In a landmark ruling the Delhi High Court has decriminalised gay sex. This is the latest chapter in a long struggle by gay activists who rightly observe that Article 377 of the Indian constitution denies them basic human rights while legitimising discrimination and violence. The homophobic backlash has already begun with several commentators, among them India’s high-profile former-cabinet minister Lalu Prasad, condemning the High Court ruling.
There are several reasons for this gay victory but in my view HIV/AIDS and the disproportionate burden it places on gay men has been the most important. This may sound a paradox: surely a virus with such potentially devastating consequences could only undermine those unfortunate enough to be affected by it.
This would be true if HIV/AIDS affected only homosexual men. But HIV/AIDS is of course not confined to the gay community and can affect anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation. So wider society has been forced – for the benefit of it’s own survival – to acknowledge that the health of gay men matters to everyone. This simple and entirely logical point was made to me by Siddarth Dube, author of Sex Lies and AIDS, while I was working on the subject with him two years ago.
Because homosexual men are particularly susceptible to infection by the HIV/AIDS virus, intervention programs have channeled resources towards gay-rights groups and provided them a platform from which to campaign. Gay networks have been established and there is now a sense of solidarity and cautious optimism among a group that was once despairing and fractured. I have observed the same process of politicisation at work among other HIV/AIDS-affected communities while photographing them across India.
It is important to understand that legal recognition has not been bestowed upon India’s gay community. The Delhi High Court ruling is the result of long and ongoing struggle by those who have been brave enough to identify themselves as gay in what continues to be a deeply conservative society. Most gay men in India – quite understandably – choose to remain silent about their sexuality. I discovered this fact while working alongside my good friend Dilip D’Souza who writes an enlightening account of India’s hidden gay community here.
One group within gay society that are more visible than any other are India’s transexuals. The photograph above was taken while I was documenting the “Third Sex” Aravanis of Tamil Nadu state earlier this year. A string of recent legal victories for Aravanis mirrors the achievements of the wider Indian homosexual community. I will post more photographs from this series on the lives of Aravanis soon.