Making every gender count
It was started to battle high HIV rates in the US. But Impulse, an LA-based gay outfit, wants to expand its horizons in Mumbai
A night before the year's Pride March, Impulse Group, a US-based organisation, dedicated to promoting healthier sexual lifestyles among gay men, organised a party at a Kurla nightclub. The highlight was a fully enclosed, rapid, HIV-testing booth. Of the 300 people who turned up, over 50 got tested. "It was a significant number because people are anxious to sign up for HIV testing and that's why they delay it," says journalist Vinay N, a volunteer at Impulse.
"The worry is if I'm tested positive, will I be able to cope with it? And, of course, what will people think?" According to him, what encouraged participants to even enter the booth was the security in numbers. The courage came from watching their friends sign up. The results — only for the participant to see — were promptly handed out in 10 minutes. Standard HIV testing, usually done by taking a blood sample and sending to a lab, can take up to two weeks. At the party, those who were positive were then guided on the line of treatment. "As volunteers, we have to ensure that we create a non-judgmental space through fun, but high-impact events," says Vinay.
And they've only just begun. Impulse, founded in 2009 by Jose Ramos in Los Angeles, is one of the world's only all-volunteer LGBT groups. Within a decade, it has spread its branches to different parts of the world including Mexico, Cambodia, Thailand, China and Delhi, among others. The Mumbai chapter will launch next month. "Nobody gets paid here. We are all doing it because we want to bring a new approach to how queer issues are tackled," says Vinay, who learnt about the organisation through a friend last year. According to the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO), India had around 2.14 million people living with HIV in 2017, accounting for 0.22 per cent of people in the 15-49 age group.
Impulse volunteers participate in the year's Pride March in February
To compensate for the reported drop in drugs for HIV treatment, the group, with help from AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), has joined hands with Jyothi Charitable Trust's care centre, a pharmacy in Navi Mumbai, to stock up essential HIV medicines that could be available for everybody. "We distribute free condoms at every event. With the help of doctors and experts in the field, we also raise awareness on medications like PrEP, a daily pill that can help prevent HIV, and why PrEP and condoms need to go hand in hand," he says. The target group for now is the Indian millennial, which is why their outreach programmes include events at restobars, for better peer-to-peer engagement. The youth element is visible in the selection of foot soldiers as well: most are in their twenties. While Vinay, 24, was part of the first queer musical in the city, business development manager Viraj R, 27, has been working in the field of mental health through local events.
Although the original mission statement of the outfit has been to bring down the staggering rates of HIV, the global objective has been broadened to include mental health and substance abuse. "You can't discuss queer issues by excluding mental health. I have battled depression myself, so I know how important it is for the community to come together and talk about mental health with no stigma," says Viraj. His coming-out story is still fresh. Three months ago, a family member chanced upon his diary and discovered that he loves men. "Her first reaction was, 'You don't look gay,'" he laughs. It's a common reaction he gets on dating apps. "Sometimes, they don't take you seriously because you don't look 'gay' enough," he says. That's hardly a problem, though.
The team has encountered more serious issues on dating problems in recent times: drugs and sex abuse. "These days, you don't need a 'dealer'. All you need to do is open your app and look for that capital HF (high fun), which is an invitation to sex and drugs. We have come across cases, in which boys have been drugged and raped," he says, showing us an example of the 'invitation' on Grindr. Many times, the invitee belongs to the MSM category (men who like to have sex with men), a high-risk AIDS group, observes Atul S, a 22-year-old volunteer. He works as a tour guide. "These are a large number of men who have and may well prefer sex with other men, but are in heterosexual relationships. They may be married and are putting their wives at risk of contracting HIV," he says. The group has been addressing ways to identify red flags on dating apps at their events.
It's also through conversations that they are combating the prejudice among queers. Their past events have had a fairly noticeable attendance of members from the transgender community. "There were many gay men who felt uncomfortable hanging with them in the same room. We tried to lighten the mood by getting them to talk and socialise. By the end of the event, we had broken the ice," says Atul. It's not easy to alter mindsets, they say. "There's so much shame and guilt that it will take time to unlearn what've been conditioned to think," says Atul.
For now, the team is hoping to expand their horizons and include other gender identities into the fold. The group started out as a gay group when Ramos's best friend was diagnosed HIV-positive. The shock jolted Ramos into helping others. The shock jolted Ramos into helping others. Currently, there are 58 officially reported gender identities. "We have a long way to go," says Vinay.
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A walk through Mohammed Ali Road's Khau Galli