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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  The party must go on

The party must go on

Gay nightlife thrives in India's metros despite widespread prejudice against the community

A nightclub scene. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/MintPremium
A nightclub scene. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Balachandran Ramiah, a 51-year-old management consultant at a financial services group, received several calls last Sunday, wondering if the 18 June party was still on. Some voices—tinged with fear—asked if it would be safe to attend it. Ramiah is a core member of Gay Bombay, one of the city’s longest-running gay support groups, which has been organizing parties in different Mumbai clubs since 2000. On two Saturdays each month, they organize parties in clubs that are open to all members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) communities—today, their party will be held in a suburban club, and they plan to hold a candlelight vigil on the venue’s terrace to mark their solidarity with the victims of the 12 June massacre in the US. They are calling it the “We Will Survive" party.

Ramiah, who was invited by the Centre for Cultural Studies of the University of Kerala earlier this week to talk to researchers about the challenges faced by LGBTIQ persons, said: “I received so many calls from youngsters—the first thing that struck them was that it was a situation they could have been in on a Saturday night. They voiced their concerns, and we reassured them that our top priority is their safety. I understand what they’re feeling. Who would expect to be massacred while partying on a Saturday night?"

Early morning on 12 June, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American, opened fire inside a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Forty-nine LGBT people were killed and 53 injured after Mateen, who was eventually killed by law enforcement officers, opened fire using a rifle and a handgun, and took people hostage in the nightclub.

“We don’t want the community to cow down in fear that something like this can happen. We want things to continue as before, but we will step up our precautions," says Ramiah.

Gay parties held in nightclubs and bars are not new to India’s metropolitan cities, and over the past decade, several party organizers have mushroomed in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, among other cities. Mumbai, at present, has a handful of LGBT party organizers other than Gay Bombay, such as Rage-by D’kloset and Salvation Star. Parties are also organized especially for lesbian, bisexual women, and transmen and transwomen (LBT). Gaysi, an online queer resource group and media company, recently held one such do; since August, Salvation Starlets (a branch of Salvation Star) has held three. In Bengaluru, LBT community members have, in the past, attended Lavender Nights parties. To avoid a clash of dates, Mumbai’s gay party organizers divide the weekends between themselves. They also hold weekday parties, each on different days of the week. A lounge in Mumbai’s Opera House area has been a venue for Gay Bombay’s parties from the start—and since 2008, when Mumbai began holding a Pride parade, the post-Pride party held here has been a fixture in the calendar of festivities, and is attended by up to 1,000 people. Voodoo in Colaba, where Led Zeppelin held an impromptu performance in 1972 (the club was then called Slip Disc), was a popular place for gay parties in the 1990s.

For Javed Murad, founder of The White Owl Brewery in Mumbai’s Lower Parel area, one of the regular venues for LGBT weekend parties, hosting them at his venue is “nothing revolutionary". “We in the restaurant business cater to multiple tastes. The diversity of the group, in many ways, is inconsequential. What matters is a good business proposition—the guests belong to the socio-economic group we cater to, there aren’t any illegal activities happening, like drug consumption or underage drinking, and a good number of people are guaranteed to attend."

According to Salvation Star co-founder Nakul, this sort of attitude from venue hosts is new, and welcome. When Nakul (who wished to be identified by his first name) co-founded his outfit eight years ago, not many bar or restaurant owners were open to the idea of holding a party with LGBT people. “It has become easier, at least in Bombay, to hold a party for the community. Earlier, our parties would happen in not so well-known venues, in not so well-known suburbs, because good venues were difficult to come by," he says. Inder Vhatwar, who began organizing parties in 2012 under the banner of his boutique Rage-by D’kloset, approached several five-star hotels in an effort to hire their clubs for LGBT parties. Several refused point-blank, says Vhatwar. Eventually, one hotel located in the Bandra-Kurla Complex agreed. Today, Vhatwar holds regular weekend parties in the bar of another five-star hotel in south Mumbai, besides the suburban hotel. The cost of admission is higher (the cover charge on a weekend night is 1,000), but Vhatwar says the security provided in a five-star hotel trumps all his concerns. The safer the guest feels, the better it is, he says.

