Friday, August 6, 2010

'Saying I'm HIV+ is tough; saying I'm gay is tougher'

Hyderabad: It is a Sunday morning. Outside Hyderabad, at a Rajasthani-style resort named Dhola-ri-dhani, close to 500 men have gathered. The younger among them seem to be in their 20s, the seniors in their 60s. They speak softly, but warmly to each other. Many of them know each other through previous secret meetings but if they were to meet outside, they would not acknowledge that. It would be as though they have never met before. But here they are at peace in a gathering where they can be themselves.The technical term used to describe them is MSM: Men Who Have Sex with Men. The group gathered here has bisexuals, homosexuals, and transgendered individuals. There are cross-dressers too, conspicuous with their elaborate hair-dos and bright outfits and what appear to be deliberately feminine mannerisms.The meeting has been organized by the Andhra Pradesh AIDS Control Society and local NGOs who want to build a greater support system for the 60,000 men in Andhra Pradesh who have sex with other men. There is a sense of urgency. HIV is shooting up in the community - from 9 to 11% in the last two years.Vivek tested positive for HIV in 2003. His wife knows that. What he hasn't told her is that he contracted the infection when he lived in Mumbai as a young man. To supplement his income as a receptionist, he worked as a paid sex worker. Since his teens, Vivek knew that he was sexually attracted to men. But the fear of rejection by his family and society, he says, nudged him into marrying a cousin He has a 12-year-old daughter now. Vivek says it was humiliating and debilitating to tell his family that he is HIV positive; but telling them about his sexual preference is impossible.That is the startling consensus here - that the stigma of being gay is more domineering and substantial than that of being HIV positive. And this is what worries health workers. That while society is, however gradually, being trained to overcome its prejudice against HIV and AIDS, there is no comparable progress in how it perceives or treats homosexuality. ``In India, it is still a crime," says Vivek.More than a year ago, a landmark judgement saw the Delhi High Court decriminalizing homosexuality under Section 377. That verdict has been challenged in the Supreme Court, whose ruling is awaited. The government, however, has not appealed against the High Court's decision. Chances are, experts say, that the ruling will not be over-turned.But the gap between legal acceptance and everyday life is expansive and isolating. Nayeem, now in his 30s, came out to his father 10 years ago. It was traumatising for both father and son. After six daughters, his father responded, he wanted his only son to be a "proper man." Nayeem has held his ground, refusing to marry. But his sexual preference remains a secret. "With HIV status, people may taunt you a couple of times. Then they accept. But it is not like that with homosexuality. They humiliate you everywhere, call you a hijra," he says.The six -hour-long meeting encourages men gathered here to swap stories and understand that they need to access medical extension services offered by the government and NGOs. And, also, more importantly, help others who find it very difficult to come out and seek guidance. To learn how they can lead a life of their choice and still protect themselves from HIV. Considerable time is spent explaining the need for regular tests. The gathering is familiarised with the exclusive drop-in centre for MSMs, the only one of its kind possibly in the country. Health workers explain that they are lobbying for MSM-specific condoms, with more lubricants, to soon be made available in the market.At 5 pm, Vivek is ready to leave. He will tell his wife that he spent the day at his office.


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