Ashok Row Kavi is India’s first gay rights activist who came out to the country at a time when even uttering the word ‘homosexual’ was taboo. 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.He even started the Humsafar Trust an NGO in Mumbai which promotes LGBT rights. Team Banega Swasth India speaks to him about the relevance of pride and how far we have come in this journey in a candid setting.
How difficult was it for you in the year 1977 and in those circumstances to come out openly about your sexuality?
I was mostly out in my professional career, people in the Press Club of Bombay where I was a secretary for three years knew I was gay. We talked about it, we spoke about it in the news rooms.So the question of coming out in the public realm was just one step out. Although I had no idea what was in store for me. It was like an abyss, opening a door and only finding darkness on the other side.I had a lot of gay friends but none of them told me how to go ahead. I had to do that on my own.
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What was the response you got from your immediate family or friends?
My father had died by the time, so I had my old widowed mother and my widowed aunt. They were horrified at the news when I came out to them. They asked me if it was necessary to talk about my private life in a public forum. I told them it was a part of me and I wasn’t ashamed of it. My friends were horrified, they told me I would receive a blowback and I wouldn’t be accepted in society that easily. Everywhere I went there was dead silence about the issue of homosexuality.I had a big fight with my mother once because she arranged a marriage proposal for me. I was a premature baby and when I came out to my mother, she told me ‘I wished you have died then’.That was a huge shock and I never recovered from that. Even right till the end, I was hoping, she would say sorry for it, but instead she apologised to our caregiver. I felt like I didn’t get closure,but it goes to show that she was also suffering from a huge load of guilt.I sympathise with her, parents also have their own journey. A lot of people coming out of the closet, don’t understand at all the journey our parents take along with us.Trying to come to terms with their child, they generally don’t know what to do.
Do you think pride month is merely symbolic or it’s doing wonders for the community?
Recently there was a Pune Pride march hosted and Pune is a very orthodox city. Every alternate day Bindumadhav Khire who leads the pride in Pune and is very strict about who should be in that march. He gets parents, corporates and even policemen involved, they can be seen giving flowers to people of the community. There is a unique panel being put out for the person visiting for the first time.You feel extremely proud, that for the first they can talk to people like themselves. There are a lot of people out there saying, you can do what you want.
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How has the pandemic affected the community?
It has been terrible, there are three epidemics lying on top of each other. The first epidemic is HIV Aids, the most common thing from HIV is getting TB. Nearly 30% of gay men who are HIV positive are also prone to TB. On top of all this, there is COVID-19, because for everyone in the LGBTQ community our life is outside the house, although lesbians are usually more in private spaces but gay men and transgenders are more outside in a social setting where social distancing is not really honored. People desperately want jobs and the pandemic has contributed to a huge drop in the same. There are a lot of COVID 19 vaccination camps that are being held among groups in the community. There has been a lot of awareness.
If there was one thing, you could tell Ashok Row Kavi of the 90s what would you tell him?
I would say do exactly as you have done. My advice to youngsters is don’t just jump in because I have heard a lot of youngsters say that they don’t care if their parents are shocked and they want to come out. Think about it because even they have to go through the journey.When I saw my mother contending with that issue, she didn’t know what gay meant. A lot of our mothers are married at a very young age and they don’t know much about sex and to suddenly know about this different world to them is a wonder.It’s only now that a lot of films are coming on these issues and they are seeing the change. We need to be with them, on their journey which I was not in many ways.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.