“People with different sexual preferences do not deserve to be branded criminals”

Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad on Tuesday described as ‘harsh’ the Supreme Court judgment that criminalised homosexuality by reversing the 2009 Delhi High Court verdict. “The [Supreme Court] judgment could have been advisory in nature. One may have difference of opinion [over sexual preference] but the judgment was harsh to brand them [LGBT people] criminals,” the Minister told The Hindu. In 2011, Mr. Azad courted controversy and invited the wrath of gay rights and AIDS activists with his speech at a conference that gay sex was “unnatural.” He subsequently clarified that he was quoted “totally out of context” by a section of the media, which reported him as saying that men having sex with men was a “disease.” The Minister insisted that he used the controversial word to illustrate the fact that there was a wider debate in society on the legal status of homosexuality.

Now, pointing out that homosexuality, as a way of life, is prevalent in a number of countries, Mr. Azad said the Supreme Court judgment would not hamper the Ministry’s focus on working for truckers, men having sex with men (MSM) and commercial sex workers but MSM would be hesitant to access facilities to some extent for fear of discrimination and stigma.

“The success of our national AIDS control programmes lies in the cooperation of the people involved,’’ the Minister said, adding the ongoing projects would continue to be implemented as before.

To a question, he said the Ministry was dealing with the issue in the Supreme Court on behalf of the government.

A challenge

For its part, the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) says reaching out to the MSM community is a major challenge. The HIV infection prevalence rate among MSM is 7.3 per cent as compared to a national adult prevalence rate of 0.31. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) is defined as a high-risk group by the NACO — now the Department of AIDS Control — with HIV infection prevalence among MSM being the highest, between 6.54 and 7.23 per cent. According to the NACO 2010-11 annual report, India had an estimated 40 lakh persons in the MSM community, of whom 10 per cent were at risk of contracting HIV infection.

India has been able to reach out to truckers and injectible drug users to persuade them to take preventive measures and also managed to prevent transmission of infection from mother to child by providing HIV testing facilities for pregnant women. But MSM people are difficult to identify and locate.

More In: National | News