Sahaay: India gets its first 24x7 LGBT helpline

"I'm attracted to men. What can I do? Am I abnormal?"

'I'm gay and my parents want me to get married to a woman. Should I?"

"I had unprotected sex with a man. Will I get HIV? Am I gay?"

"I'm depressed and suicidal because I'm gay and haven't found anyone. How do I escape this depression?"

"I think I have an STD and can't ask the family doctor about it. What should I do?"

Lack of knowledge about homosexuality and apprehension about the  social narrative around alternative sexuality means that the above questions are ones that several  gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people confront every day in India. Being gay in India means that confusion about the very basic notions of safety, identity and medical health is a huge issue. Beyond this, the fact remains that the resources to redress this problem remain paltry.

 Sahaay: India gets its first 24x7 LGBT helpline

People at a gay pride parade. Image courtesy Getty images

In an effort to offer some support to the LGBT community, a 24x7 helpline called the Sahaay Helpline has been set up by an international NGO with support from the Mumbai-based Humsafar Trust. It is India's first dedicted 24x7 helpline for the queer community (which includes gay, lesbian and transgender), and aims at answering queries on health and psychological issues.

People with queries can call the toll-free number (1800-2000-113), and be assured full confidentiality, as Dr Ashok Agarwal, who is the project director of Sahaay, told Firstpost. "No personal details about the caller will be asked, such as their name, address, family names, and so on," says Agarwal over a telephonic interview. "The calls will also not be recorded. The caller can have a free discussion wherein he or she opens up about their fears and problems without worrying about being 'outed'."

The helpline is mostly designed to cater those who are still 'closeted' about their sexual identity, or do not wish to access official government support systems, or don't have access to them. "A caller will be able to receive information and counselling by speaking to a counsellor, or hear recorded message on interactive voice response (IVR), or receive message through automated SMS," says Agarwal. Currently the helpline is available in Hindi in three states - Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Maharashtra.

“Homophobia is a choice, sexuality isn’t. Such initiatives for LGBTIQ people who are closeted will assist them in reclaiming their lives against people who choose to be homophobes. For those in closet, their window towards clarity is just a call away," says gay rights activist Harrish Iyer to LGBT website Gaylaxy.

Dr Agarwal tells us how the helpline is part of a more long-term study to determine the effectiveness of such initiatives in reaching out to community members and promoting HIV/AIDS safe behaviour.

"The estimated men who have sex with men (MSM) in India is approximately 4.25 lakh," says Agarwal. "Of which, government initiatives are only able to access 2.25 lakh. That leaves a large section of MSM which are hard to reach, and this is one way of reaching out to them."

Dr Agarwal says that in the six weeks the helpline has been operational, it has received  a very good response. "We have received approximately 9,000 calls, of which 5,000 have been unique callers," he says.

He also says that while the study was geared towards providing information on HIV and AIDS, they have been surprised with the number of people who call with social and personal problems. "Around half of our callers call us and talk about their psychological issues. They have family issues, they are closeted, are struggling with stigma, are being forced to marry people of the opposite sex. They struggle with identity and depression... the helpline has in fact been able to prevent a good number of suicides."

If the helpline is found useful, Sahaay Project will advocate with Department of AIDS Control in implementing it across the country, says Dr Agarwal.

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Updated Date: Oct 22, 2013 17:14:35 IST