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HIV/AIDS activism helps the marginalized emerge from shadows in India

A New Delhi community organization offers care and counseling, but also empowers gay, lesbian and transgender people.

September 15, 2013|By Noam N. Levey
  • An Indian sex worker belonging to the LGBT and HIV positive community listens to a speech during a protest against harassment last month in Bangalore.
An Indian sex worker belonging to the LGBT and HIV positive community listens… (Jagadeesh Nv / EPA )

NEW DELHI — Khushi Kumari had long kept her sexuality a secret, living alone like many of this sprawling city's gay, lesbian and transgender residents.

Today, Kumari, who was born male but lives as a woman, is out of the closet and has moved home with her family. "I said, 'Why hide it?'" Kumari explained one evening at Mitr Trust, an LGBT drop-in center in a bustling, working-class neighborhood of New Delhi. "It just made me depressed. I got mad hiding things all the time."

Kumari, wearing a brilliant yellow and green sari, gold-chain earrings and bright red fingernail polish, is a frequent visitor to Mitr, which she credits with giving her the confidence to live openly and seek medical care for her HIV infection. "Whatever you want to be, you can be here," she said.

Mitr, which means "friendship" in Hindi, was established to battle the spread of HIV/AIDS, as large boxes of condoms stacked in a corner attest. Its benefactors include a state health agency. But like many such community organizations, Mitr is also increasingly responsible for helping some of the most marginalized people emerge from society's shadows, providing medical care and financial counseling, even minting political activists.

Members of these groups now march annually through the streets of India's largest cities in World AIDS Day parades. In southern India, the nation's first transgender movie star runs a foundation devoted to empowering transgender Indians.

In many countries, gay men, transvestites and others most affected by HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, still suffer discrimination and violence. But as the global fight against the epidemic enters its fourth decade, the campaign's effect on civil society is emerging as one of its most profound legacies.

Some countries have granted rights to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community that go beyond those in the United States.

"This is the first disease where people affected demanded a seat at the table," said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist who heads the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins University. "LGBT communities are literally emerging out of the HIV response."

Same-sex marriage has been legalized in more than a dozen countries, including Argentina, South Africa and Uruguay. Thailand and Taiwan are among the places likely to follow, according to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

One of India's highest courts threw out a 150-year-old law that criminalized gay sex, a landmark ruling sought by activists and the government's AIDS office.

Many countries, including Mexico, Panama and Turkey, have guaranteed equal rights for transgender citizens. Argentina has required health insurance plans to cover sex-change surgery.

Even in Malawi, in sub-Saharan Africa, where activists still report widespread discrimination, billboards proclaim: "Sexual minorities have rights too — uphold, protect and respect their rights."

Activists have fueled these changes. So, too, have governments that have become more democratic and media that increasingly portray gay and transgender characters in the mainstream.

Equally influential in many places have been public health efforts, experts say.

"HIV/AIDS legitimized public discussions about confronting discrimination," said Sonia Correa, who studies sexuality policy at the Brazilian Interdisciplinary AIDS Assn.

Health officials realized they couldn't control the spread of the disease if gay men, sex workers and drug addicts remained hidden.

"When men who have sex with men or transgender people face discrimination and criminalization, they are less likely to access the HIV information … and services they need," said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe, who has made confronting prejudice a priority of the United Nations agency. Studies show that HIV prevalence is much higher among gay men in countries that criminalize homosexuality.

The push to de-stigmatize these communities reflects lessons learned in the United States, where many experts believe that grass-roots mobilizations in the 1980s and '90s helped turn the tide against the AIDS epidemic.

Major international donors, including the Gates Foundation, the U.S. government and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, have aimed spending at community-based groups that work with at-risk populations.

In India, targeted interventions are widely credited with helping prevent HIV/AIDS from exploding. Some experts predicted a decade ago that 25 million Indians would be infected. Today, 2.4 million are believed to have the virus.

"Without these community-based organizations, the government would never have reached these populations," said Robert Hecht, managing director of the Results for Development Institute, which has advised the Indian government.

In New Delhi, Mitr Trust now does much more than hand out condoms and preach safe sex.

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