THE 2016 shooting in the gay night club Pulse in Orlando, the US, where a security guard killed 49 people, wounding 50 others, triggered a question in the mind of Keshav Suri, executive director, The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group. “If this happened in India, would people have turned around and said that because of their sexual orientation, because they have ‘unnatural sex’, they deserved to die?” Suri, 33, the creative force behind The Lalit’s Kitty Su nightclub which sees participation from the LGBTQI community, filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court in April challenging Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises consensual sexual intercourse “against the order of nature” (or non-penile vaginal intercourse) between persons of the same sex.
Suri has been at the forefront of the movement to decriminalise gay sex and bring the larger LGBTQI community into the mainstream. Growing up in a Punjabi business family in Delhi, Suri came out as a gay man at 21. The support and encouragement of his family, by his own admission, is what has made him fearless and outspoken. For Suri, the Section 377 violates the basic right to privacy — the right to choose one’s partner and he is tired of people citing the “conservative” ruse to get away with it. “I think, in the east, societal changes and the law are not in sync. One is moving faster than the other. Though now, at least, conversations have started. And it’s not as if this is new. For example, we have a history of drag, of the alternative sex, Shikhandi, Brihannala, Mohini… There is a drag queen festival in Tamil Nadu (temple festival in Koovagam village). So, what’s with this conservative tag?” asks Suri.
Not just the social repercussions, the hotelier points at the economic cost of homophobia. “We keep talking about the power of the rupee and the dollar, but homophobia also costs us a big chunk of the GDP (gross domestic product). A 2014 World Bank report (“The Economic Cost of Stigma and the Exclusion of LGBT People: A Case Study of India”) highlighted that it costs us (India) up to around 1.7 per cent of the GDP — billion plus dollars,” says Suri, “We want to blame the British for everything, but we have had 70 years (since Independence). ‘Sati was also prevalent in ‘conservative India’, but we have evolved from it, right?” he asks, adding that lifting the law will facilitate tourism and rake in more pink dollars.
Pushing the Envelope
I WAS very shy and quite a prude when I was a teenager but when I finally discovered sex, I never had any guilt or fear,” says chef Ritu Dalmia, one of the five people who filed a joint petition in 2016 in the Supreme Court to review Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.
It was a prompt from a close friend who pointed out that Dalmia only whines instead of doing something concrete that led Dalmia to sign the petition.
Dalmia came out at 23 after she moved to London to open a fine-dining restaurant called Vama. “I fell head-over-heels in love with a woman. I did not struggle with it or question it. I embraced it without going through any turmoil. When I look back, I feel I am much luckier than many others who really have a hard time accepting something so new and something that makes you ‘strange’,” she says.
Born to a traditional Marwari family, she first broke the news to her mother over dinner. “And, I left it to her to inform my father. She was very supportive, though it did shock her but she never uttered a mean word,” she says.
Dalmia acknowledges her position of privilege and says that, “Economic independence also meant that I was not answerable or dependent on anyone. I have seen other people from smaller towns who do not have access to the same means that I do, and, the rampant discrimination, disrespect and harassment that they have to deal with because of their gender identity is heartbreaking. They have so many other wars to fight and they should have (at least this) security provided to them by law,” she says.
As those who may have observed her at her restaurants would know, it is hard to make her feel like she doesn’t fit. But statements, ranging from the derogatory to the absolutely bizarre, against the LGBTQI community, irk her. “Lack of education and a narrow worldview makes people say the things they do. I get a lot of hate mails and when one reads what these people write, I can’t help but feel sorry for them. Such terrible lives they must lead that make them so hateful,” she says.