Interview : Pallav Patankar, Director HIV Programs (HST)


Q. Tell us a little about your background.

I am a Bombay boy, born and brought up in Amchi Mumbai. I love the city and its people. I am part of the 5th generation living in Bandra and I have never known a village, so Bandra is where I belong. I lost my father at 11 and was raised in a middle class Maharashtrian family by a single mother. I was an androgynous child and looked like a cute girl/boy. Graduated from St.Xaviers College in Biochemistry, studied a masters in Biotechnology and then a business degree in International Business. Travelled the world post that (30 countries about 80 cities), lived in Africa for 5 years and returned to India in 2009 to settle back in Mumbai.

Q. You have been involved in Queer activism for a long time now. What significant positive changes have you noticed over the years?

I was counseled by Bombay Dost when I was 18. I was on the scene when there was no internet and no party scene; it was a different time then. I acted as a peer counselor to many kids who were coming to terms with their sexuality. Community work has always been a part of my gay identity and I don’t dissociate it from myself as “queer activism”. In the 1990s no one even used the word queer. I started working with The Humsafar Trust full time from 2010 and I figured that now I am called a “queer activist”. I feel activist as a term is loosely used and I still don’t describe myself as one. It’s what I am referred to by the media and I really don’t take pains to agree or disagree. You can hence say that I have been around for 20 years closely following the evolution of “queer” India along with my own personal evolution. The big change that I have noticed is that kids today are far more confident about their gay/queer/lesbian/trans identity than what I observed in the 90s. There is greater discussion and more literature to fall back on from an Indian context. There are queer businesses now and several social options along with social media that make it easier to meet other queer people. Life is also a little too fast and relationships are ever changing. However I am happy to see lesbian and gay men interacting with each other in a more free way. When I was growing up they were two different camps that seldom mixed with each other in India. On the whole and especially so for Mumbai, I am happy about the way the Queer scene has shaped up. There is a young, aspiring and enthusiastic community which refuses to hide in the closet. It’s heartening to see that what I dreamed of as a kid in the 90s, some of it is happening now.

Q. Indian Supreme Court is yet to take a decision on 377? How do you see the future of homosexuals in India?

I feel the section 377 case will not die down so easily, since I feel that there will be back lash from some quarters. The associated issues with section 377 especially around constitutional provisions such as equality, discrimination and happiness will find precedence as they are core to the lives of LGBT/Queer communities. I feel that we queer folks in India have had it easy so far and that the way ahead will be difficult. We will need to fight it out, get political and be a factor in the vote bank politics of this country. Unfortunately, a large percentage of the queer community in India remains too divided on issues around mainstream politics, which takes the queer movement backwards. There will be a need to develop a larger consensus amongst the queer community to take the movement forward and that will not happen with just Pride Marches, Queer businesses Or Gay Parties. We will need a common philosophy, a common goal to make a difference to our lives in the years to come. It goes without saying that some of us may need to enter bureaucratic systems, politics or key bilateral agencies to make that difference. We are currently seen as a lame population that really does not have the courage to stand up for ourselves. The self perceived stigma of our own sexuality makes us shy to say what we feel. While I understand that not everyone can be an active part of the queer movement, the least one will have to do is to show support and solidarity when the time demands. At the end of the day the tides will change not because of the rant of activists, it will change because a population has the courage to make a difference for themselves.

Q. Have you experienced first-hand social discrimination? If yes, how did you deal with it?

I guess more so when I was a child. Was called “chakka”, “pansy”, “hijra” and eunuch all the time. For a long time it was my Achilles heel; it could disempower me and make me go red and sobby. However I learnt to deal with it in my own way. I guess most gay men learn to be sassy more as a defence mechanism. A large part of my counseling by Bombay Dost in the 90s was to learn how to cope with bullying and the tactics to deal with discrimination. I think I learnt fast and was ready with my fangs and claws. College was a breeze for me because of that. I was often attacked for being feminine, but I managed giving it back in style. The best method was acknowledging my effeminacy and then asking “so your point is” Acceptance of oneself is the strongest and most effective method of dealing with discrimination. First you acknowledge who you are, then you evaluate if it is indeed discrimination, and then you decide your course of action. When you feel dirty about who you are, then discrimination has a greater effect on you. I have managed bullies in college, in the corporate work space and in the neighborhood, and have managed to stand my ground.

Q. We hear that one of your duties as director of HIV programs for the Humsafar Trust is to organize interventions. Can you explain a bit about these interventions? Is it crucial to the process of limiting the transmission of HIV?

