Being gay and ‘No One Else’ in India and the USA
Siddharth Dube’s latest book, “No One Else – A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex,” is more than a memoir of a gay man’s life growing up in India and the United States. It is also a firsthand account of the lives of sexual minorities in these two countries during the 1980s, a time when being gay for many meant living in fear – of disease, abuse and public scorn.
The book, which was released in New Delhi on Nov. 20, begins more than four decades ago in Calcutta’s (now Kolkata) The Grand hotel. A bikini-clad woman swayed through a ballroom, entertaining guests, including 10-year-old Dube and his parents. Then she stripped off the bikini to reveal breasts and, to the boy’s horror, a penis. The striptease exposed him to impending conflicts — the transgression norms of masculine and feminine behaviour, and with it sexual desire.
“No One Else” charts the progression of Dube, 54, from that dance performance and his confusion over his own sexual identity into his life as a writer and activist on AIDS, homosexuality and other issues. Along the way was a decade of self-loathing as a teenager, humiliation, physical abuse and a duplicitous life at Calcutta’s La Martiniere and Dehradun’s The Doon School – both boys-only institutions, and at Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College.
After landing in the United States to study at the Tufts University, and later at the University of Minnesota, Dube became a witness and a key player in the global fight for the rights of homosexuals, sex workers and transgender people. A year before he arrived in the U.S., a “mysterious killing disease among homosexual men” had been discovered. That was in 1981. Then came the names – HIV and AIDS – and with them the stigma against sexual minorities, mainly homosexual men who were thought to spread and share the disease only among each other.
Back in Calcutta for long summer breaks, Dube witnessed squalor and disease in India’s slums, which made his own crises seem less traumatic. Jolted from his life in a privileged family, he decided to work on social justice issues, including global AIDS prevention efforts.
In 2000, he published “Sex, Lies and AIDS”, a book that questioned the Indian government’s claim that it had the HIV/AIDS epidemic under control, and worked to dispel the myth that Indians were “asexual”.
But “No One Else” was the most difficult book to write for Dube, in which he had to revisit years of shame and self-disgust while growing up as a “girly-boy” or “gender-atypical” child.
There is a quote in the book from a gay American psychiatrist. He says it is a miracle that any gay people can ever live as healthy, happy people because they had no one to validate them. “This is a prison … which you have locked yourself up in. It’s a prison of fear and of terror. If you think there’s nobody else like you in the world, you think – OK let me kill myself, I am such a freak, I am so disgusting,” Dube said in an interview.
He added that last year he had to leave the country in “anxiety” to finish the book after the BJP government came to power and the Supreme Court struck down the High Court judgment legalizing gay sex.
His new book also is a criticism of HIV-prevention policies of the Bush administration in the United States, the World Bank, UNAIDS and India’s own government. Despite its slim 300-odd pages, it is an exhaustive reporting from India about the condition of homosexuals and sex workers infected with HIV since the virus was detected in 1986.
Whether it was the U.S. government’s insistence on promoting abstinence – and therefore downplaying the use of condoms – or refusal to provide clean, free needles to drug users, few challenged these policies, Dube writes. Moreover, preferring “trafficking victims” or “prostitution” over “sex work” or “sex worker” in government programs cast a criminal air over people who voluntarily became sex workers.
As a former employee of the World Bank’s health policy division, he writes about the heavily subsidised food for “us prosperous people”, ostensibly high expenditure on travel, the staff being “utterly cut off from reality” and his immediate boss’ reluctance to publish a report that recommended legalising sex work. But it was the same organisation, which he joined in 1993, being a huge funder of AIDS prevention efforts in developing countries, that gave equal treatment to its employees, in terms of health insurance for same-sex partners and prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The progressive attitude, contrasted in the book with the American government’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, also stemmed from the “outspokenness of prominent Bank economist Hans Binswanger about being gay and HIV-positive.” But this institutional openness didn’t translate into understanding the predicament of sex workers at that time, the book shows, who were also part of another set of sexual outlaws.
The author joined the UNAIDS secretariat in 2005 as a senior adviser and speech writer to executive director Peter Piot, who was credited with discovering the Ebola virus.
“Only the … secretariat had the global legitimacy to halt the Bush administration’s drive to destructively rewrite international HIV prevention strategies,” a chapter in the book, “A World War”, reads. Dube, however, was crestfallen to see his boss’ subservience in accepting the government’s policies on sex work, drug use and abstinence over condoms. These developments took place around the time the United Nations, led by Kofi Annan, had begun providing basic benefits to gay employees and their partners. Dube left the group in anger.
In India, Dube paints a portrait of an “ironic” country, much like the stereotypical idea that India is a land of contradictions. Despite the social disgrace and bigotry attached to homosexual desire, “there was a rip-roaring same-sex life amongst Indian men,” he writes. This takes place against a backdrop of prolonged torture and the incarceration of sexual minorities.
“No One Else” oscillates between fear, anger and hope. It seeks to create a sense of imprisonment or solitary confinement, Dube said. The metaphor of the prison, for example, acquires a literal meaning on a winter night in 1988. When he spent a few hours with his boyfriend at a police station in Delhi for being a “homo”, his worst fears had come true.
Not that there was no hope. For a short time several years ago, it seemed like India’s official attitude toward homosexuality was shifting. In 2009, the Delhi High Court decriminalized homosexual sex, only to be overruled by the Supreme Court in 2013. Once again, Dube said, he was “a criminal in my own country…an outlaw for being who I was.”
He said he was not sure whether the government will repeal Section 377, the colonial era anti-sodomy law, in his lifetime. But he is optimistic. “These are not people who are going to be beaten down and fooled. There are no fools in India.”