As the LGBTQ community awaits the verdict on Section 377 that criminalises homosexuality, health workers and queer collectives said the fight against HIV would get a major boost if awareness on disease prevention could be publicly spread. Data from the National Aids Control Organisation (NACO) showed there were 12,598 men, who have sex with men (MSM), and 3,532 transgenders registered for screening of HIV in Mumbai.
Latest data from the Mumbai District Aids Control Society (MDACS) showed 69 MSM and 20 transgenders had been diagnosed as HIV positive in Mumbai in 2018. In 2017, there were 73 MSM diagnosed as HIV positive. According to MDACS officials, many health workers supporting NACO in its HIV awareness campaign for targeted groups belong to the queer community, and are often mistaken as sex workers by the police.
Nikhil Kambli, an outreach worker for Humsafar Trust, an organisation that provides health and social support to LGBTQ people, said as part of NACO guidelines, it is essential to raise awareness on safe sex to prevent HIV transmission. “Two years ago I was given Vile Parle area to reach out to the community,” Kambli, a gay man himself, said. The 24-year-old was beaten up by two men at Vile Parle station and later threatened by police that they would register a case after a bag full of condoms and dildos was found in his possession.
“I had a notice from the NGO detailing the work we do. But harassment still comes our way,” Kambli said, adding that senior NGO officials had to intervene.
As part of targeted intervention, health workers need to distribute condoms and raise awareness on safe sex. Another 25-year-old outreach worker, who works in Kandivali region to promote safe sex amongst transgenders and gay men, said, “About five years ago I was taken to police station after they found condoms in my bag. They alleged that I was running a sex racket.”
According to official from MDACS, Section 377 makes it illegal to promote safe sex among gay men, transgenders and lesbians. NACO has, however, made inroads into the community and condom distribution is a huge component of HIV/AIDS prevention campaign.
“We are planning an advocacy session with police officials on how we build trust between police and outreach workers… Usually lower-rank officials don’t understand that condom distribution to targeted groups is part of NACO activity,” said Shrikala Ach-arya, project director for MDACS.
She added that there had been a decline in the number of HIV positive cases in the queer community in the last one decade. According to Ashok Row Kavi, LGBTQ rights activist, sensitisation sessions are also held in Nashik police academy. “Where police are sensitised, they do not detain health workers. The problem exists with officials who are not sensitised. They feel unnatural sex is being promoted by condom distribution,” Kavi said.