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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Legalizing homosexuality has had little impact on the deeply entrenched homophobia in India, where thousands of gays still face discrimination and a lack of basic rights, the country's most prominent gay rights activist told Reuters.
Hours after U.S. President Barack Obama turned the global spotlight on gay rights by saying that he believes same-sex couples should be able to marry, Anjali Gopalan applauded the comments but despaired over the grudging pace of acceptance for India's gay and lesbian communities.
"I'm glad Obama has taken the stand he has taken because every step helps in this long battle," she told Reuters by telephone on Thursday.
The activist, who was listed last month in Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World for her work to advance the rights of gays, said in a wider interview with Reuters last week that three years after the Delhi High Court decriminalized gay sex, homosexuals were still not socially accepted in India.
"Just because a law changes, doesn't mean the way of thinking changes. That's a slow process and something we have to keep working at," the 54-year-old Gopalan said last week.
"Homophobia is so entrenched I don't think we realize we're being homophobic. I'm talking about those of us working with the community too. So you have many NGOs working with the community who show very high levels of homophobia," she said.
Gopalan, who heads a pro-gay charity called The Naz Foundation, was behind the change in India's colonial-era law which described homosexual lovemaking as "carnal intercourse against the order of nature."
In 2001, she filed a petition in the Delhi High Court calling for the law to be thrown out. Eight years later, the court overturned the statute in a landmark ruling hailed as a major victory by gay rights activists across the country.
But Gopalan, whose charity works to promote better health and rights for gays, lesbians and transgenders, said homosexuals still face job discrimination, harassment by police and ostracism by their families as well as physical assault.
They also face problems in accessing public services such as healthcare in hospitals, turned away by doctors who often do not take them seriously or refuse to offer treatment.
India has moved faster than other countries in South Asia in legalizing homosexuality, and there are more young people coming out. The country staged its first "Queer Pride Parade" in the capital in 2008, and has done so every year since.
But for most of the country's 2.5 million gays, social stigma is a daily reality. Many are unwilling to openly admit their sexual preferences and even forced to try reverse them.
"We want to try and normalize it (homosexuality)," Gopalan said, adding that many gays are made to believe that they suffer from an illness which can be cured.
"The sad part is we still get a lot of men who say 'Can I get medicine to not feel this way' which is very heartbreaking - but that's the reality."
The attitudes of India's politicians have not helped, Gopalan said.
Last year, the country's Health Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, told a conference that homosexuality was "unnatural and a foreign disease." This February, a senior government lawyer told the Supreme Court that gay sex was "immoral" and "spreads HIV".
"What worries me is when we talk about rights, the courts can do very little," she said. "It's parliament which has to do the work. And given that the average age of our parliamentarians is 80, I don't see anything happening in the near future."
Reporting by Atish Patel, editing by Elaine Lies and Paul Casciato