LGBT Intolerance: A Common Bond between Nigeria and India

The fight against 377 will continue in India even as many countries adopt regressive laws.

The fight against 377 will continue in India even as many countries adopt regressive laws.

Five years ago today – July 2, 2009 – was a historic day for India’s gay movement. On that day, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality. This ruling marked a sea change, a transformative moment when a history of intolerance was at last ended.

Though correct, the judgment was sadly impermanent, being overturned by the Indian Supreme Court last December, reinstating an archaic law from the British colonial era that criminalized homosexuality as “against the order of nature.” A month later, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed the controversial Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill, which bans not only same-sex marriage, but also homosexual behavior, organisations that advocate for gay rights, and even gatherings of members of the LGBT community.

Current laws in both India and Nigeria disregard the basic rights of each country’s citizens. Bisi Alimi, the first Nigerian to come out on national television there, said, “The difference between India and Nigeria is that while in India, it’s the penal code regarding homosexual behaviour that has been reinstated, Nigeria has actually gone through a process of constitutional criminalisation of homosexuality and homosexual relationships.”

While the criminalisation of homosexuality in Nigeria is certainly more sweeping than India, these laws are not confined to simply policing private spaces. The law in India has been often used to justify harassment of sexual and gender minorities in public. India is also experiencing an uptick in cases of violence against the LGBT community, although most go unreported, and for the ones that make news, there is little justice. Nigerian rights activists are already documenting similar injustices and violence.

“The advent of this new law has brought about a system legitimising brutalities. We have seen an increase in witch hunting of LGBT people, accusing them based on assumption. Five people have been charged so far, and many awaiting trials,” Bisi adds.

Some have compared the hatred of homosexuality of Nigerians to their love for football, the only two issues on which the country stands united. A recent public poll in the country shows that 98% of Nigerians think homosexuality is wrong. This contrasts with India where, at least, the educated middle class shows some support for gay rights. A recent poll conducted among Hindustan Times readers showed 80% opposed criminalization of homosexuality.

LGBT activists in Nigeria, like most of their colleagues in Africa, operate in extremely hostile and challenging environments. They remain under-resourced and severely isolated. India’s LGBT movement has greater access to resources and more support, although even some queer rights activists still struggle to be “out.”

“Now with the law, provision of services to LGBT people – including HIV services – is illegal. That means charities doing this work will have to close, and many have started folding up already. This will not only affect HIV prevention services but also treatment. Many men who need antiretroviral therapy will not be able to access it easily, and if they do at all, it will have to be done underground,” says Bisi.

Despite differences in the nature and magnitude of the homophobia, the impact of these laws reaches beyond LGBT communities in both Nigeria and India, impeding the work of civil society, public health workers and human rights defenders. Above all, what is happening in Nigeria, India and unfortunately too many other countries is a severe blow to the momentum of the global LGBT movement and is a huge cause of concern for human rights around the world.

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The author of this post is Shaleen Rakesh, a gay rights activist and was instrumental in filing the Section 377 petition on behalf of Naz Foundation (India) Trust in 2001. Shaleen manages the ‘207 against 377’ campaign at India HIV/AIDS Alliance, where he also serves as Director: Technical Support. The campaign brings together the 207 organizations implementing the Pehchan programme on a common platform to undertake advocacy at national, state and district levels to protest against the 11th December 2013 Supreme Court judgment upholding constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code thereby recriminalizing same-sex sexual behaviour. 

India HIV/AIDS Alliance (Alliance India) is a diverse partnership that brings together committed organisations and communities to support sustained responses to HIV in India. Complementing the Indian national programme, Alliance India works through capacity building, knowledge sharing, technical support and advocacy. Through our network of partners, Alliance India supports the delivery of effective, innovative, community-based HIV programmes to key populations affected by the epidemic.

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36,656,825 and Counting

Larry Kramer

In 1983, Larry Kramer wrote an article for the New York Native filled with righteous anger, brilliant insight and, reading it now more than 30 years later, electric prophecy. It began, “If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble.” He proceeds to catalogue the inaction and sheer terror that defined the emerging epidemic.

