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Priya (left) and Anuja Parikh of the Gaysi Family. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Priya (left) and Anuja Parikh of the Gaysi Family. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Social Network: An evening in gay Maharashtra

Pub, beer, stage, open michow a Mumbai-based events company is bringing queer spaces overground

“There’s a kid sitting somewhere out there who needs to be told that it’s okay (to be gay); that there are spaces where he can feel safe." This line from an hour-long interview with members of the Gaysi Family, organizers of the open-mic night Dirty Talk, sums up their raison d’etre.

Started in November 2008 as an online blog, Gaysi was the brainchild of two women—one based in Mumbai, the other in London. It sought to become an online community for lesbian, bisexual and transgender Indians. Mumbai-based MJ—she prefers to use this rather than her name since she is not out to her entire family about her sexuality—now runs the show with two other Mumbai-based women. All three are in their early 30s, working professionals who aren’t afraid to spend their money to fund their ventures.

In the past six years, they have launched a biannual open-mic event, and a magazine called, rather straightforwardly, The Gaysi Zine. Most recently, they launched a production house that makes videos, including an iteration of Will Pharrell’s Happy with youngsters from the LGBT community in Mumbai.

They divide the tasks among themselves. Friends pitch in with ideas for acts and videos. Even the talented designer of the zine doesn’t charge them.

A scene from The Dirty Talk hosted by stnad-up comic Aditi Mittal on 13 September
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A scene from The Dirty Talk hosted by stnad-up comic Aditi Mittal on 13 September

“We realistically thought that about 60-70 people would attend the event," Parikh says of the first open mic that was held on 25 January 2012 at The Big Nasty, a popular diner and pub in Bandra. Over 150 people showed up, including actor Imran Khan. The second event in September 2012, held at The Little Door in Andheri, had around 230 attendees. The seventh event at a posh Lower Parel, fine-dining restaurant and pub Tilt All Day, held on 13 September after the Supreme Court decided to uphold Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, attracted 353 people.

The idea of not separating queer space from popular hangouts worked: Section 377 or not, each open-mic event has been greeted with enthusiasm by youngsters, who often bring their straight friends or colleagues along for a fun night out. Rather astutely, Parikh and MJ also began reaching out to comedians and singers popular among Mumbai’s hipster audiences: All India Bakchod, East India Comedy, Aditi Mittal, indie musician Siddharth Basrur, stage actor Jim Sarbh and Bollywood outré Kalki Koechlin, among others.

Convincing the venue owners was difficult initially. In 2009, Section 377 had been read down to not apply to consenting adults. But a few venues that the organizers approached for the first couple of open-mic events refused to host a “gay event". Some said it in as many words, others made excuses or quoted exorbitant sums to reserve the space. “Clearly they didn’t know what queer even means," says Parikh.

Section 377 or not, each open-mic event has been greeted with enthusiasm by youngsters, who often bring their straight friends or colleagues along for a fun night out

Before almost every Dirty Talk event, the Gaysi team receives calls from youngsters asking questions such as, “I’m still in the closet, can I still come for the event? Will there be a lot of press?" Others like 26-year-old RI, the Mumbai-based owner of a media marketing firm, reveal an unwillingness to occupy spaces that are all-LGBT in the first place. She says that she “likes the sound of an event like Dirty Talk". “I want to go to a place where I can hang out with people like me, who are not necessarily people with the same sexual orientation. I want to go to a place that is safe, fun and relaxed, where even my straight friends can come along."

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A scene from The Dirty Talk

Shobhna S. Kumar, co-founder of the online book store Queer Ink that was started to give LGBT youth access to queer literature, recognized this need too. She began organizing regular events two months ago to develop “physical, ideological and social spaces within the mainstream" for LGBT communities to express themselves creatively via performance, facilitating learning and entrepreneurship.

Called QFest, the second edition was held on 9 November at The Hive in Bandra, and had a comic-book scripting workshop, dramatic readings of Saadat Hasan Manto’s works, plays and film appreciation sessions. “These events give people from the LGBT community a space in which they can be their authentic selves," says Kumar.

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A scene from The Dirty Talk

The Rainbow Voices, India’s first queer choir, was launched at the most recent Dirty Talk. Started by Vinodh Philip and Sibi Mathen with the help of Humsafar Trust, it aims to educate people about the queer community and bring them together for larger causes.

The Dirty Talk plans to host events in New Delhi and Bengaluru and make Read Out Loud a quarterly affair—at this literary event organized by the Gaysi Family, people read out any (largely queer) piece of literature, poems and letters, followed by informal discussions. Queer Ink’s QFest will soon be held monthly. The city can always do with some more fun.

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