He says he knows what it’s like to live the life of an outcast.
Siddharth Dube came of age as a gay man in India in the 1990s — a time when a law dating back to 1864, Section 377, criminalized homosexuality, calling it an “unnatural offense.” (The law was struck down by India’s Supreme Court in September 2018.)
Now a specialist in poverty and public health policy, Dube has written a memoir, An Indefinite Sentence: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex.
The book is not just about his own quest to find love and societal acceptance. It’s also an account of the activism of India’s marginalized sex workers and LGBT community as they battled violations of their human rights in the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic — having blood drawn without consent, for example.
A graduate of Tufts University, the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and the Harvard School of Public Health, Dube has worked and consulted for the World Bank, UNICEF and the World Health Organization and was senior adviser in 2005-2006 to the executive director of UNAIDS, a special United Nations effort to tackle AIDS.
You write about how you were constantly taunted during your school years for acting like a “sissy boy.” How did you cope during this difficult time?
I coped by trying to my utmost to behave just like other boys, including my brothers, to exactly copy their mannerisms and their interests. I also desperately excised any aspects of my mannerisms that I thought were feminine and hence forbidden to males, including gentleness. Unfortunately, my efforts didn’t succeed. All through my school years, and then into my undergraduate college years in Delhi, I was mocked and ostracized for being “sissy” and “girly.”
How did your family treat you?
I was enormously lucky as my parents were not only fiercely protective of us children but they also had a remarkably independent-thinking streak. So I didn’t face any censure from them about my femininity — not once! In contrast, I did begin to feel a sense of distance and inferiority to my brothers as a result of being teased by them about my feminine looks and mannerisms.
Do you think it’s any different for boys growing up today in India – or around the world? Do we still hold the same rigid and potentially damaging views about gender?
Boys and men in many parts of India are raised to be far more gentle and “feminine” — and comfortable with physical and emotional intimacy — than is the norm for Western/American males. This was true then [in the ’70s], and remains true until today.
Yet despite those attitudes, you lived as a gay man in India in the 1980s and ’90s at a time when homosexuality was outlawed by Section 377. What was that like?
Arguably, the worst impact was the deadening sense of fear we all lived in. I remember the utter terror I felt when I was arrested with my long-term partner in Delhi one night in 1988, merely because we lived openly together. The only reason we weren’t persecuted further was because of my family’s privileged position. Few other Indians had that kind of protection, and so the wiser course in those dangerous times for most gay Indian men and women was to be invisible, to deny themselves normal, fulfilled lives.
How damaging was this silence for the LGBT community?
The silence had to do with a very real fear of persecution, exposure and shame. The consequences were tragic. For instance, there is no doubt that countless gay men and trans individuals in India contracted HIV as a result of the fears engendered by Section 377. By now, because of the AIDS pandemic, it is well understood how criminalization and marginalization multiply the risks of disease, for instance by keeping people from openly learning about safe-sex methods or by forestalling healthy romantic relationships.
And now that the law is gone …?
There is an enormous sense of relief, the feeling that we can hope to lead full lives with the expectation of happiness and fulfillment just like everyone else.
Another huge impact is in restoring a sense of self-respect and dignity. And we are now filled with hope and determination that these changes will be speedily reflected in vital legal and policy changes in India — such as in terms of equalizing marriage, inheritance and adoption rights irrespective of sexual or gender orientation.
In your book, you tell us how the AIDS pandemic affected the lives of women sex workers in India.
The first few cases of HIV in India were identified in women sex workers in 1986. Consequently, [these women sex workers] came to be associated with AIDS, just as the United States epidemic came to be associated with gay men.
And just as in the U.S. with gay men, women sex workers in India were the victims of persecution and abuse by the government as well as from other quarters. They were arrested in mass drives, their blood was drawn without consent and they were cruelly incarcerated for months and even years, separated from their children and families without being told why. It is because of those experiences that countless sex workers in India have long demanded decriminalization of their work.
And you support that position?
Decriminalizing sex work frees the many women, trans individuals and men who sell sex from the fear of prosecution by the police and other arms of the state. It is the necessary starting point for enabling them to tackle the other hardships they face, ranging from societal stigma and imbued notions of shame to feelings of powerlessness.
How did sex workers and people from the LGBT community push back against the societal stigma of AIDS? Tell us about the pioneers of the movement who helped bring about societal acceptance.
Change came through the efforts of pioneering individuals and grassroots groups. For instance, in my book I document the life of Selvi, one of the very first sex workers to be identified with HIV, back in 1986. She suffered [an] abusive marriage, years of selling sex to support herself and her young son, her HIV diagnosis and then long years of imprisonment because she was an HIV-infected sex worker.
Right until her death in 1998, Selvi was a tireless crusader, not only to keep other sex workers from contracting HIV but importantly also for far-reaching legal reform, beginning with decriminalization, in other words with getting the exploitative police out of their lives.
In 1993, you joined the health policy division of the World Bank as a policy analyst. You are very critical of the experience in your book.
Actually, I’m critical of much of what is called international development. Its failures are chronic and multitudinous. The blame for these failures spans all the way from both donor- and developing-country governments to Westerners who continue to think of poorer countries in damagingly sensationalistic terms, for instance as hotbeds of “modern-day” slavery.
But regarding the Bank, yes, I felt that in small ways and big, the institution’s entitlements and power crippled its ability to promote well-being in the countries it worked in. It became clear to me on a firsthand basis from the public health projects that I worked on. Our reports were written from the best hotels.
Despite several visits to such countries as Kenya and Uganda, I knew next to nothing about them, feeling much like a rich first-world tourist gazing uncomprehendingly at “third world” sights from a cocoon of luxury.
What are the lessons that the global development community should never forget in the past four decades of battling HIV/AIDS?
One critical lesson is to pay heed to data and other forms of empirical knowledge.
In the case of India’s sex workers, for instance, a wealth of data shows that today only 1 in 10 ever work in a brothel. Instead, the overwhelming majority operates from their homes or small lodges, often using mobile phones. Yet, in the popular Western imagination, all of India’s sex workers work in the heinous conditions of Mumbai’s brothels of the 1980s.
And there is a pointed lesson about humility. The West simply does not hold all the answers and have all the knowledge. It speaks volumes that U.S. government policies on AIDS, sexual rights and reproductive rights have more often than not put destructive moralizing before humanitarian and social justice imperatives [for example, groups worldwide receiving U.S. funding were barred from discussing condom use with young people and many adults, with the exception of “those who practice high-risk behaviors].
The title of your book refers to an “indefinite sentence.” But now that Section 377 has been abolished, what does the title mean to you?
The indefinite sentence is indeed lifting now for gay and trans individuals in India. But it continues for sex workers — and my motivation in writing this book was to draw attention to the terrible injustice done to them.
How did writing this book change you?
It changed me in more ways than I can count. There’s a special kind of liberation that has come from being able to make clear sense of my life, to make sense of the needless harm that was done to me. I needed to be in my 50s to be able to see my life in this larger perspective.
Of course, only a portion of this book is about me — more than half is about the scores of women sex workers, gay men and trans women whom I’ve met over the decades. And getting to write a history of their remarkable lives and efforts, which have led to all kinds of progress in India, was equally transformative for me.
Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, India, who has written for The International New York Times, BBC Travel and Forbes India. You can follow her @kamal_t.