Why is HIV brought up in gay rights case?
In an apparently bizarre turn of events, India’s Supreme Court reportedly asked the government to supply data on the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population. The justices also want to know what percentage of them has HIV.
But not all may remember that HIV had a lot to do with why the case was brought to court in first place. The 2009 Delhi High Court judgment, which struck down a colonial-era law that, in effect, banned same-sex relationships, came in response to a complaint filed years earlier by a group that promoted sexual health.
In their petition, the group, Naz Foundation, said that the law, Section 377 of the Indian Penal code, made it difficult for them to educate homosexuals on the risks of HIV/AIDS and hence infringed the constitutional right to health. This argument, which was supported by India’s health ministry, was cited by the court in their judgment to strike down Section 377 and lift the ban on homosexuality. (The home ministry opposed decriminalizing homosexuality on grounds of public morality.)
So data on homosexuals with HIV in India may actually support the stand that homosexuality should stay legal.
HIV is often brought up as an argument against homosexuality, because some groups say they are responsible for spreading it, which is why the Supreme Court’s request sits uncomfortably with many.
“How they relate HIV to homosexuality is really stupid,” Mohnish Kabir Malhotra, a Delhi-based gay rights activist, said of people who appear to associate the two closely. He points out that even if data shows that gay people have a higher incidence of HIV/AIDS than straight people, this may just be a reflection of the fact that they are more aware of the disease and hence more likely to take tests.
“The question is who is more conscious about the disease,” says Mr. Malhotra.
He doubts that data on the number of homosexuals in India, including how many of them have HIV, is reliable or useful in the case. This data exists: the government presented it to the Delhi High Court ahead of the 2009 verdict. The Supreme Court wants the government to share this data with them, too.
A study released in 2010 by the government’s National AIDS Control Organization says that 7.3% of men who have sex with men have HIV. Based on 2006 data, the report estimates that the number of men who have sex with men in India is around 351,000.
But these figures are based on dubious estimates for India’s overall homosexual population. Since same-sex relations were illegal at the time – and homosexuality is generally widely frowned upon in India – these numbers are a poor indication of the true figures. Besides, if the government took a comprehensive census of India’s homosexual population, we definitely missed it – and we are not alone.
“Nobody came to ask me whether I was gay or not,” says Mr. Malhotra, who is not aware of any recent survey on India’s LGBT population.
The same NACO report, published in 2010 by the government’s National AIDS Control unit, found that 1.5% of HIV infections in India are transmitted by men having sex with men.
This is even less than parent-to-child transmission, identified as the cause for 5.4% of cases examined. The most common cause of transmission was heterosexual sex, responsible for 87.1% of HIV infections examined in the study.
But Mr. Malhotra says that focusing on data misses the broader point of the debate. “This whole issue is about human rights,” he says. “It’s about treating all the citizens in the country equally.”
The eclectic group of petitioners who oppose the high court verdict that legalized homosexuality include religious groups, yoga guru Baba Ramdev and child rights organizations. They oppose homosexuality mainly on moral grounds.