Two men walk into a bar

A shooting at a gay American club has left the global LGBTQI community in grief. In India, where homosexuality is a criminal offence, queer folk have carved out their corners in the city. But is it a happy, inclusive space for all?

Updated: June 26, 2016 12:43 pm
Where art thou, romeo? Untitled #7, from the series, Sun City © Sunil Gupta/Vadehra Art Gallery. Untitled #7, from the series, Sun City © Sunil Gupta/Vadehra Art Gallery.

Byline: Premankur Biswas, Pooja Pillai, Anushree Majumdar, Catherine Rhea Roy

The protagonists of Pyaasi Bhabhi are up to no good. Kissing each other at awkward angles, they take necking to a whole new level. But not a single man inside Jayant cinema* cares. Once you step inside the cinema in the typical north Kolkata neighbourhood and walk past the gargoyle sculpture staring at you ominously, it would seem as though some invisible paintbrush has swathed everyday objects with a coat of seduction. Inside the hall, as you adjust your eyes to the darkness, the pungent smell of sweat, disinfectant, nicotine and alcohol hits you. Silhouettes start to make sense — faces glued to each other, a hand held out in a dancing pose. The party has begun. “When visitors ask me to name a good place to party in Kolkata, I always tell them that if you have the stomach for it, Jayant cinema is the place,” says Rob Sen*, 41, who works in the hospitality industry. The guy at the ticket counter nods in agreement. “The owners don’t care as long as things don’t get too rowdy and the property is not damaged. There is the threat of police raids but there is a covert understanding with them, too. They let people be,” he says.

On June 12, when a lone gunman walked into Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and killed 49 people, the global LGBTQI community reacted in terror and grief. But it was business as usual at Jayant cinema. “Are we scared if a gunman will shoot us down? No, we already know how vulnerable we are to hatred. We know that a policeman can walk in and beat us black and blue any moment. We have learned to live with that,” says Sen. But for now, Rs 30 will buy them an evening of possibilities.

In the weeks after the tragedy in Orlando, conversations about the place of the gay club in society have lit up social media, op-ed pages of newspapers and dinner parties. Every major city in the West has a gay joint that once cocked a snook at the establishment, but in India, where homosexuality continues to be a criminal offence, there are no gay bars — only “gay nights”. And that is something like a magic trick — now you see it, now you don’t. “There are venues where an evening is booked by somebody under an assumed name. Six days of the week, the venue functions as a heteronormative space. One evening is when the gays come out to play. Back in the day, the party was at Pegs N Pints,” says Siddharth Patel*, 42, a Delhi-based brand consultant.

Like any dive bar anywhere in the world, PnP, as the place was known, was loved by Delhi’s gay men despite its tiny dance floor, shady bathroom or chipped glasses. On its legendary Tuesday nights, the bar shrugged off its otherwise quotidian veneer as gay men of all ages walked through its doors. The music was loud, the lights were dimmed, and, yet, for some of its patrons, PnP was the brightest place on earth. This was where they shed their inhibitions, stole a kiss on the dance floor, found themselves clasped in a stranger’s tight embrace. And any gay man in any gay bar in the world will tell you, this was where they set themselves free.

Patel soon became a regular there. “With each visit, I met men, we became friends. PnP was where we felt secure. For a long time, Tuesdays were my red letter days,” he says. He would continue to visit the bar till 2014, when it shifted to Hauz Khas village. But the shutters came down soon, signalling the end of an era in Delhi’s gay nightlife.

Today, Connaught Place (CP), KG Marg, Uday Park, and Mehrauli, all boast of venues that are, as one party-goer put it, “gay for pay”. “The management is cashing in on the pink rupee but the community needs these spaces. The gay night is an amazing space for those who face daily persecution or who live in small towns where there is rampant homophobia. I’ve met 18-19-year-olds from places like Udaipur who have saved money to travel to Delhi to attend these events,” says Dripto*, 26, a journalist in the capital.

It’s 12.30 am at Sveda Lounge and the strobe lights are pulsing red, blue and green. The dance floor is ringed by over 50 men; some are dancing cheek-to-cheek, many are cutting the rug with breathtaking expertise. The club in Saki Naka, Mumbai, is in the middle of Gay Bombay’s Saturday night party. Outside, on the terrace, among party-goers taking a break, Sameer*, 26, is enjoying the breeze. The businessman from an African country is a practising Muslim and visits Mumbai frequently for work. He makes sure to attend one of these parties whenever he can. “Back home, it’s illegal to be gay. Nobody knows about my sexuality. Here, I can have a good time without worrying about anyone finding out,” he says.

