“I used to carry a bag in the metro that was easily 5-6 kilos. I’d have to put my heels, change of clothes and all of my makeup in the bag, and then contact friends close by to ask ‘Can I make a quick stopover at your place?’ to either dress down or dress up,” says Taksh, a 23-year-old transwoman living in Delhi NCR.
While Delhi streets can be cruel, especially to members of the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual) community and to other sexual minorities, the scale of the capital also accords a kind of anonymity that allows individuals to go about their day in peace. “Delhi can be creepy sometimes but it’s also the city that accepted me and gave me the strength to fight for who I am,” says Divya Roop, 25, who identifies as an androgynous homosexual.
In the last few years, several establishments and restaurants in the city have declared themselves queer-friendly and opened their doors to members of the community. The first that comes to mind is The Lalit Group’s Kitty Su, run by hotelier Keshav Suri, who was a writ petitioner against the recently repealed Section 377 of the IPC, which criminalised gay sex. The C.U.Next Thursday event is a party hosted at the 5-star hotel’s nightclub and is an open invitation to members of the community to enjoy a night of dancing. The party is essentially thronged by gay men in the city and often has exotic dancers and drag shows – forms of expression that may otherwise be absent from public spaces in the city.
A number of other establishments have also followed suit by dedicating one night of the week to members of the LGBTQ+ community. ‘Pink’ Tuesdays and Thursdays are fast coming up alongside ‘Ladies Nights’, giving way to a new form of ‘pink capitalism’ for the urbane. PDA hosts a Rainbow Thursday every week, Depot48, temporarily shut, hosted a Pink Tuesday frequently. Then there are several spaces in Hauz Khas Village and Aurobindo Market, gentrified areas of south Delhi which have become microcosms of the city’s urban nightlife in a way. Antisocial was the first place in Delhi to host the online queer community Gaysi’s 2x2 Bar Meetup, which was an event for like-minded queer individuals in the city to meet and share ideas. Summer House hosted an LGBTQ+ gala and is frequently patronised by members of the community. These pubs and establishments are not only inviting queer individuals to enjoy a drink without fear of being turned away but sometimes also become the venue for private moments of celebration in the public realm. “I got engaged at The Piano Man!” says a happy 27-year-old queer woman who did not wish to be named.
Events, Private Groups, and Finding Kinship
Other than parties and nightlife, there are events, open mics, poetry readings, etc that are held periodically in various parts of the city. What A Comic Show in GK-2 has twice hosted an event called ‘What A Pride Night’ organized by Performers’ Consortium, which showcased performances by queer-identifying artists. “We had a briefing session with the staff to train them to use the appropriate pronouns, how to interact with the customers, etc. We even had gender-neutral bathrooms on the day of the event,” says Vishan Rai, 35, manager at the café. Divya Dureja, 26, a queer poet-activist, psychologist and co-founder of Performers’ Consortium is responsible for curating several such events in the city. From Delhi University colleges to community spaces like Bedlam, art foundations like St+Art India and theatre spaces like Akshara Theatre – Dureja and her collective have found support from diverse establishments in the city.
Then there is Delhi’s first LGBTQ café, Chez Jerome – Q Café, a rooftop café that overlooks the picturesque Qutab Minar and unabashedly waves the pride flag. “I have LGBTQ guy [sic] in my staff too. We organise many events, on Fridays we have drag queen shows, on Sundays we have a movie screening – we put some gay movie ... not sex movie [sic]! We put on some gay love story, things like that,” says Chef Jerome Nicolas, 57, who identifies as bisexual himself. One floor below the café is Mykonos Men’s Spa, one of the many spas in the city that caters to homosexual men. “It’s a less genteel example of commercial establishments but Mykonos is a particularly remarkable example of a densely populated, absolute safe space for queer men to explore their sexuality, for a moderate to steep price,” says a 26-year-old bisexual male who did not wish to be named.
There are also several private or closed Facebook groups in most Indian cities, including Delhi, through which members of the community organise, plan events and share general camaraderie. These groups often serve as the platform to share details about an event or an invite-only underground party. “If people are going through personal turmoil and seeking such information but are having difficulty, they can reach out to me on my Facebook page or Instagram handle, and I’ll try to help out to the best of my ability,” offers Dureja helpfully.
But Are These ‘Safe Spaces’ Created Equally?
