Last edited: July 14, 2004

With Homosexuality Illegal, Gays Suffer AIDS Silently

San Francisco Chronicle, July 5, 2004
901 Mission St., San Francisco, CA 94103
Fax: 415-896-1107

By Sabin Russell

Thirty-seven days after his wedding in 1999, Shashi Shetye found out he was HIV-positive.

It took another nine months before he could bring himself to tell his wife, who had no inkling that Shetye was infected, or that he was gay.

“It was an arranged marriage, but it was a mistake to go through with it. I still feel guilty about it,” said Shetye.

Arranged marriages are the norm in India, and many of Shetye’s gay friends were involved in double lives, married, with wives and children. Shetye and his wife divorced, and he has since found a boyfriend. His former wife is not infected with HIV, but five years later, she remains single.

“I pray to God that she may get married again,” Shetye said, but in India’s conservative culture, he knows that may not be possible.

Such are the dilemmas of being gay and HIV-positive in India, where AIDS is so stigmatized that it is seldom discussed, and homosexuality is illegal.

While an estimated 80 percent of AIDS cases in India are the result of heterosexual transmission, the disease remains concentrated in the highest-risk groups: prostitutes and their clients, intravenous drug users, and gay men.

Shetye’s own health began to slip in 2002. A year ago, his weight fell to 90 pounds. But for the last year, he has been taking anti-retroviral drugs, produced by an Indian drugmaker for $1 a day. His health has been restored, and he now works as a counselor for Humsafar Trust, a gay men’s health organization in Bombay.

Humsafar founder and director Ashok Row Kavi said that, despite proscriptions against it, homosexuality is no less common in India than in Western nations. He estimates conservatively that among India’s 1 billion people, 20 million men are sexually attracted to other men and that the number of men who have engaged in some same-sex behavior in their lifetime is much higher.

Despite the law’s view of gays in India, Humsafar operates in the open, its AIDS prevention activities funded by grants from both the Bombay city government and the United States.

Tests have shown that 20 percent of gay men in Bombay are HIV-positive, a frightening figure in a nation where AIDS drugs have been out of reach to all but the wealthiest patients.

“It’s horrendous,” Kavi said. “I personally know of 20 to 30 men closely linked to me that I know for sure are dying.”

Like the many organizations that sprang up in gay neighborhoods of the United States after the emergence of AIDS, Humsafar reaches out to gay men, offering medical treatment and HIV-prevention education.

A former journalist and self-described “ex-Hindu monk,” Kavi also has become a gay health advocate. “We are the lowest priority for spending on HIV/AIDS,” he said.

Kavi has watched the relentless spread of HIV around the globe, and he worries about what will happen to his country if infections rise to 25 million, as some have projected.

“Death on that scale is not going to be easy to take,” he said. “But the fact is, it is staring us in the face.”

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