India is a curious example of a society fascinated by sex in all its gory aspects, but which pays little attention to sexual health or alternative sexual orientation. The attitude has had grave consequences. With more and more Aids cases being uncovered each day most contracted through risky sexual behaviour its definitely time for action.
Theres comfort to be drawn from knowing that some have not been idle. Lawyer and human rights activist, Siddhartha Gautam, founded the Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA) in 1989 to raise public awareness on the issue and protest against discriminatory policies.
Gautam passed away in 1992 at the age of 28, consumed by Hodgkins disease, but the organisation continues his fight for the rights of minorities and people with HIV/AIDS, officially targetted high risk groups.
In the years before his death, ABVA has published a series of reports on the status of marginalised groups like commercial sex workers (CSWs), professional blood donors, and gays and lesbians, who are stigmatised by public policies and prejudices on AIDS. The third of these reports, entitled Less than Gay: A Citizens Report on the Status of Homosexuality in India popularly known as the pink book was published only a month before Gautams death.
In what is an annual tribute to Gautam as well as an extension of the organisations activities, ABVA recently held a day-long programme of film screenings at the Capitals Max Mueller Bhavan that dealt broadly with the topics of Aids, sexual health and alternative sexuality.
If to some the choice of films reflects an untenable connection between Aids and sexuality hetero or otherwise Anuja Gupta, one of the organisers of the screenings, offers a rationale: In the last few years a major part of Siddhart has work revolved around AIDS and sexuality and the politics of AIDS and sexuality. The films deal with this area of work.
The days programme constituted two sessions, with the first devoted to AIDS. The session began with Zindagi Umeed Ke Saye Mein, a documentary by Ramesh Venkatraman. The film was a personalised narrative of the implications of being HIV positive in India. And was a disconcerting window into a world where Aids victims combat medical apathy, quite apart from social rejection. Comments Anjali Gopalan, who works with Naaz, an HIV aid service organisation which deals with sexual health issues, It is hard to find sensitised and sensitive doctors who are willing to work with HIV-infected people in Delhi.
Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedmans film Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt was a hard-focus portrayal of five Americans from diverse backgrounds whose lives had only one common factor the Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome. Their names are added to an ever growing quilt that was first woven in 1987. The story, woven around the NAMES project AIDS memorial quilt, is an inside look at the pain, anger and helplessness that victims suffer against the incombatible killer.
The second session of the screenings dealt with the sexuality of subcultures and even discussed the problems of gays and lesbians with disabilities. The films threw up for discussion one of the important issues that ABVA has been working for, namely, public prejudice against marginalised subcultures. These films carried forward one of the messages of the Pink book: Gay and non-gay people alike urgently need relevant, non-moralistic safer sex education in the context of AIDS.
The first film in this session, Cheryl Duynes The Watermelon Woman told the story of a 25-year-old black lesbian struggling to make a documentary about an elusive black actress of the 30s, known as The Watermelon Woman. Double the Trouble, Twice the Fun, documented by Pratibha Parmar and written and conceived by Firdaus Kanga, revolves around a love relationship between two differently abled men and their defiance of their disabilities.
Rock Hudsons Home Movies, directed by Mark Rappaport, presented a fictional autobio-graphy of the late Hollywood star Rock Hudson which reveals the homo-erotic subtexts running through his otherwise heterosexual films. The film was a humorous, irreverent and sad portrayal of the plight of an actor trapped in an on-screen macho image, coping with the complexities and tribulations of a dual life. And the last film, Gay Bombay by Natalie Khanna, took a look at the gay and lesbian subculture in Mumbai through encounters with representatives of both groups.
But the real value of the screening sessions lay in its generation of awareness. For India, what is vital from both medical and social points of view, is a greater understanding of the issue. AIDS in the sub-continent is linked to heterosexual rather than homosexual behaviour, unlike in the West, where AIDS and homosexuality have been closely interlinked. The discussion after one of the screening sessions highlighted the fact that AIDS in this country is being transmitted very rapidly among a very large group. The causes are diverse the migratory nature of employment, high rates of IV drug use, transfusion of infected blood, to name a few.
What worries many is the fact that AIDS is not confined to CSWs. According to surveys done in neo-natal clinics in Pune, a very high rate of non-CSWs have tested HIV positive and this has been on the rise. As Gopalan says, 70 per cent of infected Indian women have just one risk factor their husband.
An estimated 8-9 per cent of the adult sexually active population can be infected with AIDS by the end of the century. And it is imperative to educate this section about making wiser sexual choices. As Gopalan puts it, What is important is not high risk groups in themselves, but high risk behaviour. There must be greater dissemination of information regarding AIDS which threatens to disable a major part of the adult working population. The economic implications could be disastrous for the country as well, human capital being our most important resource.
ABVAs programme performed the important function of foregrounding the right to individual choice. But it also offered a window into the pain that could result from the violation of those rights. It clearly outlines the Indian sexual agenda understand contradictions, accept alternate sexualities and act wisely.