Four days after the Supreme Court partially struck down Section 377 and most publications devoted their pages to stories of hope and joy, Bengali daily Pratidin has published on its front page an article titled Doctors Are Anxious About The Dangers Of Gay Sex.
Ironically, on Friday, the morning after the Section 377 judgement arrived, the same paper had led with a jubilant headline and a picture of celebrations on its front page.
Monday's article, written by two reporters, begins by outlining the dangers of anal and oral sex and says that doctors have advised homosexual people to use condoms. It then goes on to state that although doctors are happy about the Supreme Court verdict and want homosexual people to be able to seek medical advice, they have also warned against the dangers of anal sex. The rest of the article goes on to elaborate on the many ways anal sex can be dangerous by exposing people practising it to infections and HIV.
At one point, the article says, "Using the Supreme Court verdict as a shield, if the trend of unprotected anal sex starts growing branches, then we will be looking at a disaster". The time homosexuality had been decriminalised between 2009 to 2013, no reports or studies suggested there was a spike in sexually transmitted diseases among queer people.
Interestingly, though the piece mentions "doctors" multiple times, it doesn't quote a single doctor.
Apart from making queer people sound like a group of irresponsible people who cannot or don't care about their own safety and health, the fact that the paper chooses to associate anal and oral sex exclusively with homosexuality shows how problematic mainstream Indian society's understanding of sexuality is.
The language used in the line quoted above is accusatory, almost suggesting that only homosexual people will take to "dangerous" sexual practices, using the Supreme Court's judgment as an excuse.
Not only is this a faulty reading of what the court said, assertions like these can aggravate misconceptions and biases in a society which is already conservative and looks at homosexuality through a biased lens.
Alongside the article, the paper has published a 'box' with nuggets of 'information' — these say, without any data back-up, that very few homosexual people use condoms, oral sex leads to a plethora of diseases and having multiple partners can be bad for sexual health. In effect, the 'information', presented without citing any recognised study or report, plays to the prejudice about queer people being an irresponsible group with no regard for sexual health. All the information mentioned in the box, which is titled 'the reason to be scared', applies to heterosexual people as well, but the publication doesn't mention that.
Sambuddha Chaudhuri, a doctor who has worked extensively in the field of sexual health of the queer community, said that the piece was a thinly veiled way to expose a person's biases by attributing it to unnamed doctors.
The article actually presents unsubstantiated 'facts' thereby furthering the idea is homosexuality is unnatural.
Chaudhuri added that, the article actually presents unsubstantiated 'facts' thereby furthering the idea is homosexuality is unnatural. "For example, the messaging around condom use has been more consistent among the queer community and has centred around the threat of diseases in case of men having sex with men. When condoms are mentioned in connection to heterosexual relationships, people focus more on birth control than its necessity to fight diseases," he said.
He also pointed out how the article doesn't talk about the use of lubricants as a means to minimise risk of injuries. "People barely talk about the use of lubricants and if the reporters were indeed speaking to doctors, the latter should have mentioned it. There is no public narrative around it," he said.
Chaudhuti mentioned that 'medicalizing biases' has been an old ploy used extensively against homosexuality.
Ironically, the fight against Section 377 began initially to democratize the sexual health space, after Kiran Bedi refused to allow Aids Bhedbav Andolan (ABVA) to distribute condoms among male prisoners of Tihar Jail. Speaking to HuffPost, various queer rights activists recounted how men were scared to go to doctors to treat STDs in fear of being reported.
While no time is a bad time to talk about sexual health, the timing and placement of the piece can't be a coincidence.
While no time is a bad time to talk about sexual health, the timing and placement of the piece can't be a coincidence. The front page, reserved for important news and developments, is sacred in a newspaper. It is also an indicator of the publication's politics. An article on the dangers of anal sex — with no quotes from doctors, at that — doesn't merit the space it has been given, unless the decision has been driven by a bias against homosexuality.
Vernacular newspapers reach thousands of more people than English dailies do and are consumed with more enthusiasm across small towns and villages. The responsibility that they have, therefore, is manifold. Perhaps a conversation about sexual health could have been started by asking queer people about the health challenges and biases they face while seeking medical help in India. Instead, the paper has chosen to just deepen those biases.