No country for gay men?

Published: June 4, 2013

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.

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