Written by Ash Kotak
If you’re looking to add some classic queer films to your watch-list, then a worthy candidate is the iconic Indian AIDS drama, My Brother Nikhil.
The 2005 film – directed by Onir and staring Sanjay Suri, Juhi Chawla, Victor Bannerjee and Lillete Dubey – is based on the true story of the life of Goa-based swimmer and gay man Dominic d’Souza. The film focuses on the period 1987 to 1994, when d’Souza acquired HIV. He was rejected by his family and most of his friends, and kept in forced isolation by law.
This tearjerker was an instant hit worldwide and was a pathway to a new wave of Queer Indian cinema at a time when it was a criminal act to have gay sex. The law was bought down finally in 2018, fourteen years after this film classic was released.
For LGBTQ South Asian communities, it’s vitally important to see people like us, navigating the same problems we must as Queer South Asians finding new ways to live our lives.
Is HIV still an issue?
In 2017 the national media saluted an average UK-wide 50% fall in new HIV diagnoses for gay, bi and trans men, and a 65% drop in London.
Many LGBTQ BME folk were surprised by this call-out as we were not seeing a drop within our communities.
#AIDSMemoryUK asked Gus Cairns at HIV information Charity NAM to clarify the figures. His finding – based on data from Public Health England – were worse than we expected.
“HIV diagnoses are still increasing in all BME MSM (men who have sex with men)…” confirmed Cairns. “Annual total has roughly doubled in all groups except in Asians, where it had tripled.”
Further, PrEP was announced by many at that time as the sole reason for the drop in gay (white) men but even that needs further examining. It is a contributing factor and an accelerator but Cairns quotes from Public Health England analysis that HIV diagnoses in gay men who were born in England have been falling since 2014. It states that the fall in HIV diagnoses prior to PrEP can be attributed to more frequent testing as well as putting 90% of those diagnosed with HIV on treatment within less than a year.
How can it be that this important information has been ignored and only white gay men have been included in the press release that must have gone out unchallenged at the time? An oversight? Private sources who work in the HIV sector – including doctors who wish to remain anonymous – told us in confidence that “we wanted some good news. We were wrong”. Quite shocking!
Many of us asked why the conversation, at that point, did not demand why are BME MSM not getting updated information about PrEP, PEP and U=U (Undetectable = Untransmittable which means that anyone on sustained, working HIV meds cannot pass on HIV).
Is it access that is an issue or is it that BME GBTQ+ men are deliberately ignoring it?
“There is a misguided perception that it is a western disease, and affects western/white people. This is just wrong, and damaging on so many levels. So we need to come together and get the conversation going, start educating, and enable members of our community to access information, support and choices to manage sexual health and well-being.”
So why is it important for us to self-organise to raise awareness, to support our own and to make a demand that more must be done?
“We need events that provide a sense of belonging, of community, and a space where members who may be HIV+ are not alone…” says Rita from Club Kali. “We also need for those who haven’t considered being tested to start a dialogue. Also, above all, to break open the taboos around HIV.”
Naz Project London set up #SholayLove funded by the Public Health Innovation Fund targeting South Asian (SA) men who have sex with men (MSM) to raise awareness on HIV and STIs and encourage testing. The programme is delivered in London, Leeds and Bradford and is a partnership with Yorkshire MESMAC and Bart’s Health NHS Trust.
“So much of the work needed in our communities is work that understands our cultures and the myriad reasons why we may not be accessing the services we need.” explains Josh Rivers, Director of Communication at Naz Project London. “We hope that by helping facilitate conversations and testing opportunities in spaces designed with us in mind, that we can continue to empower BAME communities to take charge of their sexual health.”
Many of us Queer South Asians have a multitude of additional prejudices we encounter – from Rainbow Racism to homophobia from our own communities. Sometimes it feels we stand alone in the middle, between two cultures that are still evolving towards love truly is love. These rarely considered battles lead to isolation, rejection from family and our community, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse and increased mental health issues. Shame stops us talking about it. Funding needs to be found to create and support more safe spaces to enable discussion.
GIN – the Gay Indian Network, a support and social group for LGBTQ South Asians – runs a monthly Health and Wellbeing Group safe space for open conversations to take place.
“Our members can share their experiences of being LGBT in tightly integrated Indian communities, the trauma of coming out to families that are religious and often deeply conservative, often followed up by exclusion from important social events…” explains Mayank Joshi, who set up GIN. “They can also talk about the challenges of navigating the gay scene as queer people of colour – challenges that lead to feelings of isolation, acute shame, and loneliness.”
The latest HIV figures continue to show a fall in new diagnoses and this is finally starting to be seen in all communities but we cannot be complacent.