MW Anniversary Special: Ashok Row Kavi, The Pioneering Gay Activist, Looks Back
India’s first gay rights activist ran, so the community could walk. Ashok Row Kavi talks about coming out in the ’70s, launching India’s first LGBT magazine, and his activism and journalism
Meet Ashok Row Kavi, India’s first gay rights activist who came out to the world at a time when even uttering the word ‘homosexual’ was taboo. There were fringe outfits ready to blacken your face and slap you — the ’80s version of being ‘cancelled’. But Kavi emerged victorious for being a proud gay man who paved the way for the LGBTQIA community to be open with a defiance.
Today, at the age of 75, though a diabetic, the veteran activist is as active as he was when he was younger. Ashok Row Kavi, started life as a journalist, achieving fame for his work with publishers like Indian Express, Malayala Manorama, The Free Press Journal, Sunday Mail, and The Daily. But more than that, we honour him for pioneering the AIDS/HIV outreach programmes in India in the 1990s and 2000s, especially for gay men, which gave them a new lease of life.
It was due to Ashok Row Kavi’s efforts in the founding of Bombay Dost, India’s first gay magazine, and setting up of the Humsafar Trust, that AIDS/HIV awareness reached every nook and corner of this country. Over the years, he has worked with governments across India and abroad, as well as various arms of the UN. He is now an NGO representative, Executive Committee, Mumbai District AIDS Control Society (MDACS); member, Technical Resource Group, Targeted Interventions, National AIDS Control Organisation and was called for lectures at the Indian Institute of Population Studies, and is on the Scientific Committee of ICMR and NARI. Many hats, still the same person, fighting for all the right causes.
Presently, Ashok Row Kavi is the co-founder of the Mumbai Seenagers, an informal group of the senior gay and bisexual community in the city. A larger network of such men has been formed and supported on mental health issues, counselling for alienation and health issues, and the fear of loneliness.
But it wasn’t always an easy path for him. We sit down with Ashok Row Kavi,for a freewheeling chat.
When did you first come out?
I first came out at India’s first workshop on family planning in February 1977. It was conducted by the late sexologist, Dr Mahindra Watsa. I received a lot of flak for coming out during the conference. How can sexuality not be a part of a family planning program? Is it not about sex? They even had issues with the word ‘lesbian.’ If you can’t deal with a broad spectrum issue like male sexuality, how can you deal with reproductive health? And not just me, but even Dr Mahindra Watsa was asked as to why he let me talk at a family planning workshop on homosexuality and male sexuality. He further emphasised how homosexuality should not be treated as a perversion, but as a deviation.
Did you being open about your sexual orientation affect your career?
Orientation as a word came to be used much later, and it did not have an impact on my career as a journalist with the Indian Express because every body knew I was gay, and quite openly. However, I wasn’t allowed to use the word ‘gay,’ even though I was reviewing books on homosexuality for the Sunday edition of the Indian Express. I reviewed the book by Shakuntala Devi, and it was the first time such a book on homosexuality had even been written. Shakuntala Devi gave an interesting perspective on homosexuality and reincarnation as to how your love for your loved ones can manifest in your life even in another lifetime with the same partner from your previous birth. Yes, it’s a bit wacko.
You also edited a clone of Playboy, the famous Debonair magazine. What was
In my journalistic career, I wrote for The Week, The Free Press Journal, and even India Today. Yet, I am known for publishing a clone of Playboy in India called Debonair. I, along with my friend Anthony Van Braband, edited the magazine and its racy content, and soon, set tongues wagging. It was quite pathbreaking that a girly magazine aimed at cishet men was being brought out by two gay men. People found it fascinating.
How did the media react to your sexuality back then?
I won’t take names, but I was once interviewed by the editor of a magazine who only focused on my homosexuality and his personal matters. Why just ask me questions on my orientation, why not talk about my work? Back then there was no UNAIDS, there was GPA – Global Program on Aids and it was just starting, which was under WHO. There were five or six gay activists in the organization in Geneva who clearly did not feel comfortable to use the word ‘homosexuality.’ But as you know, the AIDS and HIV crisis started with gay men in USA. The African and Asian governments did not want the word to be used anywhere as they believed it had a lot of negative connotations. So they invented a term called MSM (Men having Sex with Men), and it became a behavioural term, and not an identity. This is the term that even NACO uses, and it is meant for men who have unprotected sex with other men in a six month window as they also come under the national AIDS protection program.
What was the tipping point that made you switch to activism from journalism?
It was 1989, when I first attended the 5th international AIDS conference in Montreal, and I was shocked to see people fighting for funds. It was around the same time that The Lighthouse, a hospice for gay men, had started in London, which even the late Princess Diana visited. There was no Anti-Retroviral Therapy (ART) back then, so gay men were dying like flies. I wanted to work with sick people, and so I took up work in a Municipal Eye Hospital in Kamathipura, dealing mainly with sex workers, and it was called the Asha Project. It was the Bombay Municipal Corporation who unionised sex workers, and it was spearheaded by a very liberal and progressive Municipal Commissioner, Jairaj Thanekar. He and I went around, and did the outreach. It was he who showed how to create narratives about AIDS and disease. It was here when I realised I wanted to be a health activist along with being a gay activist.
