Bigotry alert

At an HIV/AIDS conference, Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad decided it was time for some straight talk on homosexuality, that Western perversion that's now creeping into India, and what to do about it. In his own words, "the disease of "men having sex with men", which was found more in the developed world, has now unfortunately come to our country and there is a substantial number of such people in India. These "unnatural" acts were not easy to detect, he said, and added that better sex education could help counter this "disease" by addressing high-risk groups like gay men and sex workers.

Whether his remarks stem from old-fashioned bigotry or cluelessness (thinking that homosexuality directly causes AIDS), Azad has just uttered the words that reveal him as unfit to run the health ministry. He is an ocean of strange notions in the past, he has also suggested that getting more people to watch TV would be an effective form of contraception. But these latest gaffes are simply too significant to be ignored. The LGBT community and its allies won a clear, resounding victory around this time two years ago. The Delhi high court reversed a century and a half of a homosexual-hating law, when it read down Section 377, meant to stamp out "carnal intercourse against the order of nature". Ironically enough, it was the health ministry's intervention that helped decriminalise homosexuality then. However, that triumph is yet to be internalised in India. Sexual intolerance gets a free pass all too often, and being gay is viewed as a deviant condition, actively repressed or ridiculed.

Ghulam Nabi Azad might claim he didn't know better, and perhaps he was voicing the unexamined, prejudiced norm but that's precisely why such opinions must be vigorously and visibly countered, as a demonstration that such words have no place in a reasonable public discourse. The fact that he is health minister makes this ignorance doubly damning. Apart from homophobia, Azad's words also betray his muddled grasp of the HIV challenge. His views must be emphatically and publicly rejected by the government.

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