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Anjali Gopalan
Thanking Anjali

in INDIA, 25/04/2012

It is absolutely fantastic to see Anjali Gopalan on this year’s Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list!

A lot of people will be going ‘who?’ and a lot of people in Bengal will be going ‘huh? she scores higher than Didi?’ (Lets just hope that the Trinamul doesn’t throw a tantrum at this being yet another perceived insult to their goddess). It is true that Anjali isn’t quite a household name the way many others on the list are – and that is exactly the way she would want it. She’s one person who has helped achieve real change, but would want to keep the focus on the change and not her role in bringing it about.

But we in the gay community have known and valued what Anjali has done for us, and this is not just in starting Naz India and helping kick the Indian government into providing HIV/AIDS services for Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) and doing this so effectively that the government, through the Health Ministry, finally came out in support of us both in the Delhi High Court hearings and then its decision to to decriminalise same sex relations between consenting adults – the Naz India case which, as you might expect, was filed with Anjali’s organisation as lead petitioner. As the American gay journalist Rex Wockner noted when the decision came out, at one stroke it decriminalised more queer people than any other decision ever.

Anjali was picked by Time for all that (and her larger work on HIV/AIDS), but we in the gay community have particularly valued her for being a steady, sane presence by our side in the long battle that Naz took – and which is by no means over. Most people only saw Naz towards the end when the final hearings began in the Delhi High Court and the verdict came out. But there were eight long years before that when we didn’t know what we were doing, whether it was the right thing and whether we might just end up making things worse for ourselves, as has happened in places like Sri Lanka. When we started the process around 1999-2000 progress was still so limited and the possibility of change seemed so remote that many of us wondered if we should try at all.

In all this Anjali, along with Anand Grover of Lawyer’s Collective, were the invaluable steadying and encouraging voices. They reassured us that we had a good case and that it was worth taking the risk to take it to court. They also brought together the LGBT community from across India for a series of crucial consultations – and the not inconsiderable cost for this was first picked up by Naz and Lawyer’s Collective – that made people across the country aware of the issue and the need to do something about it, and in the end to endorse the decision to push ahead.

(Quick side note – its easy today to just note those mammoth meetings as things that happened and we moved on, but I can close my eyes and recall the sheer frustrations and difficulties that packed those meetings. We were bringing together a lot of strong minded people on a matter that dealt with their basic identity, but there was also a huge diveristy of people – across communities, sexualities, language groups, class, backgrounds and experiences. Trying to get basic communication, leave alone agreement, across such diversity was really hard and at times didn’t seem like it was coming. But Anjali and Anand were patient and solid and often humorous too and it all helped us pull ourselves together).

And they did this all again after we suffered an early loss when the Delhi High Court threw it out on a technicality, saying that Naz India had no locus standi to argue about Section 377. It was a clear sign that the courts didn’t want to get involved with the matter, perhaps even that they didn’t see our issues worth considering. It would have been very easy to lose heart at that point, but Anjali and Anand bucked us up and we took the strategic decision of going to the Supreme Court, not with the basic issue, but on the narrow point of whether the Delhi High Court was right to say that Naz had no locus standi.

And the Supreme Court agreed and said that the matter was an important one and needed to be heard again by the Delhi High Court. We went back, and bolstered our case with the Voices Against 377 petition and finally we won with the full, amazing Naz India decision. We didn’t just win decriminalisation, but we got a sweeping verdict that read sexuality into the Indian Constitution, with LGBT people achieving not special rights, but the basic protections due to any other citizen of India. It has been a verdict acclaimed around the world as an affirmation of the basic human rights of LGBT people, and it was a decision that may well never have come if Anjali hadn’t encouraged and supported us from the start.

This makes, I think, Anjali one of those great straight allies who have helped the LGBT community come into its own. I am thinking of people like Dr.Linda Laubenstein who was one of the first doctors to identify what AIDS was doing in the 1970s and fight to make both the gay community and then society at large take it seriously. Or Leo Abse, the British MP, and Lord Arran, the two British parliamentarians who fought for 10 years to get the law changed by the Houses of Commons and Lords (this is entirely irrelevant, but I can’t resist giving Lord Arran’s reply when asked why he won with this law, but failed with another to protect badgers: “”Not many badgers in the House of Lords,” he replied.”)

