The streets of Gorakhpur, slathered with a fresh-coat of care, have only two heroes. The first is the man whose name is synonymous with the town, Yogi Adityanath. The other is a more cryptic hero. His face changes from hoarding to hoarding. So does his name – Dinesh sir, Rahul sir, Brijesh sir, Kapil sir. But his role remains the same. All these “sirs” hold tickets to a better life – a life away from Gorakhpur. Jeet, who has topped the district board examinations, wants to thank Kapil sir for his able guidance. Neha, a girl with an eager smile, who is a student of Delhi University now, says she owes her success to Brijesh sir and the Comet Tutorial Centre. Clearly, Gorakhpur takes its coaching centres and their reigning stars quite seriously. You know a lot about a town through its hoardings. And Gorakhpur’s hoardings, like that of hundreds of small towns in India, is asking its young to leave in no uncertain terms.
Tanzeel, 22, knows that better than anyone else. He needed the get-away-from-Gorakhpur ticket more than Neha and Jeet half-a-decade ago. At 16, Tanzeel lied to his parents to travel to Delhi to attend the Queer Pride. When he came back, he knew he couldn’t stay in Gorakhpur anymore. “I needed to be out as a gay man and I knew I wouldn’t ever be accepted here. I came out to my parents the day I returned from Delhi and my life has been a rollercoaster ride ever since,” says Tanzeel, as he drives me across town.
Tanzeel’s parents, though, were not convinced. He was taken to a “peer baba” who had a long list of “remedies” for the teenager. “The first thing he suggested was something that I will never get over my life. For a month, every evening I was locked into a room where I was supposed to stare directly at the flame of a diya until it died down by itself. At times it would take minutes, at times, hours. My mother would sit with me to ensure that I didn’t budge,” says Tanzeel. His father consulted a psychologist from Lucknow who suggested that Tanzeel should join a gym and indulge in “manly” activities to feel “straight”.
Eventually, Tanzeel found a way out. “I realised I had to get away to a bigger city to lead my life on my terms. I enrolled myself in one of those coaching centres. Got a decent ranking in the board examinations and went on to pursue my bachelor’s in Lucknow,” he says. From Lucknow, he moved to Delhi, a city which opened doors for him. “In Delhi, I realised that there is more to gay life than a hurried hand job in a secluded park. I realised that queer people too can be friends. My sexual orientation is not just about sex,” says Tanzeel.
In most of the conversations I have with queer men in Gorakhpur and its surrounding towns in the course of a few days, Tanzeel’s words reverberate. Adarsh (name changed on request) is a student of science at the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Gorakhpur University. His beard is trimmed to perfection, he is wearing a muscle tee over stylish slouchy pants, his hair is arranged in a proud quiff over his head. Adarsh would look at home in any South Delhi mall. Today, he is sitting in front of me at Gorakhpur’s only food court,considering his cup of coffee. In the two years that he has been on Grindr (a popular gay dating app), he has not met a single person who identified himself as gay. “Most people say that this is just a one-off thing for them. They don’t have their own pics on the app, obviously and they don’t want to be seen with anyone who is obviously queer,” says Adarsh. The 21-year-old is moving to Noida soon to pursue a post-graduate degree. “I feel I will have better chance of meeting people there. Or, at least, I will meet people who will speak with me for a minute before launching into sex,” laughs Adarsh.
A stone’s throw away from the food court is the Pant park. “Isn’t it a delicious irony that the only gay crusing park in the town is called Pant park,” says Tanzeel. Like all cruising spots, Pant park comes alive once the evening lights are switched off. Love stories play out in leafy corner, lust is just an excuse. “I met the man of my dreams in this park. We used to make out here,” says Sachin, 24, as he leads us to ‘koti’ corner of the park.
Reed-thin with chiselled features, Sachin lives a life of contradictions. He has been married for two years but every few months, he feels the need to come to the park to just get “the feel of the place”. “I don’t have sex with men anymore. But I like to see people hunting,” giggles Sachin. At the park, Sachin gets his old life back. “I can do all my latkas and jhatkas here. But when I walk out of the park, no one can say I am any different from any other man in the town,” says Sachin. “Haan behen, tu straight hai!” (Yes sister, we buy the fact that you are straight1), teases Tanzeel.
“You can laugh all you want, but the truth is one cannot be gay and out in a place like this,” says Sachin, sobering up. He tells us about Suraj, his koti friend, who committed suicide a few months ago. “I used to ask him to not overdo things. But he got too bold. He would crossdress and prostitute himself. He started living apart from his family. One fine day, we heard that he committed suicide. Everyone from the community knows that there was some sort of foul-play there,” says Sachin.
When we ask Gorakhpur Police about the alleged suicide, they have no clear answer. “We don’t have records of any such suicide. It will be difficult for us to keep track of ‘gay-suicides’ anyway. I don’t know of any such case personally,” says Rajesh Kumar of Belipar Police station, Gorakhpur.
Sunil Singh, who used to head the town’s moral police, Hindu Yuva Vahini, carrying out raids on parks of the town along with members of anti-Romeo squad members, paints a different picture. “We have nothing against the gays. God made them like this. As long as they are not polluting the Hindu culture, we let them be,” says Singh.
A little more than 50 km away from Singh’s office, at the Buddhist pilgrimage town of Kushinagar, Rohan (22), dismisses Singh’s claims. “Do you think they will support us if we were to open a support group for queer people in Gorakhpur? Kushinagar has a support group for transgenders and a few years ago, when queer men from Gorakhpur came to attend an event at the NGO office, we were overwhelmed by the number of people. But these people have no voice,” says Rohan, who identifies himself as a queer activist. Rohan, whose mother works as a cook in Gorakhpur, is out to his mother, but cannot identify himself as a gay man. “My mother’s reputation is at stake. She will stop getting work if people come to know about me,” he says.
Tanzeel, who has been trying to organise a queer event in the town for the past few months, feels that one cannot completely “come out” in small-town India. “My father has requested me to keep my sexual orientation quiet. We have a chain of shoe showrooms in the town and he doesn’t want to lose business. He says I should behave like a straight man in public. Ever day, I am dragged back to the closet a little more,” he says.
The only way out, feels Adarsh, is the way out of the town. “One needs to spread wings and fly the coop,” he sums up.