Saturday, 27 March 2010

Bollywood: behind closet doors

Back-view Bollywood: multipleImage by Meanest Indian via Flickr
Source: The Age

By Matt Wade

Bollywood isn't known for holding back. But something is missing from its assortment of muscle-bound idols and glamorous leading ladies: openly gay stars.

The glitzy entertainment hub, like the rest of the country, still likes to maintain traditional sexual identities, at least in public. But behind closed doors the sexual behaviour of many Indian men and women is much more complicated.

Ashok Row Kavi, an expert on India's sexual minorities, estimates that 40 million to 50 million Indian men have sex with other men, though most are married and relatively few would call themselves gay.

Mr Kavi, who in 1984 became one of the first Indians to come out openly as gay, believes that those who identify with India's gay community make up just 5 to 10 per cent of the country's homosexuals. They tend to be English-speaking and wealthy and are concentrated in major cities, especially Mumbai.

Sujan, a 21-year-old sex worker at Mumbai's busy Andheri railway station, reflects this complexity. He has been selling sex on the streets of Mumbai for four years and identifies himself as a homosexual. But every three months or so he switches to a traditional sexual identity when he goes home to his conservative Rajasthan village. ''It's different when I am in my village,'' he says. ''I have told my parents I will get married.''

Mr Kavi, an adviser to UNAIDS, has identified at least 13 distinct groups of men who have sex with other men in India, apart from the gay community. This includes India's traditional Hijra, or transgender community, itinerant transport workers such a truckies and the aspiring male actors who flock to Bollywood each year. Male film extras have been identified as vulnerable to HIV infection because many sell sex to survive between roles. They may also have to exchange sex for work.

''There is a gay culture very prevalent in Bollywood, but it's very internal and very protected,'' says Vivek Raj Anand, chief executive of the Humsafar Trust, a leading gay support group. ''In India we have this great contract of silence. It's like 'you know and I know and it's only when we start talking about it that it becomes a problem'.''

India has been talking more about homosexuality since a judgment by Delhi's High Court eight months ago effectively decriminalised homosexuality. It overturned a 150-year-old section of India's penal code, drafted during British colonial rule that outlawed ''carnal intercourse against the order of nature'' and imposed a 10-year jail term on offenders.

Activists say police harassment of gay people has declined significantly since the ruling.

But the court's intervention has coincided with a sharp rise in attacks on gay people, including a spate of brutal murders.

''The violence in the past few months is something I have not seen for 15 years,'' says the Humsafar Trust's Vivek Raj Anand. ''These are terrible hate crimes. For the first time in my life I have got threatening calls.''

Social activist Dr Anjali Gopalan, whose Naz Foundation made the petition that led to the court decision to decriminalise homosexuality, says it has done little to help lesbians. ''At some level there is an acceptance of male homosexuality but not women's,'' she said.

Mr Kavi, who founded India's first and only gay magazine, Bombay Dost, says gay identity politics is being shaped by rapid social and economic change.
''New urban lifestyles are developing very quickly in India but at the same time many people are still connected to their villages,'' he said. ''Traditional pressures mean a lot of people are getting married so their gay identity is sublimated.'' Mr Kavi estimates that 80 per cent of homosexual men in India are married to women and many continue to fulfil time-honoured roles in their extended families. Men from traditional families, especially in poor rural areas, are pressured to marry because it delivers their family a lucrative dowry.

At the same time, India's huge number of men who have sex with men has been hit by an HIV crisis. A decade ago there were fears that India was on the brink of an HIV epidemic to rival Africa's. So far that has been averted but India still has the highest number of estimated HIV cases in Asia and the third highest globally. The government puts the number of Indians with HIV at 2.5 million.

The official estimate of the HIV infection rate among homosexual men is 7.4 per cent, compared with 0.36 per cent in the general population. But some independent experts believe the rate among homosexuals is probably higher than 10 per cent.

Nalin Mehta, a spokesman for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said many homosexual men in India were ''marginalised, invisible and difficult to access''. In the past few months the fund has increased its contribution to HIV prevention in India in response to these challenges.

''Stigma and discrimination against these groups drives them underground and away from the public health system,'' Mr Mehta said. ''This makes these communities more vulnerable to HIV and the aim is to strengthen community-based systems that can drive HIV prevention messages and provide quality services.'' Australia has committed $A210 million since 2004 to the fund's work worldwide.

The Indian government accepts that 2.35 million homosexual men are at risk of HIV because of their sexual behaviour, such as regular visits to public sex sites. About 10 per cent of them are at very high risk because they have sex with 15 or more partners a month.

Because the rate of HIV infection is so high among homosexual men, and the majority are married, fears remain that this community will eventually be a bridge for the infection to spread more rapidly in the general population.

The diversity of India's homosexual community has also complicated efforts to treat those with HIV/AIDS. The global fund has helped India with an expansion in the delivery of anti-retroviral therapy. The number receiving this free treatment provided by the government has risen from 6800 in 2005 to more than 280,000. But it is likely that many in hard-to-reach groups, especially the homosexual and transgender community, are missing out.

Matt Wade went to Mumbai as a guest of the Global Fund for Aids.

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