New Delhi-based party organizer Manish Sharma, who runs the outfit BoyZone Delhi, has a database of around 1,500 invitees and only adds new persons to it after he has interacted with them. Sharma has been organizing parties in Delhi clubs since 2009. “We have to be really careful, because the safety of the people who attend our parties is in our hands."

It’s easy to understand the anxiety of party organizers. Gay parties in nightclubs and restaurants may be more common today than they were a decade ago, but the context in which they are organized hasn’t changed drastically. Homophobia is rife, and Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC)—which criminalizes all forms of intercourse that are not penile-vaginal—makes the LGBTIQ community “unapprehended felons", to borrow a phrase from chief justice A.P Shah’s Delhi high court judgement, which had read down the section in 2009 to exclude consensual acts. The apex court reinstated the provision in the IPC in 2013. According to data collected by Project Pehchan, a consortium that works to strengthen community institutions for HIV/AIDS prevention, 1,319 cases of hate crimes against LGBT persons have been documented in the past five years, including cases of sexual harassment, extortion, blackmail and abuse.

Sometimes, the police have also stopped parties for LGBT people. In 2011, it detained 133 people on the charge of “indecent behaviour", acting on a complaint against a party in a bungalow in Andheri, a western suburb of Mumbai. The party organizers were also booked for not possessing the requisite licence to serve liquor. On 28 January 2012, a group of policemen sought to stop a pre-Pride fund-raiser party in a nightclub in Andheri, based on a complaint that the party was encouraging acts of indecency. According to a news report published in city tabloid Mid-Day, the complainant, Haji Ahmed Sahab, who claimed to belong to the Rashtriya Ulama Council, accompanied the police and took videos on his phone, threatening to expose the attendees to the media. Though the police did not book anyone, activists from The Humsafar Trust, including Vivek Anand and Pallav Patankar, visited the Oshiwara police station to register their protest after the incident. In 2013, policemen raided a private party at a bungalow on Madh Island and charged 22 attendees under various sections of the Bombay Police Act, including obscenity, according to a news report published in The Indian Express. In 2013, there was a police raid in Hyderabad’s Country Club. However, no one was arrested.

“These back-to-back raids dampened business and the first casualty were trans people and hijras. I was told not to invite them," says Vhatwar. This was a concern that Gay Bombay faced too. “We took a conscious decision to not hold parties in venues that didn’t allow cross-dressers," says Vhatwar.

New Delhi-based Zeeshan, a 23-year-old resident of a lower middle-class colony with a predominant Muslim population, is no stranger to the need for anonymity. The student of fine arts, who only wished to be identified by his first name, says, “I have spent my life acting straight, and don’t want people to know that I am anything otherwise." Zeeshan attributes this culture of silence in part to his upbringing. “Islam is important to me. I grew up with these rites and rituals like any other religious family in India, long before I realized who I am (in terms of sexuality). When I met other gay men, some of whom are Muslim, I came to realize the attitude in Islam about homosexuality is that it is dirty and unnatural. But my feelings feel very natural. How can they call it unnatural? I’ve also grappled with these questions, and I don’t know how to resolve it."

For Zeeshan, who loves to dance (“Bollywood, contemporary, ballet, call it freestyle"), a gay party is the only place where he has been able to indulge. “I’ve attended so many parties—my cousins’ weddings, house parties—but the way I have enjoyed myself at a gay party is nothing like I have felt before. I am not worried who is watching me and all my favourite songs are played. These are people like me. The time I have spent among strangers is when I have felt most comfortable. It’s so easy to be myself here."

Yet Zeeshan has only attended three parties in a nightclub so far—his elder brother and father do not permit him to spend a night away from home. The last time he attended a party, held in a club in Delhi’s Greater Kailash, he told his family that he was attending a function at a friend’s house. He was almost caught out, and he decided that the next time around, he would tell his family where he was going. That was four years ago. “I haven’t picked up the courage to tell them the truth about myself yet. They will not understand."

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Published: 17 Jun 2016, 11:07 AM IST
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