Anjali Gopalan won the battle against India’s homophobes this year
by Elizabeth Flock | Dec 26, 2009
Read it at Forbes
She is: The founder of the Naz Foundation
Work: Has given HIV positive people a chance to live with dignity through Naz
Big day: Campaigned for homosexuality to be decriminalised in India. After eight years, she achieved a victory when the court said the law did not extend to consenting sex between adults
Anjali Gopalan has been thrown out of court, out of women’s groups, and out of NGOs for children. She’s been told she’s not gay or lesbian and so homosexual harassment wasn’t her problem; that she was wasting her time working in the fields of HIV and AIDS; and that condoms weren’t necessary.
Eight long years were spent challenging the Section 377 of the Indian penal code, which had been used by the police to go after same sex behaviour among consenting adults. As a result, Gopalan received threats from people around the world bearing the same message: You’re destroying the fabric of society.
“Anyone else would have given up. But she has this incredible persistence, and she took up the case on behalf of the organisation,” says Anuradha Mukherjee, who left a 13-year-long stint at the Center for Advocacy and Research to become programme manager at Gopalan’s organisation, the Naz Foundation.
“With Anjali, even when what she says goes against what many others say, somehow, eventually everyone finds that they agree,” says Mukherjee.
It was 1994 when a man came into Gopalan’s office in Delhi and abandoned his HIV-infected nephew there, saying there was nothing he could do for him; Gopalan’s response — “Well, this is it, now we start a care home.” And so was born
the Naz Foundation, a refuge for those affected by HIV, and the organisation on whose behalf Gopalan petitioned for 377.
The care home started with almost no resources. “It was bunk to bunk with desperately ill people, some of them had come from thousands of miles away. No one else would take care of them, but they had heard rumours about a place in Delhi that would love them,” explains actor Richard Gere, who is a supporter of Naz, in an online video.
After her husband’s death from HIV and AIDS, 30-year-old Renu Jain, for example, left everything behind in Nainital, Uttarakhand, to find a place that she had heard about, a place that would look after people like her.
“It was horrible in the village. We were ostracised. I didn’t know where to go to seek help. My condition kept getting worse. A woman told me to go to Delhi.” She pauses, and then says, “Anjali madam took me in, no questions asked. They nursed me back to health. They come and shake hands with me. Human contact feels so nice.”
Ask anyone about the way Gopalan interacts with the adults and children who come to the care home, and you get the same answer, with the same fervour. “You should see the way she assures the children, like a mother figure. And the way the gay population opens up and talks to her,” says Mukherjee. This may be because Gopalan’s care for the HIV-infected started long before the small care home in Delhi took in Renu Jain.
In 1985, armed with a journalism degree from India and a near-completed master’s in international development from the US, Gopalan wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. So she joined a community-based group in Brooklyn, New York, and soon became a trainer for undocumented migrant labourers on issues of health, like HIV. While there, Gopalan made several gay friends who struggled with the disease. Some of them didn’t make it.
“Once you start work on HIV, you can’t get out of it. It makes you look at your culture, your values, at everything,” says Gopalan. It helped that her boss kept telling her what a good trainer she was. So she settled down in New York, ready to spend the rest of her life there working with migrant workers and inner-city school kids with HIV and AIDS.
But then Gopalan took a trip back to India. Her father looked older. She missed her parents. And she realised very little was being done about HIV and AIDS in the country. She talked to many men who were married but having sex with other men, getting HIV, and then spreading the disease back to their wives.
“Suddenly, the move became easy. I felt I could actually touch life here in a way that I couldn’t anywhere else,” says Gopalan.
But what she didn’t realise is that she would have to subvert everything she had ever known about sexuality. “Indian men say they are straight, but are sleeping with other men. One has to relearn even why they get married. How do you lead a community that doesn’t identify with being gay?”
It was also nearly impossible to reach the married women who were being infected by their husbands. When she told women’s groups this was happening, they denied it and threw her out of the room. She remained committed to the issue — even critiquing the gay movement if it came at the price of women’s rights.
Gopalan also noticed that many of the HIV-infected children she saw hadn’t worn condoms because they were too big. When she tried to tell NGOs for children about the problem, they were scandalised.
Ashok Row Kavi, founder of male sexual health NGO, Humsafar Trust, and one of India’s most prominent gay rights activists, says Gopalan was prescient about other important LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) issues as well.
“Anjali is a woman ahead of her time. It was her inspiration that made many of us go forward in this battle to fight HIV in India. Sure enough, today her warnings have proved true and HIV prevalence is highest in the men having sex with men sector.”
As Gopalan’s Naz Foundation took in more and more of the marginalised, it mushroomed out to include much more than just a care home. It soon had counseling and training programmes that included a library room and film screenings. A home-based care programme that gave both legal assistance and medical nursing care. Daily clinical services. And through it all, the care home for children grew — it currently houses 44.
Sumant Jayakrishnan, a scenographer who met Gopalan through common friends and later became a board member of Naz, says Gopalan has been able to accomplish so much because she is a “connector”, He remembers her birthday party a few years ago, where guests included writers to people from NGOs to cross-dressers to fashion designers.
And underlying all of Gopalan’s work was Section 377. “I was fed up with harassment by police, people telling us we were promoting illegal behaviour by handing out condoms. Parents would ask me, ‘If this is normal for my son, then why is it a criminal activity?’ I had no answer,” says Gopalan.
So she began to do extensive research on Section 377. To her shock, she found that the same law was applied against child abuse and same sex behavior among consenting adults. In 2001, Gopalan, as a representative of the Naz Foundation, was the very first petitioner to ask that 377 be amended.
“She’s not gay, but the struggles of some of her gay friends marked her for life. She thought: ‘This has to be done, and no one is doing it, so I will’,” says Jayant Balakrishnan, scenographer, who met Gopalan and later became a board member for the Naz Foundation.
For eight years, Gopalan petitioned for amendment to 377, with the aid of the Lawyer’s Collective, an NGO that provides legal services to marginalised groups. Once, she got thrown out of court because she wasn’t a part of the LGBT community. In 2006, a group called “Voices for 377” joined her but it looked as if they were at a definite dead end.
But on July 2, on an especially humid day, the Delhi High Court unexpectedly pronounced that Section 377 should be read down to exclude consensual sex between adults, and its interpretation otherwise violated the constitution. The case of Naz Foundation (India) Trust v. Government of NCT, Delhi, and Others had finally reached a sort of conclusion.
When you ask Gopalan how she felt on that day, she still seems unable to quite believe it. “I was expecting the worst. After so many years, I felt, how is it possible that things would go right? I was stunned. And then I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’ve finally stepped into the 21st century.’ I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime.” She spent that day explaining to the LGBT community exactly what the judgement meant and then talking to media.
But she knew her work, and the community’s, was not done. While homosexuality is now decriminalised, it is still not legal in the country.
“It was a wonderful judgment, based on inclusivity and equality. The issue is now much more in the public domain. But we need a change in society; in ethics. We need to educate people. That’s the work we will continue to do.
But yes, the ruling has given me hope,” she says, and her voice makes it clear it’s all been worth it.