be heard and seen in mainstream society, we must realise that this is just one small evolutionary step towards raising the self-esteem of marginalised groups, says Maya Indira Ganesh

Kalpana (not her real name), at the tender age of 21, attends national HIV/AIDS conferences and rubs shoulders with the likes of West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya, NACO (National AIDS Control Organisation) Director Meenakshi Dutta-Ghosh, and actress Nandita Das. The conference, organised by the West Bengal State Aids Prevention and Control Society (WBSAPCS) in Kolkata recently, was one of the first times that Kalpana and others like her have been invited to speak and participate. Thus far Kalpana's activism has been restricted to meetings organised by local NGOs, political rallies, and community outreach work in her native Bangalore. However this sudden move up in the world of NGO networking, and within the prestigious and cash-rich HIV/AIDS sector at that, does not daunt this diminutive young girl. She can be seen actively working the room, forthright about HIV and human rights.

But this unusually early awakening does not take away from Kalpana-the-girl, who like her peers is dressed in the latest Bollywood fashion and strives to be immaculately made-up. What sets her apart from your average girl next door with a passion for social activism is that she was born a boy, and underwent a sex change operation. She is not a hijra, nor even a transgendered bisexual lesbian (as she will tell you when you press for details), because anyway, “what matters is that I am a sexual minority”.

In the last decade NGOs championing the rights of sexual minorities have mushroomed across the country. What began as a trickle with Bombay Dost and underground lesbian soirees in decadent Delhi and Bombay is now a brisk stream of helplines, support groups and newsletters in at least every self-respecting city. That Kalpana is invited to attend a state-sponsored HIV/AIDS conference is one indication of the legitimate emergence of sexual minorities in India. And being able to address such public forums with dignity is in some part thanks to the HIV epidemic in India.

India's AIDS Control Programme initiated in 1987 has used the concept of ‘targeted interventions' to implement prevention efforts, its basic purpose being to: “reduce the rate of transmission among the most vulnerable and marginalised populations…such as sex workers, intravenous drug users, men having sex with men, truckers, migrant labour and street children”. (NACO website, 2003).

It was in the mid-'90s that NGOs like the Delhi-based Naz Foundation began to focus on HIV transmission in the men-having-sex-with-men (MSM) population, with the initiative of self-identified gay men. Gay men's assumed promiscuity and penchant for anal-penetrative sex earned HIV/AIDS the unfortunate epithet of the ‘gay disease' in the West. And so too in India support groups and helplines were a first step to bring these ‘at risk' groups out into the open. Through education and a sense of community the stigma and shame associated with their alternative lifestyles had to be erased. The label, and the exclusive support group, are considered effective in bringing pride and self-worth to marginalised groups. In a culture that shuns expressions of sexual plurality, boys who dress as girls, men who love men, and others like them on the fringes are hungry for a space to call their own.

Eventually some were trained as outreach workers to raise awareness about HIV and condom usage amongst their (sexual) communities. And there many of them have appeared to stay, well within the biomedical paradigm of sex and disease. But sex is not an easy force to tame, and limp instructions along the lines of ‘AIDS kills', ‘Use a condom with a sex worker', and ‘Don't indulge in multiple relationships' do nothing to tap into the capricious, complex dynamics of pleasure, violence, desire, guilt, intimacy, gender and culture, all of which are woven into a tapestry called sexuality. If trite exhortations to use condoms worked, India wouldn't have over 3.9 million HIV-positive people. Sexual behaviour change techniques have to reach deep into the psyche of an individual, a group, a sexual pattern, and understand its structure before it can be changed. For, “risk behaviours are not merely divided into separated and uncontested categories, individuated and isolated from each other. They tend to be perverse and polymorphous, situated in a socialised context that has a history, a position, and reflect personal/social needs, desires, and fantasies. We ignore this at our own peril…” (Khan, 2003)

Few attempt to understand this, for it is tricky, painful, and daring, but there are exceptions. Shivananda Khan, the founder and executive director of the London-based Naz Foundation International (NFI) says in a classic piece on South Asian masculinities, that the term ‘gay' is a Western import, and any HIV prevention strategy (or any other discourse) based on this paradigm is going to be ineffective and downright inaccurate in India (Khan, 1995). The Indian sexual canvas is vast and poorly documented, and thanks to pioneers like Khan spaces for indigenous masculine sexualities, desires, and gender-bending exist. Thus there are not just Indian gay men, but Kothis, Parikhs/Panthis, Dublis, Hijras, Ackua Kothis, as well.