Tell us something about the birth of the pioneering Bombay Dost magazine.
In 1990, I started Bombay Dost. The first issue came out in 1991, and it was 16 pages. The first ever article on Section 377 and how it would affect the HIV/AIDS outreach programmes was published in the magazine, and it was written by one of Mumbai’s deadliest criminal lawyers, Shrikant Bhatt. It was a newsletter that served as a lifeboat for many gay men. It brought up the subject of anal STIs and AIDS. It was no more a personal issue, but a public health issue. But a magazine alone cannot handle it. So that’s how Suhail Abbasi, Sridhar Rangayan, and I became the trustees of Humsafar Trust in 1994. It was Jairaj Thanekar, the health officer, who allotted us a drop-in centre, and we set up a clinic in that small space. We used to collect samples, and send them to government hospitals. That is how our first outreach program for AIDS and HIV started. It was also the first center for gay men that united gay men from all castes, communities, and backgrounds. We were even visited by transwomen (the hijra community) who were also dealing with sexual problems. We were teaching all of them about checking themselves for any physical symptoms of STIs and STDs.
What do you think about the activism around you today? What has changed?
In the last decade or so, I still want to spread awareness and help the homosexual community even
more. We always warn and tell our little girls to stay away from strange and unknown men. But who will tell our little boys that? A lot of young boys face sexual abuse from a much younger age, and they have no one to talk to or share this with. I believe the internet still doesn’t penetrate all parts of the country, and is of use only for the ones living in cities. I also believe there is still a lot of resistance to offline studies when it comes to STDs and other public health issues. I believe that even as activists are appearing in events and on social media, a lot of students across the country still don’t own a smartphone. I am running a group called Rainbow Hindus, and I take up two counselling sessions every month.
I believe that same sex marriage couples need to focus on making the Special Marriage Act totally gender neutral. Once the Special Marriages Act becomes gender neutral, there is no way the State can deny the LGBTQ communities their right to marry. This requires more focused activist many of whom have studied law.
In my 30 years of activism, I have seen an entire range of movements. Even today, there are more
than 30 million gay men who seem to have been invisibilised. Gay men were at the forefront of activism, and always have been. The movement has splintered with a concerted effort by the transgendered to form their own networks. In many ways, the transwomen have managed to mobilise better and focus on who are their allies in the State and Government apparatus. Thus, there are well organised Transgender Welfare Boards set up in three important states: Tamil Nadu, Maharashra, and West Bengal, and there are now linkages into the nearly all concerned Union ministries like the Women and Child Welfare Ministry, the Ministry of Social Justice, the National Human Rights Commission, and numerous others where there is a lateral movement of hijra and transgender talent flowing in. Gay and bisexual men are stuck in a world where they are busy with WhatsApp groups, advertising jobs under Diversity and Inclusion, which is like running employment bureaux. That’s not gay activism; that’s fighting for scarce jobs in a cis heteronormative world. The lone rangers like Pawan Dhall in Kolkat and Bindu Madhav Khire in Pune are handling the nuts and bolts of the gay and transgender issues all on their own with little funding.
Meanwhile, the gay community, like the whole LGBTQ umbrella of sexual minority groups, is facing three pandemics that are like three heavy mattresses covering them at their peril. The first is the TB epidemic, where gay men mostly from the working class and lower income groups are dealing with tuberculosis, overlying them is the HIV pandemic, where HIV is inching up along with other STIs like syphilis and drug resistant gonorrhea, and the third is now COVID, because of the fact that most do not stay indoors. Gay life is a social phenomenon where you need to bolster your group sexual identity once in a while, and that puts you are risk from all three.
I do not see the seriousness in the movement as a major segment of the gay and bisexual men think it is safer to melt into the grey expanse of the mainstream heterosexual world. There, they are safe from stigma and discrimination, which is still very rampant in the outside world full of challenges, which usually mean competing for jobs in a rapidly changing socio-economic landscape.
Another interesting phenomenon is that the financial distress, which means there is a huge proportion of young gay men who are into sex work. You have to see gay dating apps like Grindr and Blued, where not only are gay men openly saying they accept money, but also are into substance abuse. Casual sex has exploded with the party scene despite the sanction on large gatherings in the outer suburbs like Nalasopara and Neral, which turn into overnight booze and substance use parties. There is little or no outreach to these large gatherings. So you can imagine the mess we are in.
What do you think the gay community should prioritise and focus on?
I am against gay marriage. Monogamous marriage is a huge failure in every modern industrial society. In the US, the divorce rates are touching 35 percent a year while in the UK, single women prefer to be single mothers than marry a man and settle down in a heterosexual marriage. However, if you need stability and companionship, gay marriage would simplify matters a little. We
have every right to make the same mistakes as mainstream society, and learn from them. The whole structure of marriage in our societies is to give some firm basis for social relations to progress in a planned way. Pensions, the right to joint mediclaims, the right to see and be with your partner in a medical institution, the right to take control of your partner when he/she needs you most. All these need to be ours by right. The Pride Marches and Parties can come afterwards. In most of Asia, they are already passé, and they will soon become an annual bore, but the LGBTQ movement has to reinvent itself. The answers will not come from the tired congealed NGOs but from lone rangers who can be seen twinkling on the horizon.