Some doctors didn’t just refuse to treat victims; they leaked their status to the media. Prostitutes were imprisoned in such large numbers, the government had to set up makeshift camps to house them. And Hindu supremacist politicians censored any public conversation about sex and sexuality. In 1996, vigilante groups empowered by such politicians burned down movie theaters that screened Deepa Mehta’s film “Fire,” because it focused on a lesbian relationship. The idea that homosexuality is a disease brought to India by Islamic invaders is popular even today. Last September, after the Supreme Court overturned Section 377, a politician from the prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata Party called homosexuality “a genetic disorder, like having six fingers.”
Such statements betray an ignorance of traditional values. “Hindu mythology,” the author Devdutt Pattanaik writes in “Shikhandi,” his retelling of popular myths, “makes constant references to queerness.” A key character in the war epic Mahabharata was born a woman and becomes a man. A great king experiences life as both a man and a woman. And, in an oral retelling of the story of Lord Ram, the Hindu god is so moved by the steadfast devotion of his hijra subjects that he promises, “Never again shall you be invisible.” In the literary history “Same-Sex Love in India” the academic Ruth Vanita reminds us that pre-Islamic texts feature “men and boy prostitutes and dancers who service men … in descriptive, nonjudgmental terms, as normally present in court and in daily life.”
Nationalist politicians, more so than anyone else, should by now be aware that it was the British, with their Victorian prudery, and their fear and distaste of Indians, who criminalized homosexuality. They empowered the police to arrest hijras without a warrant for merely “appearing” to be “dressed or ornamented like a woman.”
By the time of the AIDS crisis, these forms of persecution were widely embedded in Indian society; they forced vulnerable groups to take the lead in the campaign to spread awareness. In Madras, one of the H.I.V.-positive prostitutes isolated at the start of the epidemic started working as a peer educator. In the coastal state of Goa, Dominic D’Souza, a young gay man, fought to dissolve the law that had allowed the state to isolate him in a TB sanitarium after he fell ill. Collectives of prostitutes mushroomed across the country. On one memorable occasion a protest outside Parliament shut down the main streets of the Indian capital. In the time they had, many victims catalyzed transformative change in how the public approached the unprecedented crisis.
By reminding us of their achievements, Dube gives his readers the substantial gift of hope. The sentiment is, in fact, the spine of his memoir. “The impoverished, the reviled and the outcast — whether black or untouchable, whether girly boy, faggot, hijra or whore — never stop fighting for dignity and justice,” he writes. “There is hope in this — undying hope. It makes bearable the most indefinite of sentences.”