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A man's man
His death may have gone unannounced but Shivananda Khan, founder of Naz Foundation International, spent his life speaking up for men who have sex with men.
In 2005, just 15 years after he had established Naz Foundation International (NFI), one of South Asia's most ambitious outreach programmes for men having sex with men (MSM), Shivananda Khan was awarded the Order of the British Empire. The title was missing in the nondescript report on May 21 that informed the world of his death.
But friends and activists from India's LGBT community mourn the loss of a man they considered a pioneer. Born Duncan George in Kolkata, 1948 to a family of diverse religious and ethnic identities, Khan took the name Shivananda (' Shiv' to friends) in later years, with his stepfather's surname. At age 10, his family migrated from India to England where, during his college years, he began working as a sex worker to supplement his university grant. This gave him an insider's perspective to the challenges that faced men having sex with men but it was after the death of a close friend named Nazir from HIV/AIDS that Khan became an activist for the cause. "Shiv cared for him as Nazir's family had abandoned him, " says Arif Jafar, executive director of Maan AIDS Foundation and former NFI activist who knew Khan from 1989. No one attended Nazir's funeral and Jafar says Khan had a tough time finding an Imam to say the final prayers. Outraged by the lack of respect, Khan decided the world needed to be educated about MSMs. "Naz Foundation was born out of anger, " Jafar says. "Shiv felt that no matter what our identity, no one deserves that kind of death. "
Concerned about the rising number of HIV/AIDS cases among MSMs, Khan founded NFI as an educational and preventive programme. In a 2006 interview, Khan explained his main goal was to get the MSM community involved in HIV prevention and care. "We believe in ownership. We need to own the disease, own the virus, so we can deal more effectively with it, " he said. Another aspect of their work involved advocacy and policy. "There are laws against us (MSM), so we work hard to encourage governments, donors, and NGOs to take on board issues relating to MSM and HIV. And we push for more research because there's a lack of knowledge relating to issues of malemale sex, " said Khan, who was an active champion of the decriminalization of homosexuality in India, in the same interview.
In 1996, the foundation was split to facilitate work. While Naz Project, London, looked after south Asian Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community in London, NFI focused on south Asian countries where Khan began developing community-based organisations. In 1995-96, Khan helped establish Bandhu Social Welfare Society in Bangladesh. He began visiting Lucknow in 1997, and moved here permanently in 2000. He believed it was important to establish an identity for South Asian MSMs. "A lot of the people implementing MSM programmes tend to be middle-class, highly-educated and English literate, and their knowledge level and self-identity are connected with a sort of Westernised framework of gay identity, " he said in 2006. "We need to recognise that class and gender are part of the framework so that MSM is understood as a category of behavior and not just an identity. "
Khan believed policy makers and activists saw male-male sex as a heterosexual-homosexual divide, and felt the South Asian community needed a different perspective. "One of the primary dynamics in South Asia and parts of Southeast Asia revolves around male-male sex in terms of gendered identities - 'feminine' or 'masculine'. We work with a lot of visible, self-identified MSM whom some Westerners might identify as 'queeny' - feminised males who identify as 'non-men'. Usually their sexual partners identify themselves as 'real' men, as heterosexuals. "
Activists he mentored in the early days remember him as a dynamic person committed to the cause. Sunil Menon, founder of Sahodaran, a Chennai-based male sexual health project, met Khan in Berlin in June 1993 at an international HIV/AIDS conference. "The meeting led to me setting up Sahodaran in 1998, " says Menon, sharing that Khan organised the funding for Sahodaran from the UK and US governments for the first decade of its inception.
Ashok Row Kavi, chairperson of Humsafar Trust and executive editor of Bombay Dost, India's first gay magazine, knew Khan from 1986 and remembers him to be an iconic, charismatic figure. "He started interpreting the complex world of Indian homosexuality to the West in a language they could understand, " says Kavi, who didn't always agree with the way Khan interpreted Indian sexuality to the West.
Despite a setback in 2001, when three NFI staffers were arrested in Lucknow and their office shut down for three months, by 2006 NFI had over 200 MSM projects across India. However in recent years, Khan had run into some financial troubles. "Of late, there were issues with the way his organisation was disbursing funds and he was in need of money, " says Menon.
Kavi says that despite having a loving and supportive partner, Khan was a man with few friends. "As the years went by, he became lonelier, " says Kavi. "He tried to be the best of all worlds, but sometimes it's not possible and you tend to lose out from both sides. " On May 20 Khan, 65, was found dead "under mysterious circumstances" in his Lucknow home. The police await a postmortem to determine the cause of death. His passing may have gone unnoticed in India, but activists the world over acknowledged his loss. "The global AIDS movement has lost a passionate advocate on HIV, men who have sex with men and transgender issues, " executive director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibê. "He will be greatly missed. "
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