No country for gay men?

The deafening silence in the mainstream press, even as blogs and HIV/AIDS alliance NGOs buzzed with obituaries, stood in stark contrast with the media frenzy a decade ago.

It has almost been a fortnight since the founder of Naz Foundation International and a pioneering gay rights activist OBE (Order of the British Empire) Shivananda Khan died in his Lucknow home under mysterious circumstances. In this entire period, with the exception of an error-ridden report in the Times of India, the mainstream English press has blocked out any reference to the death of a stalwart in both HIV/AIDS activism and queer rights.

Shivananda Khan, born Duncan George Khan in 1948, spent his childhood in Calcutta. Moving to England with his parents when he was ten, Khan went to college in Manchester. By his own admission, he was the first South Asian gay sex worker in Manchester, working to supplement his college grant.

Deeply angered by the treatment of sexual minorities from South Asia in the West, Khan founded Shakti, a collective for South Asian gay and lesbian people, in 1988. He was also very perturbed by the treatment of HIV positive South Asian diaspora and took up HIV/AIDS and gay rights activism as his life-long profession.

Khan was pained by the treatment that the HIV positive South Asian diaspora received, and volunteering for a charity, he elected to take care of a gay man called Nazir. From the experience was born the Naz Foundation.

Over the years, Khan developed into a path-breaking gay rights activist and HIV/AIDS crusader and an authoritative voice on alternative sexualities in South Asia. As founder and executive director of the Naz Foundation, he frequented conferences and chaired discussions, inspiring a whole host of young activists. “His research and study on MSM and their socio impact were one of those early materials for us to know and understand about LGBT activism,” says Vikranth Prasanna, founder of Chennai Dost, a popular GLBT collective in Chennai.

“One of his enduring contributions to the development of queer theory is his rejection of western labels of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, saying that they have no relevance in the South Asian context. He instead coined the term “MSM” (Men having sex with men) which imposed no alien identity. He set up institutionalised health interventions for men who desire other men in a South Asian context. He will be deeply missed and mourned by all who care for the rights of this stigmatised minority,” says Arvind Narrain, founder of the Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore.

In his long activist career, due to which he was made an OBE in 2005, he founded several organizations apart from Naz, including the Bharosa Trust in Lucknow in 1997 and the Asia Pacific Coalition for Male Sexual Health. “He was a magnificent interpreter and an incredible fundraiser. He will be missed,” says Ashok Row Kavi, founder of Bombay Dost and the Humsafar Trust.

However, the media’s response in light of his death hardly reflects any of the aforementioned sentiments. In fact, the black-out and deafening silence in the mainstream press, even as blogs and HIV/AIDS alliance NGOs buzzed with obituaries, stood in stark contrast with the media frenzy a decade ago.

When members of the Bharosa Trust were arrested in 2001 and 2006 for “aiding and abetting activities prohibited under Section 377”, the regional media especially, had gone overboard, implicating AIDS activists distributing condoms for “spreading gay culture” and “destroying our youth”, ably chronicled in a paper by Narrain.

While on the surface, 2013 seems eons away from 2001, there has not been much substantive difference in the response of the press. On the day Khan died, most newspapers chose to carry a report of New Zealand’s legalization of gay marriage, hailing it as a testament to liberal and enlightened values. In the same breath, they chose to ignore the death of India’s premier gay rights activist as if it was no news at all.

The Times of India carried a report from Lucknow, which the author accessed electronically. The report misspelt Khan’s name, calling him Shivanandan instead. While the story was reported as the “death of an NRI”, at no point in the story did the reporter make the connection that this was also the famous founder of Naz. In addition, the report mentioned a “foster son” with whom Khan was living. The name mentioned is suspiciously close to Khan’s live-in partner.

The episode is reflective of a trend witnessed worldwide. As publications and newspapers become increasingly “enlightened”, embracing notions of “liberal” sexuality, coverage of queer issues gets increasingly class privileged, since publications cater to that demographic. Thus, coverage of LGBTQ issues has increasingly become marriage-centric, which is primarily an upper middle class, urban issue.

Publications, both in India and abroad, treat gay marriage as the sole issue facing the queer community, neglecting problems of homelessness, rampant HIV/AIDS infection, teenage suicide, unemployment, since the urban, class-privileged youth is not bothered by them. The subsuming of all problems faced by the queer community into this single middle class issue has been effected by the media and has ensured that the most marginalized in the community are further sidelined.

Thus, news of a far-off nation (New Zealand) legalising gay marriage, a patently middle class agenda, is deemed far more important than a pioneer of the AIDS movement amongst countless poverty stricken Indians. The only tributes have appeared on blogs or NGO websites.

The only other news that appeared about the queer community a week later was in a vernacular daily in Indore called the Dainik Dabang Dunia, decrying “gay culture” and “bad boys” spreading tentacles after an outrageous police raid on a “gay party” in Indore. Three days later, Patrika, again in Indore, blamed the condom industry for spreading homosexuality, which, it said, was a major cause for AIDS.

These phenomena are not only talk poorly of journalism; they also stifle the voice of marginalized communities. As Anjali Gopalan, head of Naz Foundation, India says, “We can’t respond to Khan’s death since no one asks us. Who do we talk to? Where is the media?” In spite of living in an era of 24 hour television where even newspapers monitor content closely, no one thought this was worthy of even a mention. In a time when old prejudices are being broken down and the media is at the forefront of social churning, such an episode is disappointing.

by Dhruba Jyoti Purkait on Shivananda Khan’s passing.
Source – The Hoot