Kramer recounts the failures of government officials, the medical establishment, researchers, the media, and the gay community itself. With prescient accuracy he connects disenfranchisement with vulnerability to HIV and describes the unrelenting stigma that even today shapes our still inadequate response to the epidemic. He is perceptive as he is relentless. His message: “we must fight to live.”

Kramer’s article was titled “1,112 and Counting.” After three decades, we’re still counting. More than 36 million people have died from AIDS and nearly as many are living with HIV. In India, roughly 150,000 people died from AIDS-related causes last year, ten times the number in the United States. For all our progress, the fight is not over.

Larry Kramer wrote “The Normal Heart” in 1985 during the grimmest and most uncertain days of the epidemic. No other play – no other work of art really – comes as close to capturing those times, and it resonates even today. A long time coming, the film version from HBO brings us back and in doing so reminds us what it takes to act up and fight back.

“The Normal Heart” aptly gets its title from a W.H. Auden poem “September 1, 1939” written as the world teetered on the brink of another epochal tragedy, World War II. What was true in 1939 was true in 1985 and remains true today:

Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

The AIDS epidemic has reached across the world in ways that perhaps only Larry Kramer would have imagined in those early days, and there is still no choice.


The author of this blog, James Robertson, is Executive Director of India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.

Alliance India brings together committed organisations and communities to support sustained responses to HIV in India. Complementing the Indian national programme, Alliance India works through capacity building, knowledge sharing, technical support and advocacy. Through our network of partners, Alliance India supports the delivery of effective, innovative, community-based HIV programmes to key populations affected by the epidemic.

United Against Homophobia: Bringing Pehchan’s Human Rights Model to Uganda

Vijay Nair (left) from Alliance India with workshop participants from Sexual Minorities Uganda and Alliance colleagues, Enrique Restoy and Mala Ram.

Vijay Nair (left) from Alliance India with workshop participants from Sexual Minorities Uganda and Alliance colleagues, Enrique Restoy and Mala Ram.

“It was my view that homosexuality should be punished harshly in order to defend our society from disorientation.” – Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda, while signing Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law on February 25, 2014.

 “While reading down Section 377 IPC, the Division Bench of the High Court overlooked that a miniscule fraction of the country’s population constitute LGBT…in its anxiety to protect the so-called rights of LGBT persons…” – The Supreme Court of India on December 11, 2013, while delivering its judgment on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that recriminalizes same-sex sexual behavior.

While Uganda and India may be separated by 3,500 miles, they have one thing in common: unjust laws against sexual minorities. Uganda recently adopted harsh new laws that further criminalize homosexuality, while last December India recriminalized gay sex, reversing a 2009 Delhi High Court decision. Consequently, both nations have witnessed a significant rise in acts of violence against the LGBT community, driving an already marginalized community further underground and making the uptake of HIV services all the more difficult.

In response to these disturbing developments, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance is rolling out the Human Rights Management Reporting System (HRMRS), a community-based system to monitor and respond to barriers to accessing HIV services. The system, once fully operational, will allow community-based organizations, the Alliance’s Linking Organizations, and other partners to collect and analyse data on human rights violations experienced by programme beneficiaries and clients. The evidence generated by the system will be used to improve interventions, ensure protection of rights, and inform advocacy.

As an early step in this process, the development of the HRMRS has been informed by a dialogue with members of Uganda’s LGBT community. I travelled to Entebbe from my home in Hyderabad to provide technical support to this process, building on my almost four years with India HIV/AIDS Alliance (Alliance India) in Andhra Pradesh. Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) is a key implementing partner for this initiative.

As a gay man living with HIV, I know too well how important it is to confront the human rights barriers that prevent sexual and gender minorities from reaching HIV services. It was an honour for me to share Alliance India’s experience from the Global Fund-supported Pehchan programme rolling out Crisis Response Teams (CRTs) at the grass-root level in India.

In a dynamic discussion with the board and staff of SMUG as well as other community leaders, the Pehchan CRT model was discussed in detail, including: team formation; inclusion of key stakeholders; building capacities of team members; data collection and documentation of cases of violence and harassment; redressal of such cases; advocacy initiatives and solidarity events at national, state and district level; and sensitization meetings with law enforcement agencies, media and health care providers. Based on Pehchan’s learnings, this process helped frame HRMRS components on stigma, discrimination, impact of violence, and support systems.