In the ‘90s again, commercial sex workers (CSWs) began to mobilise and form their own self-administered groups. Two CSW organisations emerged, where women in the trade proudly identified themselves, spoke at meetings and conferences, and ran their NGOs: DMSC – the Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee – in Kolkata, and in Sangli district of Maharashtra, SANGRAM, an organisation started by Meena Seshu that seeks to “create a collective consciousness among women in prostitution to increase their ability to negotiate safety independently, and assert their rights.” (Sangram, Point of View & VAMP, 2002)

So while it seems that the meek of the earth are coming into their inheritance, there are many wheels within wheels that deserve to be explored. The official focus on HIV prevention within such ‘high-risk' groups in fact reinforces the myth of non-procreative-outside-of-marriage sex as dangerous, and of such ‘deviant' groups being primary vectors of the disease. It cannot be ruled out therefore that members of these minority groups also see HIV/AIDS as their greatest threat, rather than a symptom of disempowering sexual scripts. Worse still, these efforts amount to nothing without an incisive discourse around the social and cultural forces that keep this epidemic steaming ahead. If a rigorous gender analysis were applied to some of these identities it would become apparent that there is nothing really ‘alternative' about them, and that they perfectly mirror the most unequal heterosexist notions that derogate women, femininity, and sexuality. (Bannerjee and Ganesh, 2003).

So as a hijra or sex worker exults in the opportunity to be heard and seen in mainstream society, we must realise that this is just one small evolutionary step, and not an end in itself. When a ‘kothi' abhors the label ‘gay', or when the ‘gay' man can refuse to be in the same support group as a ‘panthi', or the ‘hijra' claims difference from all of the above, warning bells must be heard. Does an identity make your sex safer, or does it merely give you new ways of playing out old inequalities? Or a stolen season of acceptance?

Anindya Hajra of Pratyay, a Kolkata-based men's group, presents a welcome diversion. He says that the organisation is moving away from the equation MSM/Kothi/gay equals sexual health/HIV and traditional condom distribution drives, and focuses instead on “deeper social, cultural, and political forces (and) discourses of masculinities that fuel the epidemic.” It is really, he says, about “understanding the ramifications of an identity… personally, professionally…We are about encouraging a dialogue at all levels…and not about HIV or sexual health, because that is only one of our needs…But the present constructions of gender and sexual identities are where the answers to behaviour change lie… These questions have to be taken up by all males, and anyone thinking about their identity.”

In an exceedingly imperfect world riddled with sexual and gender bigotry, a label, an identity, or a self-administered NGO are only the first steps in raising the self-esteem of marginalised groups. People like Hajra, Khan, and Seshu understand this, and understand that sexual identity is a complex thing. “Sexual identities arise within the context of the psycho-social and historical dynamics that are mediated by culture and language. Differing cultures will have different meanings…the social invisibility of sexual behaviours, gender segregation, Indian male homo-affectionalism, male ownership of public space, shame cultures,… a personal sense of self subsumed into a family sense of self, male and female social roles as definers of gender and adulthood...all have a central impact upon the constructions of sexual behaviours that are framed by differing contextual identities.” (Khan, 1995).

But the challenge lies in ensuring a trickle-down effect, for the de/constructions of these identities, the dialogue around gender, sexuality, power, and culture seem to come easily to the leaders of a revolution. To those who have been deprived of every space and opportunity (and not just sexual), the comfort of language and definition takes over. In an India where the class, religious, linguistic and sexual identities paint themselves into fragile spaces, and demand a lexicon of political correctness, a robustness of Self over Identity is sorely required.

So you ask Kalpana what her work is really about, and she has a simple way of putting it. “About learning to accept and love people who you think are different. In the end it doesn't matter what you call yourself. We are all human, we are all the same anyway.” And in the end a sly little virus thinks so too.


  1. Bannerjee, P and Ganesh, M: Kothi and MSM sex work, poverty, and exclusion, Pukaar – the journal of the Naz Foundation International, Issue 42, July 2003.
  2. Khan, S: Cultural constructions of male sexualities in India, 1995
  3. Khan, S: Questions and Thoughts, Pukaar – the journal of the Naz Foundation International, Issue 42, July 2003.
  4. National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) website: www.naco.nic.in
  5. Sangram, Point of View & VAMP: Of Veshyas, Vamps, Whores, and Women. Volume 1, No. 3, November 2002.

(Maya Indira Ganesh writes on issues related to gender and health. She has been associated with several organisations working with gender, sexuality, child sexual abuse and domestic violence)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2003

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