Beyond gay

5 07 2010

Last Thursday evening we were all invited by the Deputy British High Commissioner to a reception hosted by him as part of Colombo Pride. Now for those of you who are wondering what Pride is, it’s a huge celebration of being gay/lesbian and everything in between – an event held in the months of June and July, all over the world.  The concept is new to Sri Lanka but many people at the event last week were quite aware of what Pride was all about.

In between the rush for the fried prawns and the downing of unlimited refills of red wine, we watched a film called  Beyond Gay; The Politics of Pride. This documentary takes a good look at the role of Pride events all over the world. The narrator – Ken Coolen from Vancouver takes us on a journey from Sao Paulo in Brazil, where 3 million people join the flamboyant parade, (most of them shirtless); to Warsaw in Poland, where the shirt wearing Catholics, nationalists and skinheads vastly outnumber the handful of courageous marchers. Things are far more exciting in Moscow where Russian activists risk their lives and eventually get arrested, but do it just to mount their 10-minute demonstration.

The highlight of the film for me and for many others was the coverage given to Colombo Pride. The biggest surprise was to see someone we were all acquainted with onscreen and a long section on Pride in Sri Lanka! I was so happy to see Mount Lavinia beach and a gang of familiar brown-skinned people flying kites by the sea…

The movie is somewhat grim in parts (the Sri Lanka bit was grim, grim, grim) but also jubilant in others. I left the room holding hands with my queer brother who had tears in his eyes! Oh these drama queens! But speaking of queens, it was great to see a large turnout of men in drag, some of them so beautiful they put the women present to shame.

It’s not surprising that many people don’t know about Pride or the events in Colombo, after all Pride events here are only advertised in the mainstream media, after they take place, in order to protect the identities of the participants. Also, Pride in Sri Lanka is obviously not conducted exactly as in the West. Here it is a closed affair, mostly patronized by city-based English speaking people who can afford to attend many of the events organized. But it is still a valid celebration of what and who we are. And the courage and passion of every participant is very real. We hope that this event will one day be more inclusive and reach a wider audience around the island as well.

Citizenship, homosexuality and equal opportunities

20 06 2010

“For those of us who are heterosexual and conform to the sexual behaviour expected of us, we enjoy the perks of citizenship without much thought. But the recent events held to commemorate Pride week, and discussions held around issues that haunt the lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual (LGBT) communities in Sri Lanka, brought up the fact that, for these communities, citizenship remains a vexed legal, socio-political subject….”

Our revolution is long overdue

27 11 2009

Here is someone we like….Margaret Cho:

The Wisdom of Whores

14 08 2009

(Book Review)

The Wisdom of Whores, bureaucrats, brothels and the business of AIDS, by Elizabeth Pisani, 2008

No two words can capture a reader’s attention as effectively as the words free and sex. I think the word whores should be added to the list. The title of Elisabeth Pisani’s book is more focused on grabbing a reader’s attention than in it about the wisdom of whores, bureaucrats, brothels or the business of AIDS. But once you do start to read it: the book is an interesting and easy study, albeit a little repetitive.

Based on her experiences working as an epidemiologist and consultant to FHI and UNAIDS among others, her book encourages policy makers and programmers to take a closer look at what works and what does not, in the fight against AIDS and to base interventions on scientific research and evidence. She encourages leadership within governments and in UN to take on the tough issues, the unpopular issues, even though they won’t get them the votes.  Experience has shown that a few key actions have been successful in preventing the spread of HIV in the region and these should be the priority for action.

For those working in the field, her messages are nothing new: harm reduction works, particularly in prison settings, abstinence programmes are a waste of money, preventing HIV transmission among sex workers and their clients is the best way of preventing the spread of the virus to the general population and that Asia will not face a generalized epidemic like the one in Africa.

However she does touch upon a few interesting issues such as the effectiveness of peer based education and outreach programmes; they don’t always work, especially among groups of sex workers who are actually in competition with one another rather than part of a community. Peer based outreach works best among communities who consider themselves part of a collective, like the gay (and lesbian) brotherhood. Her description of and interaction with the waria community in Indonesia is also interesting and strikingly similar to the Hijra community in India. Waria, a term for transgender people is derived from the words wanita (woman) and pria (man). Many waria sell sex for a living, mainly because of the high stigma against them and the limited job options open to transgendered people. As long as society looks down on such persons, they will have limited livelihood options, and they will continue to sell sex to survive. One cannot address HIV without looking at this aspect of society as well.

However, The book is contentious on some counts: Firstly, the author believes that women are not trafficked into sex work. While I believe this to be true to some extent, one cannot ignore the fact that in south Asia, many minor girls are trafficked into sex work. In fact globally, an estimated 800,000 people are trafficked each year, of which women account for 80%. Of this 80 % over one fourth are minor girls. Majority of women and girls are trafficked for sex making them increasingly vulnerable to HIV; and the younger they are the more vulnerable. Those who continue to stay in sex work by choice when adults, is a different issue, but the number of young girls being trafficked into sex work is real.  Further studies such as one by J Silverman[1], on HIV Prevalence and Predictors Among Rescued Sex-Trafficked Women and Girls in Mumbai, India, it was found that the mean age of girls trafficked into sex work from Nepal to India had fallen from 14-16 years old in 1986 to 10-14 years old in 1997. Of these, the younger they are, the more vulnerable they are to HIV with 60% prevalenace amoung rescued sex trafficked Nepalese girls and women aged 7-14years compared with 31% prevalence amoung the 18-32 age group.

Secondly, Yes HIV is a health issue, but it is also a development issue and it is fuelled by poverty and inequality. Unless these foundations change, unless the way men and women relate to one another change, HIV is not likely to disappear. By introducing HIV and sex education into school curriculums, this change in gender norms and the foundations of the relationship between men and women is being challenged. It may not help prevent new HIV infections in the short term, but it is a long term investment in society and particularly in women: so what if it is using HIV money. After all, there is money in HIV unlike in women’s health, maternal mortality or women’s sexuality.

Yes there is big money in HIV and we are constantly reminded of this in the book. The money may be a little less than there was a few years ago, but still there is money. Along with money comes the corruption, the under hand deals and kick backs. But this is true of any sector, not just HIV.

I can’t help thinking that the book is a westerner’s perspective of an issue meant for western readers, and any persons referred to as experts are also of that genre; with the expertise of the region edited out. As a South Asian working on HIV in the region, I have seen my fair share of western experts, most overrated and over paid, fly in for a few days, do their “magic” and write up reports that have no relevance to the complex reality of the region. The other big mistake is to generalize one Asian country’s experience to apply for the rest. Her main perspective of Asia comes from Indonesia and I would be cautious in generalizing the Indonesian experience to apply to the sub continent.

Although the wisdom of whores isn’t really their wisdom, but rather an interpretation of the lessons the author has learnt from travels in the region and interaction with marginalized communities, for someone who has not worked in HIV, the book comes across as an eye-opener and is worth a read. Full of politically incorrect words such as whores and drug addicts, the books is written in a popular anecdotal style with easy to understand language that a non development professional can easily relate to, pick up and enjoy.

If you work in HIV however, be warned – it may irritate you.  Not only could it have said exactly the same thing in less than half the length, but you may also land up feeling like me: a little patronized.

[1] HIV Prevalence and Predictors Among Rescued Sex-Trafficked Women and Girls in Mumbai, India, Jay G. Silverman, PhD,* Michele R. Decker, MPH,* Jhumka Gupta, MPH,* Ayonija Maheshwari, MD, MPH,† Vipul Patel,‡ and Anita Raj, PhD§