India’s Anti-Gay Law Is History. Next Challenge: Treat LGBTQ Patients With Respect

India’s Anti-Gay Law Is History. Next Challenge: Treat LGBTQ Patients With Respect

2018-09-18

Two years ago, Shivam Sharma rushed to a Mumbai hospital at 2:30 a.m. He’d had sex earlier that night with a man who was HIV positive. They’d used protection, but Sharma just wanted to be sure he was safe.

So he went straight to the emergency room and asked a junior doctor for a preventative dose of antiretroviral medicines, or PEP — post-exposure prophylaxis.

Hospital staff “were absolutely clueless,” Sharma, 28, recalls. No one had ever asked for a PEP before, staff told him.

“They pulled out a massive manual on how to deal with sexually-transmitted infections and insisted I take something like 25 different tests,” he says. They phoned a senior doctor at 3 a.m.

Sharma felt frustrated. He had to fight for a basic prescription.

It was just like the first time he got tested for HIV, back in college. He went to a posh health clinic, and the nurse yelled across the room, warning a colleague — and anyone else within earshot — to “be careful” of him.

The implication was that Sharma was dangerous and dirty because he had identified himself as “queer.”

For more than 150 years, homosexuality was a crime in India. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a British colonial-era law, banned sexual acts that were “against the order of nature.” There have been prosecutions under the law. But more frequently, it gave police license to harass and blackmail gay men.

Section 377 drove generations of LGBTQ Indians into the shadows. It prevented many from fully embracing their sexual and gender identities. It complicated both patients’ and doctors’ access to information on LGBTQ-specific health issues. And it got in the way of access to vital medical care.

When India’s Supreme Court ruled Sept. 6 to decriminalize homosexuality, modifying Section 377, it opened a new era for public health policy.

In its judgment, the court said the Indian constitution guarantees all Indians, including LGBTQ people, “the right to emergency medical care and the right to the maintenance and improvement of public health.”

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