It’s 10:30 in the night. The colourful ground-floor gastropub in a 5-star Connaught Place hotel is coming to life: Lights have been dimmed. Bar counter tidied up. Party-crawlers have started trickling in.
A sturdy bartender is busy fiddling with liquor bottles. The DJ has already begun the warm-up set. I take up the role of a passive observer. Some of the pub crew, busy making last-minute arrangements, throw curious glances at the unusual couples cozying up in dimly lit corners. Not all of them look familiar with the concept of ‘Inclusive Tuesdays’, the theme that sees some of the city’s posh pubs and restaurants open gates for queer gatherings. This dance night, organised by LGBTQ event group QrGuys, is one such event.
By midnight there are at least 65 people in the pub, an impressive number for a party happening in the middle of workweek.
As the crowd swells and music grows louder, those lurking in corners hit the dance floor. Hugs are exchanged, so are pecks and handshakes. Most of the attendees know each other. Most of them know about each other. There are no awkward introductions. No fear of judgements. Some are there to hang out with friends. Few are looking for relations that may transcend beyond friendship… Essential opportunities that still elude the LGBTQ in India’s public spaces.
Aryan and Kaushal (name changed), both in their early 20s, are walking hand-in-hand into and out of the pub waiting for their other friends to arrive. Aryan, who works as a chef in a 5-star Gurgaon hotel, is openly gay. Kaushal is still struggling to come out of the closet for the fear of rejection by family and friends. Having met in a similar event last month, the two are still exploring their relationship. Something that requires them to hang out more often. The question is where? The answer brings Kaushal to Delhi. He talks about his life in Bhopal, “One, I’m not open about my sexuality. Two, lack of LGBTQ gatherings in Bhopal means even assignations with others like myself are not possible. It can be very lonely.”
Lack of queer inclusiveness in India’s public spaces means fewer opportunities to interact with others like them in normal settings. The ones like Kaushal who can afford frequent travels to the cities hosting such events prefer the commute over a lonely life in their cities and towns.
Not all, though, are looking for romantic relationships.
Alisha, a transwoman in mid-20s, looks at these events as an opportunity to hang out with friends. Omar, a 20-year-old Afghan refugee, is looking for company in a new country. “I’ve been proposed to but I have too much emotional baggage to start a new relationship. I want to stay single for some time,” he tells me. Queer gatherings in Delhi have helped him find a circle and a support group.
PARTY UNDER WRAPS
Despite the vibrant queer party scene it’s difficult for a community outsider to know about them. The secretiveness around these events isn’t limited to Delhi alone. It’s a norm in almost all cities that have a thriving LGBT party culture: Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore to name a few of them.
Hotels too don’t publicise such events in their premises. Given India’s criminalisation of gay sex and homophobia, privacy is a prime concern for most of the attendees. From Delhi to Pune to Mumbai, many of these events operate in a similar fashion: There are no advertisements, no open invites; word spreads through WhatsApp messages, word-of-mouth, and private Facebook pages.
Ashish Chopra, first runner-up of Mr Gay World India, 2018, and organiser of queer gatherings in Pune, recalls an incident when a restaurant staffer clicked a picture of two male attendees cuddling up. Chopra had to step in to get the photo deleted as the guys in question freaked out.
“These kind of things manifest the general thought that the LGBTQI are not normal,” he says. Despite the little hiccups, Chopra’s events see an attendance of about 400 on a regular day. The events range from drag shows, film screenings, dance-nights to lunches and dinner, or just general parties that allow them to be themselves and chill like they’d want to in a normal setting. The attendees are from Pune as well as smaller cities of Maharashtra.
Let alone finding love, most of the LGBTQI know that claiming India’s public spaces as their own may mean risking their safety. Discreetness ensures they don’t have to worry about their privacy or safety.
Vipin, one of the partners running the QrGuys in Delhi, says, “New attendees do enquire about safety. It might be different in smaller cities but Delhi, comparatively, is more accepting of the LGBTQ.” Vipin has been organizing such gatherings for almost 15 years now. He says that apart from few cases of hotels not willing to host a queer gathering, there hasn’t been much problem. However, his request to keep the venue details a secret reveal his acceptance of the status quo.
Largely, it’s word-of-mouth that keeps the LGBTQ social scene buzzing.
Last few years, however, have also seen some avenues open up for the community. Kitty Su, the Lalit Group of Hotels’ night club chain, being the most recognized name in the sphere. Its chairman Keshav Suri -- one of the anti-Section 377 petitioners in the Supreme Court and a member of the LGBTQI community himself-- has his priorities clear, “Everyone has the right to love and hang out when and wherever they want to. In Kitty Su we have tried to create one such avenue.” This equal access to space is what he calls ‘inc love’, where ‘inc’ stands for inclusive. To encourage queer guests to hang out, Kitty Su also slashes entry fee for the LGBTQI guests on specific days of week.
This, however, is still far away from becoming a norm. Among the top reviews on Kitty Su’s Facebook page is an angry comment from a customer about transgender guests in the club. While LGBTQI may have more avenues to themselves, these reactions show it is still some time before India’s public spaces become LGBTQI inclusive.
Until then the community’s social life will have to thrive under wraps.