New Delhi: In 2013, a 22-year-old was gang-raped by three men in West Bengal. She was taken to the nearest hospital. The doctors, on examining her, taunted her: How could you even get raped? They denied her first aid and did not even prescribe emergency medication for HIV prevention, which is usually recommended to a victim of sexual violence.
She left the hospital, called a few friends and looked for a clinic nearby that would treat her without judging her sexual orientation. Still traumatized, the fight for something as basic as access to healthcare became a priority for the young adult.
The vilification of LGBTQ members has in fact become a norm, with doctors, instead of treating the ailment, often sexually harass or abuse a transgender, or worse, condemn the “unnatural sexual preferences" of the person. There was even a case of a transgender, a victim of a train accident, dying unattended, because for 3-4 hours, doctors could not decide whether to admit her to a male or female ward.
During the ongoing hearing in the apex court, justice Indu Malhotra, who is part of the five-judge bench hearing the petitions for decriminalizing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, highlighted how the LGBTQ community has been discriminated against even in availing healthcare in semi-urban and rural areas.
A 2016 Lancet paper on transgender health in India and Pakistan says that while the transgender community may have received legal recognition, its access to quality healthcare remains alarmingly scarce. And, there are hardly any anti-discrimination laws in place to safeguard equality in healthcare access.
“There are various layers of discrimination in healthcare access in this country. The doctors are curious about the transgender identity, and so exploit them in the process," says Shuvojit Moulik, founder of Civilian Welfare Foundation, an NGO based in Kolkata. “A lot of trans people don’t even go to the hospitals for years, unless there is an emergency, say, an accident. They fear going to the hospital because of layers of homophobia that start from the guard to the receptionist to the doctors to lab technicians."
Two weeks ago, Sintu Bagui, 27, went to a skin specialist in Hooghly district. Seeing her, the security guard asked her why she was there. Sternly she looked back and said: “Would I come to a clinic to watch a movie?" Like most people she meets, the guard scanned her from top to bottom. She walked in and joined the several patients waiting in the queue. Everyone kept staring at her.
“Even if you look at a visceral level, right from access to information in terms of literature available about medical problems specifically faced by the community, there is a huge gap," says Anjali Gopalan, founder of Naz Foundation (India) Trust, fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India. “There are such strange questions doctors ask, particularly those whose orientation is easily visible, such as the eunuchs. If castrated, their bodies become a spectacle for many."
But do doctors need to know their patients’ sexual orientation and gender identity?
Five years ago, Prasad Raj Dandekar, a radiation oncologist at a top Mumbai hospital, saw a colleague post something on Facebook that was homophobic. Dandekar commented on the post, assuming the colleague would understand since he was educated and a well-known doctor. Instead, the colleague lashed out at Dandekar, saying homosexuality is an aberration and he would never want his children to meet such people.
“At that point I thought even the medical professionals know so little about homosexuality, let alone how to provide care to those within the community," Dandekar says. “After I came out, I would keep getting calls from people within the community asking whom they could get in touch with. I was unsure. Because what we needed was not just a good doctor, but also someone who was not a homophobe."
Early this year, Dandekar formed the Health Professionals for Queer Indians (HPQI), an organization that trains doctors, especially mental health professionals, to understand the health needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
As the community is closely watching the events unfold in the Supreme Court, there are so many hopes pinned around it. As Bagui says: “Of being able to just go and see a doctor without having to worry about being ridiculed or pushed away."