Science Life

Sexual Identity, Health, and Stigma in India

Last November, a barrier was broken in the prolific Bollywood film industry of India. A film called Dunno Y featured the first on-screen male-male kiss – a provocative scene in a country that only the year before repealed a law making homosexuality illegal. Many tagged the film as India’s version of Brokeback Mountain, a controversial and progressive step in depicting male-male romance in popular culture that reflected a growing social acceptance of homosexuality. But the full significance of those cultural changes in the South Asian country have yet to be studied, and will require perspectives from law, anthropology, medicine, and more.

Just such a discussion will take place this Saturday morning at the University of Chicago and on the internet in the roundtable event, “Sexual Identity, Health and Stigma in India: Traditional Statuses and Western Influences.” Organized by John Schneider, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Chicago Medical Center and director of Global Health Programs, the discussion will be available worldwide on a webcast broadcast by the UChicago Facebook page, the Global Health Initiative website, and here on ScienceLife (watch this space).

“What I tried to do is bring together scholars from a number of different disciplines to make this a truly interdisciplinary discussion,” Schneider said. “I want it to be like a Sunday morning news program – but smarter – where a topic area is chosen and everybody fires away with their background about it, leaving room for remote viewer input.”

The central topic of whether sexual identity in India is truly shifting can be addressed from any number of angles. There’s the legal status of homosexuality after the 2009 repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code by the High Court of Mumbai. Or the sexual and mental health consequences after centuries of stigmatization of men having sex with men, including the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Or the pop culture ripples, such as Dunno Y, that may reflect changing attitudes and sexual roles in Indian culture. All of which are set against the backdrop of a country rapidly modernizing and playing an increasingly powerful role in global economy and society.

“I think that India is going through tremendous social and cultural changes as it emerges from what would be, in old terms, a less-developed economy to now becoming something of an economic powerhouse,” said Niranjan Karnik, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience and another participant in the event. “This has the potential to really change the dynamics of the society and change the way people see themselves and behaviors.”

The participants in the roundtable are all accomplished researchers and experts on India. The keynote speaker, Lawrence Cohen of the University of California, Berkeley, studies medical anthropology in the country, and has written on homosexuality, aging, and organ transplant markets. Philip Kumar and Sanjay Srivastava are researchers based in India studying sexuality and advising the government on health issues related to men who have sex with men. Schneider himself has an extensive project underway in Indian truck drivers, where he is using cell phones in building a network of men who have sex with men to study their behavior and identify potential peer outreach points.

“One of the issues we are looking at is what changes in sex position roles might be occurring over time in India,” Schneider said. “Is a Western identity rubbing off on India, or is it developing a new identity? My work will help address those questions because of the cell phone network data that triangulates often sensitive self-reported data,” Schneider said.

As a graduate student, Karnik studied the health and experiences of homeless street children in Mumbai, India. Now his focus is on the mental health of similarly underserved populations in the city of Chicago, where he said similar issues face young gay and bisexual men.

“Some of the cultural forces we see in India, such as the ways in which men hide sex experiences and behaviors, are things we also know are happening on the South Side of Chicago, particularly in African-American and Latino communities,” Karnik said. “The issues of risk and safety are particularly salient for Chicago as well as for India.”

With the unique format of Saturday’s event, where people from around the world will be able to follow along and ask questions via the internet, Schneider hopes that a new conversation about sexual identity and equal rights in India will flourish beyond academia.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done with regards to equal rights and the basic acceptance of men who have sex with men in India, and I hope this helps move that process along,” Schneider said. “I’m hoping that people who generally are not part of these discussions will be able to access the roundtable via the live webcast and also pose some questions they want us to answer and address these points as they are brought up.”