Remembering Dominic – And The Movement He Helped Start
GayBombay Pays Tribute to Dominic D’Souza 25 Years After He Died
Date: Sunday 14 May, 2017
Venue: G5a Foundation for Contemporary Culture, near Mahalakshmi Station (detailed directions will be provided below)
Time: 1.30-6 pm
Event: To celebrate the legacy of Dominic D’Souza on his 25th death anniversary. The event will include:
– Screening of Dominic’s Dream, a short film by Sopan Muller about his legacy in Goa today
– Anand Grover and Onir speaking about what Dominic’s story meant to them and the movement it lead to. There will be time for Q&As with the audience. There may be a few more speakers. We would welcome friends of Dominic to share their memories of him.
– Screening of My Brother… Nikhil, the film by Onir inspired by Dominic’s story
– Anand Grover of Lawyer’s Collective, who got involved in HIV activism and the linked battle against Section 377 by Dominic’s case.
– Onir, the filmmaker whose film My Brother Nikhil was a breakthrough for queer cinema in India.
– Others linked to the film and the struggle, still to be confirmed
25 years ago, in May 1992, a young man died whose story inspired a movement. Dominic D’Souza’s case became the starting point for the struggle for the right to equal treatment and medical care for those with HIV in India. And that in turn lead to the first sustained legal attempt to overturn Section 377 (S.377) of the Indian Penal Code which criminalizes homosexuality in India.
Dominic’s story is one where fear, repression and hatred was battled by hope and love. The love of his mother, who fought for him in the courts of Goa. The support of friends like Isabel Santa-Rita Vaz who rallied around him and continue his mission with Positive People, the NGO he set up a month before he died and which Vaz still runs in Goa. And the inspiration that activists like Anand Grover took from his story and built it into a wider movement that is still battling the forces that targeted Dominic.
For a story that involves so much love it could be seen as an unhappy irony, or perhaps appropriate in some bitter way that it all on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 1989. That was the day when Dominic, a 29 year old man from Goa who was working with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was abruptly detained by the police and incarcerated in a solitary cell in the TB Sanatorium in Corlim, near Mapusa.
His crime? Donating blood, which Dominic had done in response to an appeal from a colleague at WWF. Blood testing for HIV had just begun in India and Dominic’s was one of the first samples that tested positive.
Two years earlier, in response to the worldwide panic about HIV, Goa had passed the Goa Public Health (Amendment) Act, 1987. HIV was still seen as a ‘foreign’ disease then and Goa was felt to be at particular due to all the foreign tourists visiting it. The Act allowed for the isolation and deportation of those found to be HIV+.
But if someone from Goa tested positive, they could not be deported, so indefinite incarceration seemed to be the sentence. Dominic was still healthy and productive, but he was still locked up.
Dominic’s mother, who was a nurse herself, got into action, along with his friends. They decided to challenge the law on the grounds of basic human rights. For this they needed a lawyer – and this is how they came to Anand Grover, a young lawyer in Bombay who had just started making a name for himself with Lawyer’s Collective, the organization he had started with Indira Jaising in 1981.
Anand today is globally renowned as a veteran of the battles for the rights of HIV+ people. He has been the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health and is an acting member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. He has lead the battle against Section 377 from its start in the Delhi High Court in 2001. He is a senior counsel practicing in the Supreme Court of India and, as it happens, has inspired the lawyers in two acclaimed films – Onir’s My Brother… Nikhil and Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh.
But his involvement with HIV and S.377 started with that call from Goa. Anand went to Goa and fought successfully to have Dominic released, and for no person afflicted with HIV to be ever locked up like that again. And he and Dominic continued the fight for the rights of HIV+ people. Dominic started a NGO, Positive People, which was one of the first support and lobbying groups for HIV positive people in India.
