Sunday, August 30, 2009

Working for gays, but not caring for them

The majority of NGOs working for people with alternate sexuality in Kerala are manned by non-homosexuals. The gays say that these insensitive social workers are of no help to them

Photo: Members of the transgender community

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, Sunil Menon received a telephone call. A group of people was coming from Thiruvananthapuram to observe the work of the Chennai-based ‘Sahodaran’, an NGO for gays established by him.

When Sunil’s assistant Rajesh, who was also from Thiruvanathapuram, came to know about this, he had a panic attack. “Who are these people?” he asked Sunil. “Do we know anything about them? Are they from the gay community? I don’t want outsiders to know about my sexuality.”

Sunil had no idea of the composition of the group. So Rajesh fled the office. “His fears were well founded,” says Sunil. “When the group arrived, out of eight people, only one was a member of the community.”

For Sunil this has been the biggest problem regarding the several NGOs operating in Kerala for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. “The people who work for these organisations are not gay,” he says. “In fact, nearly all the positions are held by heterosexual people.”

He remembers the time when he held a workshop in Aluva to sensitise a few NGO’s regarding gays. “Twenty people came and I was shocked to discover that none of them were from the community,” he says. “Later, I realised that one LGBT member is appointed in each of these NGOs, and that too, as a token representation.”

Soman Nair, 24, says that in the NGO that he works in, the director, staff and the office assistants are all heterosexuals. He says his colleagues have no idea of the gay mind-set.

“A good social worker should go to the place where the community congregates,” says Soman. He should reach out to people and talk to them about HIV/AIDS, and advocate safe sex methods like the use of condoms. He should understand the psyche of a gay person and remain in constant touch so that the condoms are used properly. “Most of them are incapable of doing this,” he says.

Community members like Soman are usually given the job of a peer educator. They come in once or twice a week to collect the condoms to distribute among gays. They also submit regular reports on their field work. Most of them are paid a paltry monthly salary of Rs 1500, while those who work in the offices have starting salaries of Rs 5000.

“There is no empowerment of the community,” says Sunil. “No input is taken on how the project can be run effectively.”

And nearly all the heterosexual workers reflect the usual prejudices against people with a different sexuality. K. Bhanu, a gay and a social worker remembers the time when he was standing next to a heterosexual counsellor, Raghu, in an NGO at Thiruvananthapuram. Raghu pointed at a gay person and sniggered, “Look at that flute (slang for gay).” Bhanu says, “When he said that I got very upset. He is earning a living working for gays and has no empathy for us.”

Community members say that they feel nervous when they enter an NGO office which is manned by outsiders. “We have a fear that there may be somebody present who knows our families and when they see us they will rush to inform our parents,” says Prakash Nair, a college student.

Another problem is the presence of religious groups. And this has puzzled the community even more. “For example, in the Bible it is stated that homosexuality is a sin, so why are religious groups working with the LGBT community?” says Sunil.

David Thomas, a member of a Christian group says that their aim is to combat HIV/AIDS. “We have no option but to work with gays,” he says.

Sometimes, these gays are encouraged to attend religious retreats. “They are told that sex between man and man is a sin,” says Bhanu. “They advise them to have a relationship with a woman. They teach them yoga and try to brainwash them.”

When some of the gays return they say, “My sins have been washed away. I don’t have any preferences for men. I am planning to get married and have children.”

Bhanu laughs and says, “Is this a genuine or a cosmetic change? I leave it to you to figure out.”

Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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