Lotus Integrated AIDS Awareness Sangram (LOTUS) is an organization based in Tamil Nadu, India, that blossomed out of a pre-existing social network of ‘kothis’ – homosexuals who would meet regularly but informally for the betterment of the community. Kothis in Tamil Nadu face many problems such as abuse from rowdies, non-acceptance from their family and society, which often lead to migration and castration. There was a real need to discuss their issues openly together and find ways to solve them. These were the seeds for the establishment of LOTUS.
Muthukumar Natesan, one of the founding members of LOTUS, remembers his own personal inspiration for the organization. When Muthu was living alone, having been thrown out of his family home, people from his community would come over and spend some time together to discuss their concerns. Muthu found this very soothing and therefore he thought of starting a collective with the help of his friends. He realized that in his community socializing was a way to ensure people had a sense of belonging.
“The shared social customs and mores that unite the kothi community should be celebrated and promoted,” believes Muthu, who founded LOTUS initially as an informal collective. In 2000, Muthu and a few partners registered LOTUS officially with the government of Tamil Nadu. This transformed an informal organization into an organized, democratic body consisting of an executive committee and a general body of members. LOTUS is funded through subscription fees paid by its members, donations and other grants for projects, including funding from the Global Fund Multi-Country South Asia HIV Programme.
LOTUS now has an office that serves as a safe space to congregate as a community. Members of LOTUS meet monthly to continue discussion on pressing issues and solutions, with reducing stigma, discrimination and HIV vulnerability a significant focus. LOTUS has seen great success and has been an integral part of the fight for the betterment of the men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender (TG) community in Tamil Nadu.
“The vulnerability of MSM to HIV/AIDS, although enhanced by the high-transmission rate associated with unprotected anal sex, is not based in sexual practice alone,” says Muthu. “Such an inaccurate view contributes to the stigmatization and ostracism of the community by portraying them as more susceptible to the virus and also rooting their identity in sex only. On the contrary, social factors such as stigma and discrimination are the main contributing factors to MSM vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and that intervention efforts should aim to root them out.”
With the help of funding from the Global Fund Multi-Country South Asia HIV Programme, LOTUS aims to reduce stigma and discrimination at two levels. The first level is within the MSM community itself by conducting meetings where positive speakers from the MSM community will come and share their thoughts. The second level is village level advocacy and awareness work within the communities who are directly or indirectly involved with the MSM community, such as auto drivers, vegetable & fruit vendors, youth groups and local leaders, especially panchayat leaders (local government leaders).
Some of the activities that LOTUS engages in include:
- Running a drop-in center that provides counseling for MSM and MSM people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHAs)
- Conducting studies pertaining to MSM and MSM PLHAs and TG in collaboration with other CBOs, state and national level agencies
- Making short films that portray issues and needs of MSM and TG communities
- Carrying out street theatre on MSM and TG issues and needs to raise awareness in the community
- Advocacy with youth, women and village groups including panchayat leaders on MSM and MSM PLHAs
- Networking with local bodies and MSM groups throughout Tamil Nadu and India for common issues such as Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code
- Support group meetings for MSM and MSM PLHAs
- Special events such as workshops on personal hygiene and beauty, video shows related to MSM activities
- Trainings, outreach programs including one-to-one interaction, field counseling, and crisis management
Some of LOTUS’s most effective activities over the years have been cultural performances that raise awareness and sensitize communities on MSM and transgender issues. In 2014 , LOTUS made “Transgender Day Video“, a short film on the transgender community, and insisted that all government and non-government institutions should provide job opportunities to the TG community. LOTUS also produced a short 20-minute documentary, Depicts and Impacts, that compiled most of the negative portrayals of the TG community in Tamil cinema since the 1970s and advocated for inclusion of transgender community representative in film censor board. The documentary was widely applauded by NGO directors, CBO leaders and community activists. The documentary was also screened at the Reel Desires: Chennai International Queer Film Festival 2015.
LOTUS will continue to initiate innovative or pilot projects that others may feel difficult to do or the works that could be done effectively only by the CBOs. LOTUS will also fulfil the immediate needs among the community despite of the lack of funds or grant support from others. LOTUS will apply for grants that focus on advocacy, stigma reduction and human rights. Muthu also hopes that LOTUS will continue to collaborate with other agencies pertaining to MSM related research studies.
As for Muthu, he will continue with his freelance consultancy and his support to LOTUS as usual. He will also be trying to write an autobiography for which he may look for appropriate support in order to help him complete this task.
Reflecting back on all his past experiences and successes, Muthu has a message for young MSM and TG people of today: “You are blessed to have some developing support for sexuality minorities comparing to 25 years back when I was growing up. There was nothing during that time, what existed was only violence, abuse, stigma and discrimination.”
Muthu also warns against being complacent. “Get up and do something that will help our community and ensure our rights are protected,” he advises. “I believe that you, as the new generation will be more active and effective than us and will bring about greater change. Keep your feet moving towards success and acknowledgement for the community at the national and global level.”
An old and well-known Buddhist proverb says that the lotus grows from muddy waters to rise above the water in full splendor. So too will the MSM and TG community, with the unwavering support of organizations like LOTUS and advocates like Muthu.
If you wish to seek more information about LOTUS, including about any of the activities and films mentioned in this story, you can email [email protected].