Dominic’s case, and Anand’s legal campaigning, forced the Indian government to realise it could not continue treating HIV as a ‘foreign’ disease, to be sent off or shut away. It was in India and had to be dealt with and slowly the government was forced into setting up a nationwide policy for dealing with HIV. It now provides information about HIV, distributes medicines and has finally passed the HIV Bill, which is very far from perfect, but still a sign of how far we have come from 1989.
Dominic’s case also inspired a young filmmaker working in Mumbai in the early Nineties. One of the projects Onir worked on was a documentary about Dominic and the story stayed with him. It inspired him to write My Brother… Nikhil. It was a path breaking script for that time, dealing not just with HIV but homosexuality, neither of them film subjects for which it was easy to find backers.
But Onir persisted and with the help of actors like Juhi Chawla, Sanjay Suri (who was also co-producer) and Purab Kohli, the film was released in 2005. It was the first mainstream, full length feature film dealing with HIV or homosexuality in India. It was the first time many people abroad, and even in India saw these subjects dealt with in an Indian film. Its commercial release was a landmark, showing what an independent filmmaker could manage.
And Dominic’s case finally lead to the battle against Section 377. When the battle was first conceptualized around 1999-2000 it faced a basic problem: it was hard to find a person or cause willing to lead the case. The abuses of S.377 to LGBT people were many and obvious, but back then it was hard to find someone willing to fight back. People being blackmailed and harassed under the law understandably did not want to face more problems by becoming the face of the case.
But one area where S.377 was causing particular problems was in the fight against HIV. Because gay men are a particularly high risk group for HIV any meaningful programme has to involve them. But with being gay criminalized under S.377 any organization that reached out to gay men was potentially at the risk of being prosecuted under S.377 for abetting the commission of a crime.
Even something as basic as giving out condoms could be seen as proof of abetment. The government was part of this contradiction – on the one hand reaching out to gay men through the National Aids Control Organisation, on the other being ready to prosecute them through the police.
This is why the legal team at Lawyer’s Collective, lead by Anand, decided that the first step to challenging S.377 was on the grounds of how it prevented an effective response to HIV. The challenge was filed in the Delhi High Court by Naz India, the Delhi based HIV support organization. The case took years, and was buttressed over time by other petitions, from human rights activists, parents of LGBT children (Gaybombay was closely associated with this), academics, mental health professionals and others. But the starting point was HIV and that started with Dominic’s case.
We are still fighting that battle. And the battle against HIV is still far from won. We have had progress and big setbacks – the biggest of all in the Supreme Court in 2013. But we are no longer in a world where a young man could be locked up just for being HIV+. Dominic succumbed to AIDS 25 years ago, sadly just before the drugs that have made it manageable were just becoming widely available. But his story is a large part of what allowed us to be where we are today.
On May 14th Gaybombay is organizing a tribute to Dominic. Anand and Onir have both kindly agreed to attend. Anand will speak of his memories of Dominic and how the case changed him. He will also speak about how Dominic’s battle lead to the other battles we are still fighting today and where we are on them. Onir will speak about how Dominic’s story inspired him to make My Brother…Nikhil, and how the film changed his life.
We will be showing Dominic’s Dream, a short film recently made by Sopan Muller which looks at how Dominic’s work continues in Goa. In it his close friend Isabel Santa-Rita Vaz remembers what Dominic was like, the shock of his detention and how they moved beyond to set up Positive People. Dominic loved Goa deeply – when he was dying in Mumbai, 25 years ago, he insisted his remains be brought home – and the continued work that Positive People does is perhaps the legacy he would like best.
And we will be showing My Brother…Nikhil. Many of us saw it when it first came out. Some of us have seen it on DVD or on the Internet. But many haven’t seen it and this is their chance. For those who have seen it, it is a chance to see it again as it should be seen, full screen, with an audience ready to appreciate its wonderful performances, great music and moving story to the full.
Please join us on Sunday May 14th at G5a Foundation for Contemporary Culture to celebrate the life and legacy of Dominic D’Souza.