Ashok Row Kavi of Humsafar Trust, a petitioner, talks to The Indian Express on the fight that is won and the one that lies ahead
How did the battle against Section 377 begin for you?
I am a journalist. I reviewed books on homosexuality in The Indian Express. In 1989, I went to the international AIDS Conference in Montreal and saw they were struggling to get funding for HIV. If a powerful gay community in the US was not getting funding as thousands of gay men were dying, how bad would the situation be in India? In 1990, I started Bombay Dost. It was the first registered newsletter for LGBTQI. We were getting 2,000-3,000 letters per month with messages like, “I feel I want to die”. This meant constructive work, and not just ‘agony aunt’ columns, was required. In 1994, we decided that we would work in Bombay and its surroundings. The editorial board of Bombay Dost became the board of directors of Humsafar Trust.
What were some of the interventions that Humsafar Trust made?
We started responding to sexual distress and conducting counselling sessions. People came with questions such as “I can’t go to the family doctor with STI, he will ask how I got it”. So, we set up an STI clinic. All along, it became clear that Section 377 was coming in my way. That’s the reason ours is a data-heavy petition.
What was the process of coming to terms with your sexuality?
The real coming out is to oneself and the family. I was extremely lucky to have a family where my father, a film producer, was more of a friend. I came out in 1984. I used to be intrigued by the behaviour of other boys when girls arrived in the playground — they would start giggling. To me, that was a little weird. I did not see girls as sexual objects. I found my captain sexual.
How does the culture of silence affect the sharing of knowledge within the gay community?
How does a community grow? Older people teach younger ones about shared history and traditions. This doesn’t seem to happen in the gay community. Look at how HIV is going up in certain places. It means we have not learnt anything from our community, which makes me wonder, is there a community? What I tried to do was to form and mobilise a community through Bombay Dost. Humsafar Trust became a process to look at health issues, mental health issues, among others.
Is the verdict the end of the fight?
Mindsets have to change. Even today, when you go for blood donation, they ask if you have had sex. If you say you have had it with another man, they immediately say no. But, we have made progress. I was working with UNAIDS for five years and we had workshops with punitive laws over a period of two and three years in Delhi. People came from all over India.