To Fight HIV, Indian Health Workers Say Homosexuality Must Be Legal : Shots - Health News Public health workers are advocating to keep homosexuality legal to fight against HIV/AIDS. India's Supreme Court began a six-week-long recess today without ruling on homosexuality, which has captivated many in the country.

To Fight HIV, Indian Health Workers Say Homosexuality Must Be Legal

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In India in 2009, homosexuality was decriminalized in a court decision. Opponents of that ruling have petitioned India's Supreme Court to reverse it. Indian gay rights organizations are fighting to maintain the decision. They argue that the legal recognition of India's gay community has helped in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Reporter Christopher Werth picks up that story from Mumbai.


CHRISTOPHER WERTH, BYLINE: It's just after nightfall as Anandrag Davinder leads me down a dark alley beside a busy rail station.


ANANDRAG DAVINDER: OK. Then we'll go to some other place.

WERTH: Davinder is an outreach worker among Mumbai's mostly hidden community of gay men and our stop is a squalid row of urinal buildings where gay men go to meet hidden from public view.

So we're going into a toilet. Yeah?

We step inside to a crowded, nearly pitch black room. The stench is overwhelming.

DAVINDER: This is a loo. This is a cruising center. All the gays are standing here only and saying, I like these guys. I want to do sex with this person.

WERTH: The men here are among what Davinder calls India's key population, those most at risk of HIV. He and his colleague, Husefa Saigoonwala, come here every week to pass out handfuls of condoms.

HUSEFA SAIGOONWALA: We are distributing the condoms to motivate our community to use safer sex practices.


WERTH: Back at the office, their boss, Vivek Anand, barely has time to show me around.

VIVEK ANAND: So this is the clinic and that's our lab.

WERTH: Anand heads the Humsafar Trust, which provides free HIV tests and other health services to Mumbai's gay community. He says, in just the past three years, the reach of organizations like this has increased tenfold, thanks in part to a 2009 ruling in Delhi's high court. It struck down a 148-year-old law known as Section 377, a holdover from British colonial rule that criminalized homosexuality. Many former British colonies still have Section 377 laws and, under the legislation, Anand says, gay men and women were largely ignored by India's efforts to tackle HIV and AIDS.

ANAND: Three years ago, we were providing services to 30,000. Three years later, we are providing services to 300,000. That wouldn't have been possible had the (unintelligible) not been in place.

WERTH: And with that wider outreach, Anand says, has come a more accurate account of just how prevalent HIV is among India's gay population.

ANAND: That's the purpose. That's the idea. Let more and more people come out so that we know what is the exact number of HIV positive people in the community.

WERTH: According to the Indian government, the HIV prevalence among gay and bisexual men in India is just over seven percent compared to an overall prevalence of less than one percent.

Some Indian religious leaders and other groups are using those figures to argue that homosexuals are fueling a rise of HIV in India. They've petitioned India's supreme court to overturn the Delhi high court ruling and say homosexuality doesn't have a place in Indian culture.

Efforts to reach several of those groups were unsuccessful, but members of India's government have, at times, shared similar views. At an AIDS conference in Delhi last year, India's health minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, referred to homosexuality as a disease.

GHULAM NABI AZAD: (Through Translator) Unfortunately, this disease where a man has sex with another man found more in the developed world has spread to our country. Gay sex is completely unnatural and should not exist, but it does.

WERTH: The minister later played down those comments and, earlier this year, the Indian government reversed its position before the Supreme Court. It now says it supports legalizing homosexuality and the abolition of Section 377. India's supreme court could decide the case when it returns from recess in July. But Vivek Anand, of the Humsafar Trust, warns that even if the court upholds the ruling that homosexuality is legal, gay men and women in India still face widespread discrimination by police and health care providers.

He says, last year, one of his HIV-positive team members died after a hospital initially refused to give him advanced treatment for HIV because of his sexual orientation.

ANAND: I was totally ashamed of myself and guilt-ridden that my boy died. My boy died because his second line treatment was delayed. If this is happening to my team with all our resources and all our work behind us, you can imagine what must be the situation outside.

WERTH: He says changing the law is one thing. Changing minds is a whole other challenge.

For NPR News, I'm Christopher Werth.


SIEGEL: That report from India came to us with help from the International Reporting Project in Washington, D.C.


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