“The situation in Uganda is extremely grim and a matter of great concern. After the Anti-Homosexuality Law was passed, communities have gone underground, accounts on social media have been deleted, and HIV-related service uptake has been hampered drastically. Despite Section 377, India has a gay movement that has been successful in generating support from a wide range of stakeholders, including India’s Department of AIDS Control, the media, and even a few political parties. Though social settings are quite different in each country, Uganda can learn a lot from India,” said Edith Mukisa, Executive Director of Community Health Alliance Uganda (CHAU).

She further proposed to visit India along with doctors and officials from Uganda’s Most At Risk Populations Initiative” (MARPI) to understand Pehchan’s advocacy efforts. With support from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, MARPI supplements the Ugandan Ministry of Health efforts to expand interventions to MARPs.

As both Uganda and India share a bitter colonial past and an ugly history of homophobia, it is essential that we work together, share our successes, prepare together for our challenges, and strive as one for a better tomorrow for sexual and gender minorities all over the world.

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The author of this post, Vijay Nair is a Programme Manager: Pehchan at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in Andhra Pradesh. 

With support from the Global FundPehchan builds the capacity of 200 community-based organisations (CBOs) for men who have sex with men (MSM), transgenders and hijras in 17 states in India to be more effective partners in the government’s HIV prevention programme. By supporting the development of strong CBOs, Pehchan addresses some of the capacity gaps that have often prevented CBOs from receiving government funding for much-needed HIV programming. Named Pehchan which in Hindi means ‘identity’, ‘recognition’ or ‘acknowledgement,’ this programme is implemented by India HIV/AIDS Alliance in consortium with Humsafar Trust, PNRO, SAATHIISangamaAlliance India Andhra Pradesh, and SIAAP and will reach more than 450,000 MSM, transgenders and hijras by 2015. It is the Global Fund’s largest single-country grant to date focused on the HIV response for vulnerable sexual minorities.

Trans-formation to End Discrimination (#IDAHOT 2014)

Alliance India’s Simran Shaikh, a hijra and AIDS activist, speaks out against discrimination and for LGBT equality.

Alliance India’s Simran Shaikh, a hijra and AIDS activist, speaks out against discrimination and for LGBT equality.

May 17th marks International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) around the world. I am sitting in my office at Alliance India in New Delhi as I gather my thoughts on the stigma and discrimination I have faced my whole life because I subvert gender conventions. My journey from a Parsi boy to a transgender activist has been filled with discrimination, stigma, violence, silent screams, and also triumphs. (Read more about Simran’s life.)

To honour this global day that celebrates sexual and gender diversity, I want to share my thoughts on the recent Indian Supreme Court judgement protecting the rights of transgenders.

On April 15th this year, the Supreme Court judgment recognised the third gender in India and granting legal recognition to Indians who identify as neither male nor female – to those of us those who identify as transgender women and men or as hijras. “Discrimination is no longer my favourite word,” I yelled with pride as my friends joined in the celebrations after this landmark judgment. The ruling guarantees the nation’s transgender population essential rights, including equal access to education and employment In India.

But will this stop people from staring at me on Delhi Metro trains, autorickshaw wallahs refusing me rides, and fellow passengers moving away from me on buses? Why do they do this you wonder? Because my existence bothers them. I don’t seem to fit the boxes they have neatly packed themselves into. I refuse to look and behave the way they expect. I offend their sensibilities by being me. Can a judgment validating my existence change all this? I don’t know, but it feels like we’re on the right track.

Homophobia is an aversion towards those whose sexual behavior differs from the heteronormative, and transphobia is an aversion to those whose gender identities transcend the male-female gender binary. Negative attitudes manifest in many ways, from contempt, fear and hatred to verbal abuse, harassment, and violence. Are these attitudes rational? In most cases,they are rooted in a belief that our differences are against the order of nature.

