Belgaum (Karnataka): In a dark room in Belgaum district, they sit together looking comfortable. They are in an office and are not even distantly related. But, as is often true of sexual minorities, the homosexuals and transgenders assembled in Belgaum are as closely knit as biological families.

Their biggest complaint is non-acceptance from society, and their strength is Sweekar, a community-based organization that works to support the sexual minorities and spreads awareness about HIV and AIDS. It has over 3,000 members in Belgaum.

At the Sweekar office, on a small shelf on the wall, lies a frame with the portraits of Ganesha, Christ and the Mecca side by side.

"It reflects our community, we may be born in different faiths, but we are one and the same," says a transgender who did not want to be identified.

The main objective of Sweekar is to remove stigma and discrimination against sexual minorities, approaching the government and lobbying with policymakers for getting equal rights. They are also trying to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS in a major way.

"It was very difficult to form the group in the beginning. We had to spread the information by word of mouth and, to get them interested, we held a lot of competitions like dance, music and rangoli," says Shyam, one of the founder members.

"Gradually, we built our network and got their faith. We could start the AIDS awareness and other programmes were only after that," he says.

Gays and transgenders are amongst those highly prone to HIV/AIDS. According to the National AIDS Control Organization, there are more than 400,000 men who have sex with men in India; HIV prevalence in this population is about 7.3 percent compared to a national adult HIV prevalence of 0.31 percent.

Even though they are among the communities most prone to HIV/AIDS, their battle against the disease has brought them a kind of empowerment they had never imagined possible earlier.

Peer counselling is their main tool, wherein trained members of the communities educate other members. These counsellors use various elaborate diagrams, sketches and even demonstrations by the medium of plays to make the community members aware of HIV/AIDS.

"We teach them about the importance of using condoms and awareness is spreading fast," says Mili, a community mobiliser of the group.

The most important part comes in giving support to those who have been detected with HIV/AIDS.

"Community members who find they are HIV positive face double stigma. We have a separate group called Hosa Kirana to address their needs, including counselling, medicines and nutritional need," says Shyam.

However, it is the support that has come with the awareness programmes which is bringing more and more sexual minorities to the group.

"This support matters a lot. Many who earlier could not even dare to disclose their real identity are now coming out in the open," says Namrata, a transgender.

"Here we can be ourselves, otherwise we have to wear a mask," says a 51-year-old veteran who is married with two children.

The biggest grievance for them, however, remains non-acceptance by society even though India has around 2.5 million people with HIV/AIDS.

Asked about their biggest wish, Namrata says, "We cannot make friends outside our community that is one thing we really wish for."

Shyam adds, "We are treated like objects of sexual desire, but we are humans. Society must understand that."

"Sweekar has brought us together, we no more feel alone. We are empowered and can even confidently speak to the media, but we still have a long way to go," he adds.

The visit to Sweekar's office was organized by the Centre for Policy and Research.

(Agencies)