The short answer is ‘no’. The places mentioned so far are situated in areas of the city that are cut off to a large cross-section of society simply on the basis of affordability. There are several unsaid but apparent class-barriers that make these ‘safe’ spaces accessible only to members of the community who have the purchasing power. Several establishments that claim to be liberal and inclusive are discriminatory in the garb of ‘club rules’, for example allowing entry only to heterosexual couples on busy nights like New Years’ Eve, and imposing dress codes that explicitly say ‘No Crossdressing’.
“A place like Hauz Khas Village doesn’t care about what I look like but what I can spend,” says Taksh matter-of-factly. After closing hours, however, when an eclectic, often inebriated crowd of people make their way out of Hauz Khas Village, the refuge of the safe spaces cease to exist. Parul Ritwik Sood, a 26-year-old who identifies as pansexual, describes an incident outside Hauz Khas Village where his friends were beaten and harassed by the police for hugging another transgender friend. “We’re seen as easy targets. My friends were detained just for hugging a transperson. One of their parents had to come to the police station and sort it out,” Sood says. In his experience, safe spaces are still elusive. “A safe space for me is where I can talk freely about my boyfriend or sing in my feminine voice. I’m not sure those spaces exist in the city. To me a safe space is only my home and my place of work, OddBird Theatre,” he says.
The greater visibility of gay men, as opposed to other sexual minorities, adds more intersectional layers to the LGBTQ+ sub-culture in the city. Parties like the ones at Kitty Su are not only reserved for the rich, upper-middle-class cream of society but also exclusively cater to gay men. Besides, the nomenclature C.U.Next Thursday (C.U.N.T) is not exactly one that appeals to everyone. “Queer females and transmen do not have the kind of spaces to hang out that gay men may do. Just how in a heterosexual set up, men tend to be more ‘out’, similar hierarchies exist within the LGBTQ+ community too,” say Rituparna Borah, 37, and Ritambhara Mehta, 32, who are part of Nazariya, a queer feminist resource group that focuses on working with lesbians, bisexuals and trans people assigned female at birth (LBTFAB).
Cruising in the Virtual Space
Connaught Place, specifically Nehru Park and the park above Palika Bazaar, were until recently known cruising spots for queer men or trans persons and were typically frequented by men looking to have intercourse with other men.
While these cruising spots may have been an open secret within the community, they were hardly a ‘safe’ space and were frequently venues of police harassment, theft and potentially even shaming. The culture of these cruising spots has by and large been obliterated with the advent of dating apps. Apps like Grindr and OkCupid have taken ‘cruising’ into the virtual space. While these apps and websites may filter according to preferences (as opposed to waiting and assessing with uncertainty at a cruising spot), there have been cases of genuine users being swindled by imposters and inauthentic accounts.
In that respect, The Delta App, India’s first LGBT community and networking app, is a touch different from the rest. Co-founded by Ishaan Sethi, a 27-year-old who identifies as gay himself, the app is built by the community, for the community. “The app functions vis-à-vis a trust score. Users can increase their trust score by taking out various forms of verifications with Delta. There are also various algorithms that go into play when a user creates an account to make sure it’s authentic,” Sethi says.
The app is more than just a dating app and has vital information about queer events, safe spaces, and brands that are inclusive. A number of cafes, bars, and restaurants that are listed on the site are often where people who match on the site decide to meet. These venues have signed a pledge with the app to remain inclusive, conduct gender sensitization drills with their staff and create a safe space for the community. Some of the places listed on the app include Blue Tokai, Rose Café, Jugmug Thela, Ek Bar and PCO. Again, these venues cater to people of a very specific socio-economic status.
With Section 377 being struck down, there is much cause to celebrate for the community and its allies. But what implications does it have in the everyday life of the people directly affected by it? “Those that were booked under this section constantly – like members of the Hijra community or those visibly queer – are still being ostracized by authorities and charged under different laws such as beggary or assembly in the public. Discrimination at the hands of authorities and society members is another battle that cannot be won inside of the Supreme Court, it seems,” says Dureja. What it does do, however, is allow the community to protest for and celebrate something that is now constitutional and legal. But the battle for equal access to public spaces is a long drawn and arduous one. The day the entire city is a safe space, and not just sporadic pockets, is still far away. Until then, love wages a war to win every day.
Representational feature image, source: Wikimedia Commons.
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