Over India’s history, hijras have been a revered community, but when this region was colonised by the British, regressive laws were put in place outlawing homosexuality and criminalising these communities. Sixty-seven years after independence from British rule, the third gender has been given legal protection in India. I don’t know how many more years will pass before the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises consensual same-sex sexual behavior.

While the struggle to end discriminatory laws continues, I am deeply troubled by the everyday injustices faced by my LGBT brothers and sisters. We need to fight the internalised homophobia and transphobia in our communities and transform our fear of our own gender and sexual identities. We must celebrate who we are. Violence and discrimination must not be tolerated anymore. It cannot be a crime to exist. To deny our right to exist is the crime!

I am a proud member of the hijra community. In my teens, rejected by my family, I was given shelter by a hijra when all other doors were closed to me. Even today there are few professional options for someone like me. As a member of the Alliance India team, I’m fortunate to be doing professional work in HIV/AIDS that can have such a great impact on the transgender community in India. I dream of a day when all who are like me are given equal opportunities to thrive. Equal opportunity on paper must be put into practice. Changing attitudes will open minds, and with open minds, we can trans-form the world.

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The author of this post, Simran Shaikh, is a Programme Officer for the Pehchan programme at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.

With support from the Global Fund, Pehchan builds the capacity of 200 community-based organisations (CBOs) for men who have sex with men (MSM), transgenders and hijras in 17 states in India to be more effective partners in the government’s HIV prevention programme. By supporting the development of strong CBOs, Pehchan addresses some of the capacity gaps that have often prevented CBOs from receiving government funding for much-needed HIV programming. Named Pehchan which in Hindi means ‘identity’, ‘recognition’ or ‘acknowledgement,’ this programme is implemented by India HIV/AIDS Alliance in consortium with Humsafar Trust, PNRO, SAATHII, Sangama, Alliance India Andhra Pradesh, and SIAAP and will reach more than 450,000 MSM, transgenders and hijras by 2015. It is the Global Fund’s largest single-country grant to date focused on the HIV response for vulnerable sexual minorities.

Towards the Right Side of History

Rally_blog_shaleen_19April2014

As a gay rights activist, I am overjoyed by the recent Supreme Court ruling which gives legal protection to the transgender community. Ever since we heard the news, there has been an outpouring of celebration, joy and relief. The news has made the entire LGBT community in India smile, which is not something we did much of following the Section 377 ruling of the Supreme Court in December last year which recriminalized homosexuality.

So why is this ruling important? To begin with, it’s a significant step forward for our transgender friends who have been discriminated against for a long time. In their victory, we feel happy, proud and hopeful. It’s as much their success as it is success for the wider LGBT movement in India, of which the transgender community has been a vital and integral part. It’s true that transgenders in India, like elsewhere, are a more visible part of the community, so a decision that affirms their identity is a shot in the arm for LGBT activists and community alike.

The decision has also made me more confident that India is ready for a broader dialogue around gender identity and sexual orientation. It’s taken many years of struggle to get here, and I’m not sure how many more years it will take for our community to be treated as equals. Section 377 is again the most immediate hurdle which we face. Tagged with criminality, equality remains a luxury for LGBT Indians.

I want my country to support my desire to live openly as a gay man. My government should not undermine healthy and productive relationships in my life. Basic freedoms that most Indians take for granted are out of reach for the LGBT community because 377 remains the law of the land.

After this burst of celebration, I am left wondering how much longer I will have to wait to feel ‘legal’. Next week, the Supreme Court will hear the curative petition against Section 377. Like many LGBT Indians, I will be waiting anxiously to learn which side of history the court will stand.

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Shaleen Rakesh is a gay rights activist and was instrumental in filing the Section 377 petition on behalf of Naz Foundation (India) Trust in 2001. Shaleen manages the ‘207 against 377’ campaign at India HIV/AIDS Alliance, where he also serves as Director: Technical Support. The campaign brings together the 207 organizations implementing the Pehchan programme on a common platform to undertake advocacy at national, state and district levels to protest against the 11th December 2013 Supreme Court judgment upholding constitutional validity of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code thereby recriminalizing same-sex sexual behaviour.