Exactly 15 years ago, Ashok Row Kavi’s The Humsafar Trust tasted its first success. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation allotted two floors of a dilapidated municipal building to this new advocacy organization.

Kavi began by inviting members of the city’s homosexual community for the Friday workshop— geared towards educating and counselling people on coming out, dealing with relationships, legal issues, police atrocities and issues of health and human rights. Soon, trained street counsellors were appointed. After a few years, the trust began working aggressively on health issues concerning the homosexual and transsexual (hijra) community living on the fringes of Mumbai.

Identity crisis: Singh says he still gets many questions about his sexuality. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Mumbai’s poor, mostly immigrants from neighbouring states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, confront the worst of the city’s brutality. Slums are a symbol of the city’s malaise, juxtaposed with its fierce will to live. When the basics of livelihood are threatened, choices of sexuality are considered secondary. Often, such choices are taunted. Neighbours and policemen turn hostile.

Amit Singh, a 32-year-old social worker from Pandeypur, UP, faced such discrimination when he came to the city to make a living.

We meet at the office of The Humsafar Trust in Vakola, Mumbai, where he works as a field outreach worker. The trust remains Mumbai’s oldest and still most active advocacy organization, working for the livelihood of people from the MSM (men who have sex with men) community, whom society perceives as sexually deviant. It thrives on private funding and donations. The walls of the office, painted in hot pink, are decrepit, the ceilings are in need of a repair job. But its two floors, which include a drop-in centre for medical and legal consultation, a library and the administrative office, are hubs of activity. People from slums near and far await their turn to meet medical and legal consultants. Friday evenings are reserved for raucous dance parties.

Salima (name changed on request), a 43-year-old hijra who was there with her partner for a medical test following an infection, says: “At Humsafar, I don’t get looks like I do at a government hospital. I feel natural."

Humsafar has played a crucial role in Singh’s transformation from a young, school-going boy in his village, a misfit, to a Mumbaikar, attuned to the gruelling ways of the city’s slum livelihood. “I was married to an underage girl when I was 16. I left studies after class X because I wanted to run away from the village. I came to stay with some relatives in Borivali in Mumbai and worked in some textile shops. But they kept telling me something was wrong with me," Singh recalls. His wife’s family threatened him and his own family pleaded with him to return. Around 2000, Singh visited Humsafar because a colleague told him this was a place where he could find the confidence to come out in the open. He met a counsellor.

After two years, Singh decided to tell his family the truth, encouraged by Humsafar’s support. His family and friends did not take him seriously. “While all this was happening, I had to change house every now and then because nobody would accept me. Neighbours would call me a chakka, sometimes call the police, who would be abusive." Finally, about five years ago, Singh found a room at a chawl cooperative society where he went equipped with legal help. “I told the landlord that I was legally entitled for a lease. The neighbours knew I had the help of a big organization. I also held some health camps and HIV-awareness workshops in the slum."

Singh found acceptance. Meanwhile, three years ago, after his young wife’s family members came to Mumbai, Singh made them meet a Humsafar counsellor. A divorce was agreed to in the village with the sarpanch’s consent. “Now I am a free man, living with basic rights which were not available to me," says Singh.

The story of Revathi is similar—a hijra who joined Sangama, a Bangalore-based organization founded in 1999 as a small documentation centre focusing on sexuality and human rights.

It expanded into an organization with six offices, after a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. From an office assistant, she became one of Sangama’s directors. Penguin has published Revathi’s autobiography, The Truth about Me: A Hijra Life Story, this year. “I had a passport and driving licence made after much struggle identifying me as a female. I am 42 years old now," says Revathi.

Sangama runs a Crisis helpline—seven phone numbers that people in crisis can reach, and a team of more than 10 people who deal exclusively with them. “We get at least 20 calls a month, mostly dealing with police or public violence. Some are also from people who wish to come out to their parents, and are afraid of the repercussions. Each case has different strategies. For families, we assemble a small group—maybe of lawyers, doctors, women’s rights activists—and we meet the family. We talk to them, try and make them understand. For police, we congregate in large numbers. We go to them in groups of 10-15."

Humsafar’s counselling cell, which includes advice and treatment of HIV-affected MSM slum dwellers, as well as support to those who want to come out with their family and friends, is growing.

Akkai Padmashali, advocacy coordinator, Sangama, says: “In the early days, we faced lots of stories of violence—from families, from the public. The upper and middle classes had access to the mass media and the Internet, and the global queer community. But the working class (people who live in urban slums, for instance) had no access to private spaces and are forced to have sex in public parks and unhygienic public toilets—which makes them easy targets of police and goonda violence."

He echoes Nitin Karani, one of the oldest and active members of Humsafar Trust: “Over the years, most people who come to Humsafar for help are people who are from uneducated and economically poor sections of society. Discrimination against them is crucially related to their livelihood."

For donations and voluntary help, call Humsafar at 022-26673800 or log on to www.humsafar.orgfor details. For information on Sangama, log on to www.sangama.org. Its helpline numbers are 9945601651/52, 9945601653/54 and 9945231493.