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It was Sunday. We were lazing over a delectable lunch at a Manipuri eatery in south Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave, discussing life, love and career. Then, my friend, a 28-year-old assistant professor at a Delhi University college, said something that would stay with me: “I’m in self-imposed exile."

On my way back to Delhi University’s north campus, where I lived, I tried to make sense of his statement. Having known him over the years as a gay man from a small town in the North-East, oscillating between a “straight" self in Manipur and his gay self in Delhi, I found the word “exile" apt. For gay and bisexual men from small towns who flock to urban centres for higher education or employment opportunities, the city has much to offer. But, as my friend suggested, this also comes at a cost—an exile from one’s roots in an alienating city.

“When I first came to Delhi, I was clueless about my sexual identity. (But) the city brings anonymity. You are not living under the suspicious eyes of parents or relatives," a Delhi University postgraduate student, who hails from a small town in Manipur, told me. “YouTube channels on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues helped me a lot in accepting myself."

The 22-year-old is among a growing number of young people who are vocal about their sexual identity. In November, he participated in the eighth Delhi Queer Pride Parade. “It was my first public gay event. And I am glad I didn’t wear a mask,’’ he says. Earlier iterations of the Pride march would be awash in masks; the phenomenon gradually declined after the decriminalization of homosexuality by the Delhi high court in 2009—a judgement that was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court four years later.

Today, there are gay dating apps that enable easy sociability for gay and bisexual men. But navigating the online dating scene often poses many hurdles. “Platforms like Grindr and PlanetRomeo come with their own sets of biases and prejudices. There is rampant transphobia, body shaming, racism and caste bigotry displayed by various users on these apps,’’ says a 37-year-old assistant professor at a Delhi University college, who hails from a small village in Rajasthan.

Delhi’s LGBT movement, like that of many major cities in India and, indeed, globally, has been criticized for its lack of critical engagement with questions of caste and class, among other things. For the first time ever, 2015 saw a public articulation of caste in the Delhi Queer Pride Parade. A gay man and a Dalit, the assistant professor had hailed the “coming out" of three young Dalit queer individuals, Akhil Kang, Dhiren Borisa, and Dhrubo Jyoti, at Pride. “Our pride is incomplete without acknowledging and celebrating our caste identity as Dalit queer individuals,’’ they had said. The first Telangana Pride March that took place last year also made a point of drawing a connection between the anti-caste and queer movements—it was flagged off by Dalit rights activist Kancha Ilaiah and led by members of the local hijra community.

Splitting his time between his village and Delhi, the assistant professor says life in the big city has been both a boon and a curse. “It is better than what it could have been if I had stayed in the village. But at the same time, you feel a sense of rootlessness. And living in semi-closets is never fully liberating and freeing. The bigger anxiety is of what will become of us in old age, especially living away from family and with no children or spouse," he says.

Then there are those who don’t even have the privilege of a closet—their gender expression being different from the gender they were assigned at birth. Anuj, who comes from a small village in Uttar Pradesh’s Raebareli district, works as an assistant at a fashion outlet in west Delhi. “For me, it’s always a challenge negotiating my gender and sexual identity. My effeminacy puts me under a scanner," he says.

“Before the Naz verdict (the 2009 Delhi high court judgement on section 377), there were only occasional talk shows on TV, but hardly any print coverage on LGBT issues. Even when the Pushkin Chandra murder case came to light in 2004, the discussion was mostly restricted to the murder and not the homophobia behind it. Pushkin was a gay man after all,’’ says Himadri Roy, associate professor at the School of Gender and Development Studies, Indira Gandhi National Open University.

Chandra, the son of a retired IAS officer, and his friend Kuldeep were killed on the night of 13 August, 2004, at Chandra’s residence in south Delhi. The case, predictably, made headlines, but a lot of the coverage was sensationalist. His killers were sentenced in 2010.

“After 2009, the discourse in the media changed. It helped create conversations about LGBT people in middle-class households," Roy notes.

In recent years, the English language media has accorded visibility to the concerns of the LGBT community, but social attitudes, especially in smaller metros and towns, are hard to change, and the current government has made its disapproval of homosexuality clear. Such an environment does necessitate self-imposed exiles.

Rafiul Alom Rahman, a student equal rights activist, is currently a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin.

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