A part of my work is Targeted Interventions(TI). A TI is typically comprised of a Project Coordinator, with Outreach workers and support staff i.e. an accountant and a data management person. Each TI also has a counselor. The outreach workers are further linked to peers. The Outreach and the peer team reach out to gay men /MSM (men who have sex with men) in cruising locations and provide them services such as condoms, disseminate information on HIV and AIDS. The TI team encourages this population to access HIV testing centres and get checked on other Sexually Transmitted infections. The counselors counsel these drop ins and give them advice on safe sexual practices and also provide them with a risk assessment so that this population remains disease free. Any person who tests HIV positive is further treated by the ART treatment centers. All the staff of the TI are from within the MSM/gay community and so they are capable of identifying who needs to be targeted for same sex activity. Confidentiality of the population’s sexuality and their health status is of utmost importance. Yes a TI is crucial to the process of limiting transmission as they help in disseminating information, with an aim to bring about a behavior change within the addressed group. Each TI typically addresses 1000 to 1500 people. The Humsafar Trust runs 6 such TIs within Mumbai.

Q. Does your organization also talk about other sexually transmitted infections? Do you also organize such interventions for lesbians & bisexuals?

Yes as explained above, we do talk about sexually transmitted infections, in fact our Vakola clinic tests for STD/STI. We are a free testing center and a referral site. Although we mainly cater to MSM/Gay/bisexual men and m2f transgender, occasionally we have women and heterosexual men as well who come for tests. We still do not have any specific interventions for lesbians. We strongly feel that any such interventions should be designed by lesbian women themselves, rather than us organising them without their felt or expressed need. If any lesbian group feels that they need some specific services with the Humsafar Trust clinic, we would be more than happy to hear them out and implement it. We however have suggested consultants to start discussions around cervical cancer, breast cancer and life style disease issues that apply to lesbian women. It would be necessary for lesbian women to take these associations forward and benefit from them.

Q. Sexual promiscuity is one of the most striking, distinguishing features of gay life. Do you agree?

I get asked that very often and I get confused since I know a lot of promiscuous heterosexual men and women. Hence, I do not know if that’s a distinguishing feature because we queers choose to talk about sex or because we actually are promiscuous. Many sexually promiscuous men that I come across in my data are having sex with men, women and transgenders. I know of gay men who are still waiting for their knight in shining armour with wide eyed hope and a chastity belt around their waist. I hence feel that again within the gay world we have the entire spectrum. Maybe the promiscuous gay men are far more vocal about their conquests than promiscuous heterosexual men and that seems to make it a more distinguishing feature. Gay men also tend to discuss their sex lives more thread bare making it seem like their lives are all about sex. But then gay men can afford to kiss and tell unlike a married heterosexual man. So, I would refrain from making a statement that promiscuity is a gay domain.

Q. Do you think sex is over rated in the queer community? Why or Why not?

I think the queer community is far open about sex and discusses it in a more open and non- judgemental way. It ends up sounding like it is the central theme to our lives. And even if it is, big deal. I can’t make a generalizing sweeping statement about the queer community since we are all diverse and relate to our own sexualities differently. Differently in terms of philosophy, goals, dreams, and sex may form a part of any of these. There is one thing i hold as a queer person, “sex” is not a bad thing. We all start off with the primal things in life before we evolve as individuals. I hence do not overrate or underrate sex.

Q. Would you like to redefine Fidelity?

It is rather vague; fidelity of thought and action, fidelity through monogamy. Either way, it is a lofty term that attracts judgement.

Q. Do you think love is over rated in the queer community?

Like my opinions on sex, I have similar opinions on love. Neither overrated nor underrated. However I have issues with people who sit on a High horse about “love” and start giving free advice about it.

Unfortunately I have seen far more abusive relationships labelled as love than good ones.

Yes there are some beautiful gay relationships as well but I don’t see those couples out, they seem to enjoy their bliss and togetherness. Having said that I also see happy, single gay men who are happy about not being in love, and have friends as support structures.

Both are feasible options; finally it’s what you are looking for. The sex Vs Love debate is immature and makes me yawn.


Q. We saw the trailer of Urmi. Tell us something about the film.

Urmi is a transgendered person who lives as a man – Umesh Patel in Mumbai. When she is thrown out of the house because she is a cross dresser, she finally decides that she will accept who she is, and takes off from there to evolve as a beautiful cross dresser. The film is produced and directed by Jehangir Jani and was a part of the UAGC -TISS project.

In my field I work with a lot of transgender women and the experience of shooting this film opened my eyes to the challenges that transgender women face in their lives.

Q. If you could magically go back to being non-queer, would you do it? Why or Why not?

How can I ever go back; there is no back to go to. I was always queer! Was born fabulous and will stay that way!

Q. Your favorite queer-themed movies/books?

To be honest, I don’t read queer books or watch queer movies. I feel I need to be connected to a mainstream philosophy and that I don’t need to live in a bubble.

Q. Any message for the queer people out there?

Yes, Courage has no substitute!

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