New Delhi: When the Union cabinet met on Wednesday to discuss a ministerial report on homosexuality, and when it took a decision to essentially not take a decision—to leave the final verdict to the Supreme Court—Ashok Row Kavi did not appear unduly surprised. “The cabinet has been very clever,” Kavi points out. “They’ve taken themselves out of it entirely.”
In July, the Delhi high court had ruled against the criminalization of homosexuality, as set down by Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Following the cabinet meeting on Thursday, information and broadcasting minister Ambika Soni had told reporters: “The cabinet decided to ask the attorney general to assist the Supreme Court in every way desired by it in arriving at an opinion on the correctness of the judgment of the high court.”
The larger cause: When Ashok Row Kavi was 13 and already aware of being gay, his father gifted him books by British sexologist Havelock Ellis. Kavi says his father thought he was just going through a phase. Rajkumar / Mint
The final legalisation of gay sex, if and when it happens, cannot be undervalued in its importance.
“After all, you’re suddenly not a criminal any more,” Kavi, one of India’s first gay activists, and certainly among the most strident, says. But beyond the strictures of the penal code, there is still the challenge of wider social acceptance, which does not escape Kavi even today, at the age of 62. “My mother still tells my female friends: ‘Get pregnant. Then he’ll have to marry you.’”
Kavi is often cutting in his criticism of the middle class, “which refuses to accept truths that are right in front of it,” but he is no less severe on many sections of the gay community itself, which he says has failed to produce the leadership it needs.
“There are people in high positions in the corporate world who are gay. Four of Bollywood’s leading film directors are gay. But none of them say anything,” Kavi says. “I have nothing against having a good time, but when you come out of your fancy gay parties, you have to think about the larger world. There’s pressure to get married, there’s pressure to conform. So many gay men are leading double lives.”
Kavi was fortunate to recognize his homosexuality early—even in his early teens—and to have parents who accepted it. But when, fresh out of college, he joined the Ramakrishna Mission for 18 months to train to become a monk, “I was, in a sense, still running away.”
In another stroke of good fortune, though, his teachers at the mission gave him useful advice. “They said that the mission wasn’t a place to hide,” he remembers. “It’s a place to work out issues, but the world is the real stage.”
When Kavi was publicly outed, he gratefully remembers, it was not a brutal experience. After a night shift at his newspaper job in Mumbai, he and his colleagues were taking the last train back home. “A bunch of my gay friends also got on, and they started saying: ‘Oh Ashok, we missed you. That Navy guy we like so much was there’ and so on,” Kavi says. “My chief sub-editor, a conservative man, was sitting next to me for some time, but then he couldn’t take it any more. At one station, he got off and got into the next carriage. I tease him about it even today.”
As Kavi’s career in journalism progressed—he was among the first reporters in Bhopal after the Union Carbide disaster—so did his involvement in gay issues and support groups. In 1989, he resigned from The Week and started Bombay Dost, a newsletter for the city’s gay community, with a fellowship of Rs5,000 a month. At its peak, Bombay Dost reached 4,000 subscribers—but it was read by many times that number, its copies circulated avidly in the gay community.
“That magazine was an important tool to build the community, to do positive stories,” says Anjali Gopalan, founder of the Naz Foundation, a New Delhi-based AIDS awareness group. “The biggest issue till then was that there were no gay role models, and Bombay Dost highlighted such people. I don’t think there are any other magazines pitched at that level.” Bombay Dost suspended publication in 2002 but was reborn earlier this year.
In 1994, the subscriber base of Bombay Dost became the core of Kavi’s Humsafar Trust, a support and advocacy group that won a minor battle in simply being recognized as openly gay by Mumbai’s municipal authorities. “We got space in a municipal building—a space that hadn’t been used in seven years and was simply filthy,” Kavi recalls. “It took 20 bottles of acid to clean those floors.”
The role of activist must come naturally to Kavi, although he sometimes grumbles that it overshadows his previous professional work.
He is a voluble talker, forever buttressing his points with anecdotes and verbatim quotes of Swami Vivekananda, Michel Foucault, or various scriptures. Even with somebody he is meeting for the first time, he can warm very rapidly to a conversational level of comfort where he can express his various indignations as colourfully as he wishes.
It’s a valuable asset, and Kavi seeks that articulate quality even in trustees that Humsafar inducts onto its board.
Crucially, the criminal stain of homosexuality has prevented health authorities from accessing men who have sex with men (or MSMs), highly vulnerable to AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. That dire need spurred Kavi, three years ago, to join UNAIDS as a national technical resource officer. “At some point, you have to stop manning the protest lines and start collaborating with the government,” he says.
In Kavi’s view, the death toll of AIDS victims in India is thus a burden that Article 377 has to at least partially shoulder. Out of the 18 members of what he calls his “gay family” in Mumbai, 12 have succumbed to HIV. “So it’s all very well to celebrate (the high court ruling on) Article 377,” he says. “But for a lot of people, it’s already too late.”