In 1995, his life changed and 24-year-old Nitin Karani decided to tell his parents he was gay. Bombay Dost, the magazine, and The Humsafar Trust, its parent organization, both founded by Ashok Row Kavi, had organized a three-day conference on homosexuality and HIV/AIDS in Mumbai. Through a friend, Karani got the opportunity to work as a volunteer there.
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Until then, he would hide copies of Bombay Dost from his family. He would look for inspiration from gay men featured in American television shows such as The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Phil Donahue Show, or in the pages of Michelangelo Signorile’s Queer in America, which is a bible for Karani.
During that conference, he met Kavi and his comrades, who were mostly young men who had found a new life, and who called their charismatic and articulate leader “amma” (“He is still called that,” Karani says). The circle of support that Kavi had already garnered for Bombay Dost was a revolution in itself in the 1980s and 1990s, and for young men such as Karani, it was liberating. “Those were the best three days of my life,” says Karani, now one of the key members of The Humsafar Trust, and as Kavi says, “my deputy”.
Karani is involved in the overall functioning of Humsafar. Their office in Kalina, an eastern suburb of Mumbai, is a drop-in centre, reference library and medical clinic, possibly the only place in Asia where an NGO working for issues of Men who have Sex with Men (MSM, a World Health Organization term) is on the premises of a government-run building, in this case the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).
Karani, whose day job is that of a financial editor in a leading corporate house, was instrumental in the makeover of Bombay Dost—relaunched as a glossy cultural and queer lifestyle magazine in April after getting funding from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The magazine, which is available at newspaper stalls for Rs150, features films with queer themes, profiles of gay men, reviews and lifestyle features. “The relaunched Bombay Dost reflects what we are today. When I was young, it was a voice for Men who have Sex with Men. Today, thankfully, the realities are different, at least among English-speaking, educated people.”
According to Karani, among the catalysts for greater acceptance of MSM in the country are Manvendra Singh Gohil, the only son of the erstwhile maharaja of Rajpipla, who was disinherited by his parents after he went public with the fact that he was gay; the success of the film Dostana; and Sean Penn’s portrayal of Harvey Milk in the Oscar-nominated movie Milk.
Bolstered by the Delhi high court’s recent verdict on section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, under which consensual “unnatural” sexual acts of adults, even in private, were treated as a criminal offence, homosexuality has become a topic of public and media debate. On the day the verdict was announced (2 July), Karani’s telephone wouldn’t stop ringing.
In his south Mumbai office, Karani spoke to many cousins and relatives who had never openly accepted his sexuality. Volunteers of The Humsafar Trust marched on to the road, doused in gulal. But Karani says it will take years for the impact to be felt. “Historically, it is important, but as far as acceptance is concerned, this is the first step. After section 377 was struck down, the battle has become more real.”
Karani believes that because homosexuality is now legally acceptable and more public, opposition is likely to be more openly aggressive. “We will be able to gauge some reactions on the annual Queer Azadi March on 16 August.”
Karani is the only child of his parents—his father was a tax consultant and his mother has always been a housewife—and he shares a flat with them in Khar, a Mumbai suburb. “After coming in touch with Humsafar Trust, I decided to make my coming-out as public as possible. Somebody had to do it. But before that I had to tell my parents. They were shattered and thought I was abnormal, but they have been supportive ever since.”
Karani is one of the few gay men in India who have “come out” through newspaper interviews and on TV several times. “It is important to say ‘I am gay’”—that’s the first thing he tells young men who walk into the Humsafar office. “We don’t have many gay icons in India, as in the West, so the need to be public is more important.”