Bangalore: Every Sunday, half a dozen gay men run in the city’s Cubbon Park. Later, more join in as the group meets for idlis, vadas and coffee at the old-world Airlines Hotel. They call themselves the Gay Running and Breakfast (GRAB) club—though for many it is really “grab minus the running”, quips co-founder Arvind Narrain.
Thursdays, meanwhile, bring together a group of information technology (IT) professionals, lawyers, doctors, artists and others under the umbrella, Good As You (yes, that stands for GAY). They put out newsletters and offer a social platform for gays to interact and share experiences.
Among the city’s growing expatriate population, there is a lesbian club. Private gay parties are common at pubs and restaurants across the city, where same-sex couples can freely kiss and hold hands.
Legal tussle: GRAB co-founder Arvind Narrain. Earlier this week, the Delhi high court directed the Union government to figure out its stance on homosexuality; the home ministry favours punishment (and that is the current law), while the health ministry is against enforcing this law for issues related to health monitoring. (Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint)
In mid-July, the Indian franchise of London-based TimeOut magazine plans to launch in Bangalore and include a section with gay- and lesbian-specific content and listings, as it has done in Mumbai and New Delhi.
All this is playing out here even as India debates its attitudes—and laws—towards homosexuality. Earlier this week, the Delhi high court directed the Union government to figure out its stance on homosexuality; the ministry of home affairs favours prosecution (homosexuality is punishable under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code), while the health ministry is against enforcing this law for issues related to health monitoring.
But, cities such as Bangalore are showing no such quandary: Over the last few years, a gay scene has emerged and entered the mainstream here.
“I was astonished at the gay scene in Bangalore,” says Naresh Fernandes, editor-in-chief of TimeOut, which also provides weekly event listings for Mint. “My activist friends tell me there is a level of openness hitherto never seen in any city in the subcontinent. Going by anecdotal evidence, Bangalore may very well be the gay capital of India.”
A younger and more cosmopolitan workforce—often away from family and relatives who might recognize them—has been the main catalyst. Institutionally, the movement has gained recognition from multinational companies. Spurred by home office policies, companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and International Business Machines Corp. have non-discriminatory policies in place, and include sexual orientation.
“IT and globalization is an obvious suspect here,” says Raj Ayyar, the US-based columnist at Gaytoday.com who frequently visits Bangalore. “Many IT companies...have very progressive policies when it comes to their LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) employees. Even if they are somewhat watered down in their application by Indian bosses, these policies cannot be flagrantly violated.”
Indeed, India’s acceptance of gays is nowhere near Europe or the US—last week, California legalized same-sex marriage—and homosexuality remains a criminal act here. And so, anonymity and double meanings remain. At some bars, the advertised “ladies’ nights” transmute into a lesbians’ night. The three columnists at TimeOut will all write under pseudonyms.
For many gays in the city, GAY has been a stepping stone. Apart from organizing film festivals with LGBT content and bringing out a newsletter called Sangha Mitra, the group members have gone on to set up other non-profits—Swabhava has counselling services and a helpline for the sizeable LGBT population, while Sangama works exclusively with non-English-speaking sexual minorities, including lesbians, gays, female to male transgender, hijras (male to female transsexuals) and kotis (feminine men). About a dozen such support groups have sprung up in the city.
Observers say, Bangalore’s large migrant population feels increasingly free to follow their sexual orientation. In a city where relations between locals and newcomers are often strained, gay organizations in Bangalore report much cooperation between the two. While the outsourcing hub of Gurgaon can say the same (and gay parties in its farmhouses are also popular), activists note Bangalore has a close-knit group of activists and professionals, locals and transplants.
“I came to Bangalore three years back with my partner from Tamil Nadu. We’ve been happily living together since then,” says a lesbian resident, who requested anonymity.
The city is serving as a safe haven for sexual minorities from the neighbouring states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Scores of lesbians from Kerala have fled their homes to escape violent parents and heterosexual marriages they were forced into.
“We offer psycho-social support to as many as 6,500 people in a year,” explains Rex Watts, executive director at Sangama, who describes himself as a koti. The non-profit also spawned a support group just for lesbians, Lesbit. Lesbit consists of eloped lovers, female to male transgenders, and those who find it difficult to find jobs. These women are in their 20s and 30s, and meet every Sunday.
Bangalore is special, insists Shekhar P. Seshadri, a child psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, or Nimhans. Here, he points out, there is collaboration among non-profits, professionals and activists. Seshadri helped train and set up the telephone helplines for Swabhava and Sangama. “Coming out is an easier process today, thanks to the increased advocacy, support groups and affirmative attention given to homosexuality in medicine, civil rights and mental health,” he says.
One 19-year-old, who lives in southwest Bangalore and has come out to his parents and his friends, says: “The scene has changed now. More and more men are coming out of the closet, recognizing and realizing what they are.” But he still declined to give his name, saying overall societal acceptance remains elusive.
Seshadri cites parents who want to “cure” their children.
Vinay Chandran, executive director of Swabhava, says: “The primary concern in parents’ minds is still, ‘What will the world think?’”
The advocacy groups rely on all kinds of evidence to make their case. For instance, from Hindu mythology: Ayyappa is the son of Shiv and Vishnu. From the 15th century Krittivasi Ramayan: “Children of two wombs” are believed to be born to two women.
In Bangalore, activists point to relationships that have lasted three decades or more, and to the frequency with which more couples are committing to each other by exchanging garlands in a temple or with friends as witnesses.
“My partner and I have been together for five years now. All my close friends and my parents know and accept my partner. Holding hands is no problem, but if I want to get my partner a club membership, I can’t say he is my partner. I have to say he is my roommate,” says Mahesh Iyer. He works with a small British consulting firm, and is a member of the company’s global diversity team.
Despite more social outlets for gays to meet each other, anecdotal evidence suggests that random sexual encounters are rampant—and dangerous.
A cursory look at gay networking websites in India, such as www.guys4men.com, reveals hairy-bodied men soliciting sex with strangers.
“The situation in India is worse than what happened in New York in the 1980s,” says Ashok Row Kavi, referring to the era when unprotected, promiscuous, and often anonymous, sex helped spread the AIDS virus. Row Kavi is a prominent AIDS activist, who also consults with UNAIDS, the joint United Nations programme on HIV/AIDS.
A significant number of people on these websites are married men thus, once infected, they will spread the infection to their heterosexual partner as well, Row Kavi adds.
The HIV infection rate among gays in Bangalore is an appalling 19%, according to a report from the National AIDS Control Organisation and the National Institute of Health and Family Welfare.
Row Kavi calls the statistic one of “hyper-epidemic levels. Anything above 5% is extremely dangerous.”