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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 December, 2003, 05:44 GMT
Battling twin taboos in Sri Lanka
Gay men
Homosexuality is illegal in Sri Lanka
The founder of a group to help people affected by Aids in Sri Lanka is battling two stigmas in his home country - of being both openly gay and HIV positive.

Samad - not his real name - became HIV positive in the United States, but has since returned home, where he presents workshops on Aids awareness.

He established the Lankan Plus support group last year.

"My motive in this is for them to be able to survive like me, because I've come a long way, and they can also do it," Samad told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"I've had a straightforward, normal life. In the beginning, they always said Aids means death, and a lot of people just gave up hope.

"That's the worst thing that could happen."

TV campaign

Samad found out he was HIV positive after a medical test shortly before he was due to begin what he described as his "dream job" - a chef on the world's biggest cruise liner.

"All I thought was - 'I'm going to die'. For me it was like a death sentence," he recalled.

My mouth gets me a long way, because I've broken the boundaries of speaking out
"After a couple of months, I thought, 'no - I'm not going to let this get me down.'

"And then I learned to live."

Samad's most recent project has been to an attempt to air a 30-second TV programme on stigma and discrimination over Aids.

Sri Lanka's national station is prohibited from airing it, but Samad has now been able to persuade a private network to show it.

Meanwhile he continues to run Lankan Plus - which started off with 17 members, but deaths this year have reduced that number to 13.

Samad told Outlook that due to distance the members were not able to meet very often, but kept in touch through mail.

"Lanka Plus was registered only last year. It's fairly new, and the first time in Sri Lanka that positive people have got together and tried to organise something," he said.

"Actually this is the extension of a UNDP project, which started last year. It's all over Asia and the Pacific."

But he conceded that the energies he was devoting to these projects took their toll.

"There's a thing called burnout, where enough is enough," he said.

"Any human being needs a distraction, something else to hold on to... this is a very emotional and heavy subject to involved with, because you are talking about human lives here."

Responsibility

Samad said his main focus away from his battle with Aids was a drag act he performs at various private functions.

But even can be difficult, he added, because he was openly gay in a country where homosexuality is banned.

Shaman de Rose, executive director of Companions on a Journey
Some gay groups in Sri Lanka are helping the government in its Aids awareness programme
"If I do have the chance of going abroad, where they have Broadway musicals, but all done in drag, I would like to be one of the cast.

"Even just back-up dancing I would love - it's one of my dreams."

Samad stated that because of Sri Lanka's attitude towards homosexuals, he found it very difficult to be himself in his own country, and was often tempted to leave.

"There are lot of cultural restraints - homosexuals are [viewed as] very bad people, with bad morals," he argued.

"It's not an easy life if you're looking to have a normal life. One of my dreams would be to have my partner with me until my last breathing time.

"I can't really find that here in Sri Lanka."

But he added that despite these restraints, he felt a duty towards the other members of Lankan Plus, and this kept him in the country.

"I've got my responsibility towards my positive members, and the positive people here in Sri Lanka, because I'm in a position where I can really empower them to take over, and build up that system," he said.

"Maybe in four or five years, once it's stable, I might move on and leave the reins for somebody else to take the torch on."


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