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Private invites, word-of-mouth parties, and discreet dating apps—India has a vibrant underground LGBTQ scene, despite its criminalization of homosexual acts.
"Please don't promote and advertise homosexuality. There are already enough of these ideas permeating our culture."
It was just one angry comment on one Indian LGBTQ Facebook page, but it neatly encapsulated the intolerance and fear felt by countless people when LGBTQ parties began to emerge in Mumbai.
This intolerance came to a head at the end of 2016, when several LGBTQ couples were refused entry into multiple high-end bars and clubs offering New Year's Eve parties. As same-sex couples tried to enter the premises, they were barred by door staff, who stated openly that only heterosexual couples were permitted to attend. When Indian news site DNA later called up the reservations desk at Shiro, one such establishment, a staffer explained that "We have orders from the management to only allow husband and wife-type couples. We have to go by what we're told."
Being gay isn't technically a crime in India, but it is illegal to engage in "carnal intercourse against the order of nature," according to Section 377, a controversial part of India's penal code that specifically lists anal and oral sex. This colonial-era law was reinstated by India's top court in 2013, and threatens up to 10 years in jail for those who breach it. Unsurprisingly, it was poorly received by India's LGBTQ community, as well as large numbers of the country's young heterosexual people.
She used my being gay to extort money.
The push-and-pull between India's deeply entrenched homophobia and the more liberal attitudes of the country's rapidly modernizing youth has seen the rise of independent LGBTQ events such as parties, mixers, film festivals, and poetry readings. Here, the community can engage with each other freely in spaces they know will accept and embrace them.
Although there are no exclusively gay bars or clubs in India yet, most straight bars in metropolitan cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and Chennai regularly host gay nights. Websites and groups such as Gay Bombay, Salvation, and Gaysie Family are amongst the top online resources involved in both organizing and promoting queer friendly events, as these remain some of the few "legal" ways for the gay community to interact with each other in the open.
"The dynamics of gay nightlife in India are changing; [the scene] is much more vibrant now," says Shyam Konnur, an LGBTQ activist and event planner who regularly organizes queer parties in Pune and Bangalore. Konnur says he easily sees a turnout of 100 to 150 people, with at least 80 new faces at each event. The figure is even higher in larger cities such as Mumbai and Delhi.
Gaysie Family, a website dedicated to the LGBTQ community, has been hosting Open Mic events since 2012 and welcomes up to 400 people at a time. "With every event, about 15-20 percent of [attendees are] first timers," says Anuja Parikh, a member of the Gaysie Family. She adds that LGBTQ parties are no longer hosted underground, and most of their events are set up at mainstream venues that also attract heretosexual crowds.
But to Sridhar Rangayan, a filmmaker whose work has highlighted queer issues, there still isn't enough visibility when it comes to LGBTQ events. "Despite the huge gay clientele that come to these parties, the community and the party circuit are still very invisible," he says. "If you are new to the city, you wouldn't know [the scene] even exists. It all depends on how connected you are." This is because most of LGBTQ events cannot be advertised openly due to the fear of being misinterpreted as dating events. Invites are therefore usually word of mouth or shared through closed Facebook groups.
Konnur says dating apps such as Grindr, Planet Romeo and Gaydar are some other platforms used to send out invites. "We usually write to the team at the app and inform them that we are holding a party," he explains. "They are always cooperative, and users almost immediately get a notification about a party happening at a certain location when they open the app."
My parents would be absolutely crushed if they found out.
However, despite the secretive nature of the invites, those with an agenda against the LGBTQ community still find a way in to cause harm, says Konnur. Users have reported being blackmailed or harassed online by people who join the app in order to extort money by threatening to out them to their family or their place of work.
Akanksha, 22, experienced this firsthand."I was on this dating site called One Scene for a while, until I met this girl who pretended to be interested in going out with me... but turned out to be a close family friend who just wanted to use my being gay to extort money," she says. Akanksha eventually paid up when the woman threatened to tell her family about her sexual orientation. "I mean, I don't think my parents even fully understand what it means to be gay," she continues. "They'd be absolutely crushed if they found out." Akanksha now goes by a different online name to protect her identity, and meets potential dates at mixers or private parties instead.
Konnur has received death threats from people with strong links to political leaders in the area, who demand the events are shut down. What's more, "I often get calls from people asking me if these events are safe, or if there is a chance they'd be attacked," he says. "I have to constantly reassure them that they are just [empty] threats."
Rangayan, who has held many of his film screenings in colleges across India, says the situation is especially complicated in smaller Indian cities, where people often have two Facebook accounts—or assume a different name when attending a LGBTQ event. "The way people perceive homosexuality is complex. It's not violently homophobic, [but] there is this irrational fear that the LGBTQ community will somehow turn their sons and daughters queer," Rangayan says. "Ultimately, everything in India comes back to the family. If we were able to swing that, and convince [the older generations] to be accepting, that would change things drastically.
"And this acceptance should go beyond the household," he adds. "They need to be able be able to tell their neighbors and friends and extended family that their son or daughter is gay. The shame needs to end."
Harish Iyer, a prominent LGBTQ activist, suspects that much of India's homophobia has to do with the emphasis Indian society places on procreation. "Indian folklore is filled with myths," he says. "There's too much stress on keeping the genetic marker of the gene pool alive, generation after generation."
And yet, throughout the ancient Hindu and Vedic texts there are several instances of same-sex depictions and unions by gods and goddesses. Alternative sexuality formed an inalienable part of the Indian society. For a society that places so much emphasis on spirituality and tradition, its current homophobic cultural attitudes appear to defy its own history.
We need to create more understanding.
This attitude is most visible when it comes to trans people. Although India does legally recognize "Hijras"—a term used to refer to transgender individuals who were assigned male at birth—as a third gender, the trans community feel unwelcome, even within the LGBTQ community. It's not uncommon for LGBTQ party organizers to put up notices with messages such as, "No femmes, drags, or sissies allowed."
"Most of the trans community finds it much more challenging to access public spaces, including gay parties," explains Rangayan. "There are instances where even cinemas and malls turn them away [for no reason.]" This mirrors the general hostility experienced by the trans population in the country: According to a recent survey, more than 55 percent of Indians believe that the trans community is "violating the traditions of the Indian culture," while 49 percent of go as far to say they are "committing a sin."
Also largely absent from the gay social scene are lesbian women, who often choose not to attend. Since a majority of the public events are open to everyone, including the heterosexual crowd, most women attending these parties are straight and simply there because they feel comfortable in the company of gay men. This is an obvious deal breaker for women looking to meet other women, who now only show up at private house parties. "I don't go to most open LGBTQ events because they largely cater to gay men or straight women looking to have a good time without being hit on," says Akanksha. "I've met almost each one of my exes at a friend's party or online. It's disappointing to see one portion of the community getting so much attention while lesbian women are just ignored."
Parikh says Gaysie recognizes the problem and is trying to change it by organizing gatherings just for the lesbian and trans members. "Women are more shy and are more comfortable in spaces where they are not outnumbered by their male counterparts. And this fact has been made even more evident after we started hosting LBT parties," she explains, having received tremendous feedback from guests who have all previously been disappointed with the lack of LBT-targeted events in the country.
With annual Pride parades organized in all major cities of the country and several queer events now hosted within public spaces, the community feels less marginalized than before on the whole. But, says Rangayan, "I don't see [the communities or LGBTQ events] breaking barriers or getting mainstream attention. We don't have a judiciary that is listening to us. We need to break the ice with government and create more understanding.
"That can only happen if there are enough of us are out there, unashamed, saying: 'We exist.'"
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