Gay Indian Men Are Taking ‘Poppers’, and They Could Be Risking HIV


A selection of poppers. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
A selection of poppers. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Gay Indian Men Are Taking ‘Poppers’, and They Could Be Risking HIV

It all started with a filmmaker friend telling me how, for an upcoming project, she was researching the nightlife of the gay community in India. The conversation then steered to drugs, and the vulnerability of the community to drug abuse, unprotected sex, and worse, even an HIV infection.

Drugs coupled with sexually risky behaviours like group sex, are a deadly breeding ground for the life threatening disease, HIV.

Ashley* (name changed) started taking drugs in his early twenties. Coming from an upper middle class background, he embodied the new variegated, free, unbridled sexuality that more and more young Indians are now coming to be identified with. His tryst with drugs was initiated with marijuana, from which he moved on to poppers, the popular drug used by the gay community, in India and abroad. More drugs were experimented with, which were coupled with a risky sexual life. Ashley has been HIV positive for the past two years.

When I further asked members of the community, anti-drug campaigners and LGBT rights activists about the usage of drugs within the community, one drug that was commonly mentioned in these conversations was ‘poppers’.

Poppers are inhalable alkyl nitrates, that are popular in the gay community. The first mention of them being used for an instantaneous rush came in the 70s and 80s, when Time reported on the drug being used by some members of the community in the United States. The drug is reported to be used quite heavily in the UK too. In a 2006 survey cited by AIDSMAP, some 40-50% of gay men in the UK reported using the drug for recreational purposes.

Apart from giving a quick high, poppers are also said to enhance sexual pleasure. Some members of the Indian MSM (men who have sex with men) community, who prefer to be the more passive of the partners, say they can’t have sex without the use of the drug. Others reported their partners making them inhale the drug in bed.

Physiologically, usage of poppers is said to relax rectal muscle tissues thus easing anal sex. But this expansion of blood vessels in the rectum may also make the rectal tissues more susceptible to HIV infection.

External intoxicants like poppers are sold by peddlers on gay dating apps like Grindr. They are also sold in clubs and exchanged between partners. The asking rate, as we saw for ourselves, was Rs 1500-2500 for a bottle. The code words used on the platform is ‘high fun’, ‘stuff’, etc. Interestingly, poppers are also sold on websites like Rediff India, even though they are not legally available in the country.

Even though the effect of poppers is said to last only for a few minutes at max, some people are reported to use it multiple times in a day, thereby becoming regular users of the drug over a prolonged period of time.

In India, poppers are part of an underground drug culture used by the gay community in India that dates back at least to 2005. Said to be introduced by expats and the elite class, it has now percolated to middle class members of the community too.

Rohan, a gay rights activist who works with a prominent LGBT community organisation, says the drug is mostly imported from Western countries. He adds that the use of drugs, including poppers and other hard drugs like MDMA, has only increased with time.

He’s used the drug himself, he says. “It generates heat into the head. Your brain stops... for a few seconds after you inhale it. Its high is like that of a thinner, only it is stronger”.

According to Rohan, poppers, coupled with Viagra can leave you sexually turned on for 3-4 hours. In high risk behaviour like having sex with a stranger, or at sex parties, many who are under the influence of this heavy cocktail of drugs and medical virility cease to use condoms.

A large UK case-control study, INSIGHT, found that, independently of other factors, use of poppers increased the risk of an HIV infection 2.4-fold.

Eldred Tellis, Director of Sankalp Rehabilitation Trust and an Ashoka Fellow who has worked with the drug using community for over thirty years, says drug abuse within the gay community tends to go even deeper underground because of the sheer stigma associated with being gay in India.

Krish, a gay counsellor working in the NGO space, says poppers are mostly used by those who prefer to remain “passive”.

Representative Image: A participant holds a rainbow coloured placard during Delhi Queer Pride Parade, an event promoting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, in New Delhi, 30 November 2014. (Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi)
Representative Image: A participant holds a rainbow coloured placard during Delhi Queer Pride Parade, an event promoting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, in New Delhi, 30 November 2014. (Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi)

National AIDS Control Organization, or NACO, in its 2014-15 report, suggests that at least there are 427,000 MSMs in India, and of them, about 4.4% are living with HIV.

The alienation and stigma, of both their sexuality and their drug use, is preventing the members of this community from coming out and talking about this.

This double stigmatisation is keeping the drug problem within the gay community buried deep underground.

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