It was an eventful Sunday evening. I had just returned from the Pride walk in Delhi. The colours and slogans of the day were still fresh in my head when I turned on the TV. Normal Heart was playing and it could not have been better timed. Today, on Human Rights Day it is disheartening that only a day later India will complete a year since the Supreme Court re-criminalised same-sex sexual behaviour (on 11 December 2013). It is ironic that the days are so close because same-sex behaviour is so closely related to human rights issues.
Normal Heart reminded me of the gay community’s experience at the beginning of the outbreak of the HIV epidemic in the 80s. This film sparked important questions of whether the response to the epidemic could have been different if it was not labelled as the ‘gay plague’. Why the right to life and dignity was a privilege of few?
The Normal Heart, 2014, is set in the early 80s which was perhaps the worst stage for the HIV epidemic; the virus was yet to be detected and hence it spread rapidly and killed thousands of young people. It was first thought to be only affecting homosexual men and therefore, commonly known as ‘gay cancer’ or ‘gay disease’. The virus was yet to be identified and any type of treatment was yet to be discovered. The state and society responded with inaction and apathy that resulted in the deaths of several thousand young men before even research was initiated.
The main protagonist in the film is Ned Weeks. He is a humanitarian who embodies the grief for the dying and the fear for the loved ones they leave behind. His bitterness stems from his experience as a homosexual man who constantly negotiates with life in a world that values heterosexuality and abhors any variation from it, struggling for validation and acceptance in a hostile world.
Ned finds an unlikely comrade in a polio ridden doctor, Emma. They are different and yet similar. Neither of them knows how to sugar-coat their words, their anger and passion are palpable, their truth, too scathing, their emotions a mirror to our own hypocritical society. Emma’s most significant line in her conversation with Ned is, “After all, polio too was once a virus”, giving hope and tracing the similarity in their situations simultaneously.
Emma points out that while this disease in America has largely affected the gay community, in other parts of the world it has been found to affect purely heterosexual groups too. Once again underlying the fact that humankind is tied together in a common destiny and a problem for one also affect others, therefore, the solution for the problem will be a solution for many. This holds especially true for the HIV/AIDS epidemic as it is primarily transmitted sexually, the virus continues to affect people worldwide and is a leading cause of death, irrespective of the sexual orientation of people.
Ned Weeks, is brilliant, a sensitive portrayal of a man seeking acceptance, outraged at public apathy, fighting to be counted. And today at Alliance India we are asking the same question to our society and state – do we count?
Towards the end of ‘the Normal Heart’, Felix dies of AIDS. But his words stay alive in my mind: Its’ true, we do not naturally not love. Or not fight for our rights, for that matter. We learn not to. But what can be learned can also be unlearned. We need to remind ourselves and everyone around us, yet again that our human rights also include the right of individuals to freely express love and intimacy without the colonial proscriptions of what is natural and what is ‘unnatural’.
Targeted HIV/AIDS response is heavily compromised when a blind eye is turned to the sexual behaviour of a population highly vulnerable to the epidemic. By criminalising an already vulnerable community, they are being further marginalised. The state has conceded that the rights of the few will be trampled when the Indian Supreme Court upheld Section 377 last year. The lives of those breaking gender norms are not being counted by the State. On Human Rights Day, how can we let this go? If it affects a few, it affects us all.
The author of this post, Nandini Mazumdar, is Programme Officer: Sexual & Reproductive Health at India HIV/AIDS Alliance in New Delhi.
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