Under fire for MSM comment, Azad clarifies stand (Second Lead)

July 5th, 2011 - 9:51 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, July 5 (IANS) After drawing sharp criticism from various sections - the gay community, activists, celebrities and UNAIDS - for his comment that men having sex with men (MSM) is a “disease” and “unnatural”, Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad Tuesday sought to clarify his stand, saying that he was quoted “out of context”.

“It was taken out of context. Some people say it’s unnatural, some say natural. Some people say that there should be a law against this or others not. Many countries have laws, while others do not. I also said that I do not want to go into the controversy. That was not quoted,” he told reporters here Tuesday evening.

On Monday at a conference on HIV/AIDS, Azad said: “The disease of MSM is unnatural and not good for India. We are not able to identify where it is happening as it is less reported also.”

“It is a challenge because in cases of female sex workers we can identify the community and reach out to them. But in case of MSM, it is becoming difficult,” he added.

The comment created a stir among the gay community, activists, celebrities and even led the UNAIDS to issue a statement Tuesday.

Mohnish Malhotra, who has been involved in the fight for gay rights and is one of the organisers of the annual gay pride, said the minister’s comments were shocking.

“It’s shocking that such a comment was made by the country’s health minister,” Malhotra told IANS.

“Even the UN passed a resolution saying that the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) community has equal rights as anyone else and cannot be discriminated on the basis of their sexual orientation,” he added.

UNAIDS, which took part in the HIV/AIDS convention in which the minister made the comment, Tuesday issued a statement saying that homosexuality is not a disease and there is no place for discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation.

“India’s rich tradition of inclusivity and social justice must include men who have sex with men and transgender people,” Michel Sidibe, UNAIDS executive director, said in a statement.

“There is no place for stigma and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Consistent with WHO’s disease classification, UNAIDS does not regard homosexuality as a disease.”

He further said that India’s successful AIDS response has been possible due to the strong participation of communities of MSM, sex workers, people who inject drugs and transgender people backed by a strong and progressive national AIDS policy.

Under fire for his comment, Azad Tuesday said that he was concerned with the issue of high HIV prevalence rate among MSM.

“As a health minister, the problem is that while we have lowered it (prevalence) among truckers, female sex workers, but in MSM, we have not been able to lower the prevalence. That is because it is difficult to target them,” he said.

Reacting to his previous comment, former journalist and documentary film maker Ranjit Monga told IANS: “It seems the minister spoke without thinking about the issue at hand, or even of the stand and policies implemented by his own ministry on the issue.

“We should remember that it was the health ministry which supported LGBT rights in the 2009 Delhi High Court case. I feel he spoke on the spur of the moment and this may be his personal views,” Monga said.

The minister’s MSM comment drew flak from Bollywood celebrities too.

Actor Celina Jaitley tweeted: “Dear honourable Mr.Health Minister the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of diseases in 1990. I’m shocked 2 hear that R health minister wld make a statement abt homosexuality calling it a ‘disease’ .. W.H.O. does not think so sir (sic)!!”.

Similarly gay director Onir said: “Mr. Ghulam Nabi Azad needs urgent counselling for his regressive statement. His ‘unnatural’ stand is dangerous for healthy democracy.”

Activist Ashok Row Kavi of Hamsafar Trust added: “Gay sex is not unnatural. It is a matter of one’s sexual orientation. If out of 100 children, five are left-handed, do you call them unnatural?”

According to NACO, there are more than 400,000 men who have sex with men in India. HIV prevalence in this population is about 7.3 percent compared to a national adult HIV prevalence of 0.31 percent. India has over 2.5 million HIV positive people.

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