Balachandran Ramiah, 50, a Mumbai-based senior management professional, would agree. In 1997, when Ramiah returned to India from the US, there weren’t any exclusively gay hangouts, but the scene was far from dull. “Voodoo in Colaba was one of the few nightclubs where the gay community regularly partied, Gokul restaurant near the Taj hotel, was another place. People also hung out at the Maheshwari Garden in Matunga, or on Juhu beach. Most establishments had no problem with us because they realised that it was good for them to have a large and regular clientele,” he says. Parties, if and when they happened, were small, private affairs held in people’s houses. “This was before the internet, so you would hear of a party from a friend. Because the venues were so small, there wouldn’t be more than 50 people at a party,” recalls Ramiah. In 1998, along with a group of friends, he founded Gay Bombay (GB), an informal group of like-minded people. The next year, they began to host parties. “We started out at smaller venues, with about 100 people. We’ve been hosting parties regularly for the last 15 years and we’re soon going to celebrate our 400th party,” he says. The revenue generated by them is routed back into the group’s community work — the proceeds from the June 18 party were used for a Hepatitis B and C workshop.

Some of the most well-attended gay parties in Mumbai are organised by Salvation Star and Rage-by D’kloset. “Once upon a time, we had to work very hard to convince the management of clubs and hotels to let us have parties on their premises, because they would be worried about putting off their other clients. But now, attitudes have changed and we have establishments such as the White Owl Brewery in Lower Parel and Bungalow 9 in Bandra that are very supportive,” says Nakul, co-founder, Salvation Star.

Still, problems crop up, and when they do, they can assume nightmarish proportions. Reishabh Kailey, a Mumbai-based graphic designer, recalls a party that he attended in Oshiwara, which was disrupted by the police. “Apparently, someone had tipped them off that this was a rave, but all they found were two tiny packets of weed,” he says. But, all the partygoers were bundled into vans and taken to the police station. “When we arrived at the station, a bunch of reporters were there. Many people hadn’t come out to their families and they were terrified that their photographs would be all over the place,” he says.

Within the gay party community, queer women are missing in action. In cities like Delhi, the most obvious reason is logistics. “Often, people live with parents or in setups where they might not be out to the people around them — so they have to answer endless questions. They get policed a lot more by society. This affects mobility and privacy,” says Shalini Krishan, 34, queer feminist. She was also a member of Nigah and with them, organised a yearly QueerFest. In 2012, she became a member of Qashti, a Delhi-based queer feminist collective. “A group of queer women/transmen/genderfluid people discussed the lack of spaces in Delhi for us, and we decided to start such a group. We used to meet up twice a month, an event we called Matargashti, and had a weekly helpline, which is still active,” she says.

According to Krishan, queer women/transmen stay away from the gay club circuit because it is not for them. “It’s very much about picking someone up for the night. That’s less so for queer women — not because they aren’t into sex, but because, in general, that ability to take up sexual space ‘in public’ is not something most women are allowed, queer or straight. Many of us would like to have our own spaces, for dancing, cruising, meeting people whether to hook up or discuss politics or both, but this particular space is tailored to a different register and gendered audience,” she says.

However, gay parties are not necessarily an umbrella under which all members of the community are equally accepted. Earlier, some parties would clearly state “No CDs (crossdressers), no TG (transgender)”. In Bangalore, the queer party circuit is a monopoly held by Fever Nites. Their posters project a homophobic attitude to drag — their target audience is the straight-acting-gay-man. “These are not guys who identify as gay, but just men who have sex with men,” says Romal Laisram, 29, gay activist and founder of Queer Arts Movement India. This is not new in Bangalore’s queer party scene, which he reckons is “at least 30 years old”, when The Night Watchman and NASA thrived at the opposite ends of Church Street, both of which have shut down since.

For many gay men, their first outing of this sort is revelatory. While some wholeheartedly embrace the opportunity to bond with their tribe, others must confront their own preconceptions about what it means to be queer. When Shayak Dutta*, 31, attended a poetry reading session at The Attic in Delhi in 2008, the evening wasn’t an entirely liberating experience — the academic was surprised to realise his own internalised homophobia. “I was a little irked by transgender men or even other persons who were ‘visibly’ queer. A new world had opened up, one where I had to confront my own middle-class prejudices about people who were ‘different’,” says Dutta.

For some, the party circuit can be positively exhausting. “There is an immense pressure to dress right,” says Mumbai-based writer Aniruddha Mahale. Such events are also intimidating for people who go alone. “Unless you are drunk out of your mind, it’s not easy to start a conversation. Everyone is already there with their friends, they don’t need anyone else,” he says.

Which is why Jayant cinema is such a haven for gay men in Kolkata — from auto rickshaw drivers to BPO executives, gay men from all strata of the society find their way here. “It’s a place where you can let your hair down and have fun, socialise and meet new people,” says Vishal Khemka*, 21, a student of a reputed fashion school in the city.

But how did a place like Jayant cinema come to be a symbol for queer liberation? “This was not always a queer-friendly place. It was just like any other theatre screening soft-porn movies. Before, we used to cruise at Khanna cinema, not far away from here but it was plagued with frequent raids. So we shifted the party to Jayant about a decade ago,” says Sen.

Tonight at Jayant, just like all other evenings, the air is saturated with the possibility of sex — there are inviting corners, a toilet where anything can happen, and men without a care in the world. It’s a heady mix. “I have to confess that I have done things in the place which I am not proud of. But I am glad we have a democratic place like it,” says Rudra Kishore Mondol, 39, a freelance artist.

* Names of some characters and places have been changed.

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