Like them, Anjali may not have had a personal reason to get involved, but her basic sense of decency was just appalled by what she saw the problems that gays and lesbians she knew had to live with, and then she saw the stigma that HIV/AIDS patients had to suffer from, and she could put the two together to see how terrible the situation would be for HIV+ve queer people, and no one seemed to want to get involved – so she did. Many people in her position might have got involved but kept it limited, to either queer people or HIV+ve, but she didn’t. She opened an orphanage for HIV+ve kids, and she also got involved with the 377 case, even though that involved much more than HIV.

And, as I said, she did all this with a lightness of touch that makes it easy to overlook, but in fact was all the more valuable. Anjali was there when you needed her, but not in your face otherwise and she could take a relaxed attitude to being an activist that was really refreshing. When Delhi had its first Pride march Anjali was there, but she let others take centre and front stage and I found her strolling near the back with one of her two Great Danes she had brought along for the March. She looked like she could be taking her dog for a walk in Lodhi Gardens, except that the Great Dane had a big rainbow flag tied to his collar!

My one other favourite image of Anjali is from another example of the sort of things she has got into to support us. Some years back on a Saturday when I was in office I got a call from a friend who said, “go see India TV now!” This was a suprise since I didn’t think my friend watched India TV which, for those lucky enough not to have seen it, is one of those channels that passes off bottom feeding, smarminess and sleaze as “what the masses want to watch.” It specialises in voyeuristic depictions of things that it claims to have moral objections to, and it keeps showing more of it, so everyone has a good idea of what it morally objects to.

On Saturdays they had – perhaps still so, since believe me, I don’t watch India TV – a 3-4 hour long marathon where they would take up one of these ‘objectionable’ issues and go into it in depth, with a TV panel of ‘experts’ to explain and hopefully condemn and mock it. And this time the subject was “Homo ke Janampatra” (The Horoscopes of Homos). This was the perfect India TV Saturday subject – one subject of which they and their mythical audience approved of (astrology) and another that they didn’t (homosexuality), so lots of chance to use one to mock the other.

The TV panel was a traditional astrologer in full robes and beads and astrological stuff, and a suit-clad guy who was weirdly introduced as “occult specialist” and then, presumably to give the homo viewpoint against this astrological viewpoints, was Anjali and one of the guys who used to work for her. And about five minutes after the programme, which was going out live started, one could just see the dawning horror on Anjali’s face when she realised she had clearly been brought to the studio on misleading grounds, and now was stuck and couldn’t get out in any way that would make things worse.

So she buckled down to it, and as she heard the sniggering way the host talked about homosexuality and the disparaging way the astrologer spoke about it (oddly enough I cannot recall the occult specialist saying anything) she spoke with dignity and gave it back to them, not losing her temper, but always sounding sane and sensible, which simply helped point up how they were not. And even more strangely as the programme proceeded, with no help from India TV, it actually started going in her favour.

Because as they proceeded through call-ins from homosexuals in small towns, or chats with religious leaders about their views, two things became clear: (a) the sensible religious leaders were mostly uninterested in the issue, and (b) when the gay callers asked the astrologers about what the stars said about why they were gay, the astrologers said that this was the fate the stars had predicted for them – because when you think of it, what else would an astrologer say? And when asked the obvious question then, about what someone should do about something that the stars had predicted for him, but which people around him didn’t approve of, the astrologers looked acutely embarassed and had no answer other than saying that maybe the stars said they should go abroad! And Anjali just sat back with a smile to see the fun!

Anjali isn’t sitting back in general though, even now that Naz India case has been won. As everyone on these lists knows, the same case has been challenged in the Supreme Court by all the voices of intolerance and hatred and bigotry that she has always been battling against, and she was there every day in Court to hear how it went. I was with her on the main days when our case was argued by our lawyers and it wasn’t easy. There were times when the questions that came from the judges, the opinions of our opponents that they were throwing back at us, were simply so awful and infuriating that we just had to duck down in the back row where we were standing and put our heads in our hands.

Yes, we knew this was how legal cases are argued, and what the judges say isn’t necessarily what they think, and we should be as thick skinned as lawyers have to be, but we weren’t lawyers and it was hard hearing this, and knowing how the victory we had won in the Delhi High Court could so easily be taken away from us now. “I’ve bitten my fingers almost till they’re bleeding,” she moaned to me at one point. But in the breaks she told me about the new project she’s starting – a shelter for abandoned dogs. “I think I can leave all of you to take care of yourselves and just look after the dogs,” she joked.

No one would blame her for doing so, but we can only hope she won’t – and by her presence all those days in Court, we can be sure that, whatever she says, Anjali will always be there for us. Lets all just thank her for this, and Time magazine too for giving her the much deserved recognition for all that she has done.

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