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Last year, police in the Indian city of Lucknow stumbled on a male sex-worker and his client arguing about money on a deserted road. The next evening the police raided a dingy park near the railway station where cruising homosexuals and male sex-workers mingle with the homeless street people and bleary-eyed commuters. They arrested five people including two alleged pimps and an ‘outreach worker’ from a local non-governmental group (NGO). The outreach worker led them to the offices of Naz Foundation International (NFI), an NGO founded by British Asians, which provides support to community-based projects on male sexual health and HIV/AIDS prevention. In recent years NFI has emerged as a major NGO working on AIDS and men in India, active in more than a dozen cities. The regional director of NFI in Lucknow is Arif Jafar, a veteran activist who established one of the country’s first gay groups, Friends India. Two days after the arrests, Jafar and three activists from NFI and another group, Bharosa, were arrested under anti-sodomy and anti-obscenity laws. The charge: ‘promoting homosexuality’.
In supporting the charges, police produced the replica of the penis used to demonstrate the proper use of condoms and claimed it was a sex toy. They also claimed an air-conditioned suite at the Naz Foundation offices (meant for its UK-based director) was evidence of a sex club.
Jafar and his colleagues were jailed for 47 days and denied bail — the magistrate called them ‘a curse on society’.
Most local journalists parroted the view that homosexuality was ‘alien’ to Indian culture. The Times of India reported a police bust of a prostitution ring and sex club operating ‘under the garb of imparting HIV and AIDS awareness programmes…’
The initial response from other NGOs to the NFI bust was cautious. Gay groups in Bangalore, Bombay and Calcutta protested. But local NGOs were reluctant to jump into the fray. It was left to activists from Delhi to help organize the first public protest in Lucknow.
It appears that many Lucknow gay activists distrust NFI. They were surprised at the size of the Foundation’s outside funding and their state-of-the-art office. They believe that NFI is poaching their workers and splitting existing gay groups. And they say they have problems working with an organization that is run by ‘remote control’ from London.
NFI spokesmen are dismissive of criticism. They attribute it to personal pique and envy. Off the record, one even accused a leading gay activist of being responsible for the raid.
There is a strange irony in this.
In the 1990s the strength of the Indian gay community grew under the umbrella of AIDS activism. By involving themselves in HIV/AIDS education, activists could carry on a simultaneous struggle for gay rights. And it was foreign-funded organizations who ensured that ‘men-having-sex-with-men’ (MSM) were recognized as a vulnerable group.
The technical term, MSM, covers a larger group of vulnerable people than the word ‘gay’ with its baggage of identity politics. NFI workers identified the koti as the traditional Indian identity. A koti is a non-English speaking, lower-middle or working-class, transgendered homosexual. He might be a cross-dresser, is often married and usually the passive partner with his ‘man’, who is usually bisexual. Kotis are sometimes sex-workers and often justify it as a way of earning to pamper their men.
MSM-related identities like the koti are now being contrasted to being gay which is labelled élitist and foreign. In a society where there had been traditions of bonding between homosexual men across class and language, a rift has been created. That this argument comes from mainly foreign-funded activists infuriates many.
It has spawned a divisive debate. As one young man worries: ‘I told my mother I am gay. Now some of my friends tell me I am actually a koti. I don’t think she knows what koti is. I am not going to explain that to her.’
The homophobia and insensitivity to AIDS issues of the Indian state, the judiciary and the press became clear in Lucknow. It is now up to gay and MSM activists to do some serious introspection and build bridges to fight this more effectively.
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