As people are getting ready for New Year’s Eve shindigs, some bars, clubs and restaurants in India decided to debar gay couples.
A report by DNA revealed that among those taking this clearly homophobic stance were Shiro and Bar Stock Exchange in Mumbai, as well as many oft-frequented places in New Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village.
And there was no way this was just going to slide. Mumbai queer activist Harish Iyer got the conversation going on social media, resorting to some cool Munnabhai-gandhigiri-style action. He and “a group of peace loving fags” decided to offer ‘a queer rose’ for these ‘homophobic dosts’.
Many others began to speak about the ban on Facebook using the hashtag #GayWellSoon. And still others took to service reviewing apps like Zomato, to give these erring companies bad reviews and force them to rethink their policy. As a result, Shiro has been the first to change its stance, saying “[its] management decided that a man can be accompanied with a couple(s) or two men can enter with a lady.’
Shounak, a young media professional, had this to say: “I understand with [Section] 377 hanging over everyone’s head, companies might think it’s best to remain on the side of the law. But how would having non-discriminatory policies harm them?”
It might be easy to dismiss the whole thing – after all, there are so many other places a gay couple could go to. But a number of issues have been brought to light, and they need discussing.
I spoke to Sahil, a working professional from Delhi, about this. He says, “We had to deal with the law, we had to deal with family, workplace discrimination is still there. And now, after a long day of work, you want to go and grab some drinks and get some food, and you get told this?”
In 2013, the Supreme Court of India overturned an earlier judgement by the Delhi High Court, criminalizing non-procreative non-heterosexual sex with arguable finality. The homophobes had a field day, and it gave homophobia an institutional basis.
For Sonam Mittal, co-founder of The Spoilt Modern Indian Woman, the legal aspect of the decision by Shiro and Bar Stock Exchange were murky, and only raised more questions. “Is this a company policy across Bar Stock Exchange [outlets] in Bombay and Bangalore as well?” She asks. “Are they doing this in Shiro Kolkata, or just the Bombay one? I don’t know if this is personal prejudice translating into company policy, or a pressure from higher up. But in terms of human rights, it’s absolutely rubbish.”
Mittal also finds it unsettling that such a move could imply mechanisms that violate individual privacy. She says: “We have PAN cards and Aadhar cards – we don’t have our sexuality cards! Is this what they want? When they’re allowing people into their premises, the first thought they have is how these people are having sex? That’s very pervy.”
Something else that struck her was that the rule and subsequent discussions alike had focused overwhelmingly on gay men. “I’m not even sure the paper would have even approached [queer] women to find out what their experience are,“says Mittal. As she explains: “They always see women as potential victims, and men as potential rapists.”
And it’s precisely this outlook that is being used as a defence by bars like Shiro and others.
“No stag entry” signs hang outside several reputed bars and clubs in metropolitan India. Men are only allowed in if they’re accompanying a woman. Shiro and other places have gone one step further and banned men coming in pairs, but more specifically, men posing as gay so they can get in and cause trouble. It’s supposed to be a line of defence against those creeps who come to ruin your girls’ night out.
Mittal calls bullshit on this. “If they really care about the safety of women patrons inside their premises, then what security measures have they already taken? CCTV cameras, bouncers, waiting staff who are quick to act? I would rather not have this kind of ‘safety’ where another community – which is also marginalized – is made to suffer.”
Sahil says there’s something more insidious at work here: “They want feminist and queer activists to fight each other off for public spaces.” He adds, “That has been the regular operative method of patriarchy and misogyny. It offers to solve something without looking at the root cause of the problem, and it will fence people in or fence people out.”
Several people, Harish Iyer included, have argued that homophobic business are ultimately shooting themselves in the foot by losing out on ‘The Pink Rupee’. Many same-sex couples are double-income-no-kids, and have considerably more spending power, but these ideas are overwhelmingly American or European. Yes, some gay couples in India do have that lifestyle, and many more aspire to it, but social dynamics work out very differently when homosexuality is illegal.
“These couples are really brave,” says Raksha, who identifies as gray-ace. “According to the regressive [Section] 377, gay people should not exist and these folks are pretty much risking being reported.”
But for her, there’s a whole other issue coming to light as well. Places like Shiro require you to have a certain capital. But so do places that host ‘Gay Nights’ and ‘Gay Parties’.
“It is expensive to be gay,” says Raksha. And here’s where the Pink Rupee argument falls a little flat. These are “classy” joints – the preserve of metropolitan elites. Not necessarily the next battleground for a radical queer politics.
Article 15(2) of the Constitution prohibits establishments from turning away people on the grounds of “religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth,” but bars proudly declare their right to reserve admission, in polished steel plaques.
Recounts what happened in Mocambo (a high-end Kolkata restaurant that refused service to a woman’s driver for not being “properly dressed”), Shounak says “As long as we can’t have our privilege checked and/or stand in solidarity, these places just keep making business.”
As it turns out, money – and especially now after demonetisation – will not be the great leveller, after all.
“I think we should start boycotting places that still find it difficult to be inclusive,” continues Shounak. “What is the point of internet outrage if we can’t do something about this in real life?”
Mittal, however, says a boycott “requires a high level of engagement,” and is currently mulling over “something that has a lower ask, but still makes an impact.”
Something that often came up in my conversations with people was how our access to digital tools – made that much more apparent after demonetization – have simply been squandered. In the digital age, learning and understanding can now happen with a few taps on a smartphone. There is no dearth of resource material being created by and about the LGBTQ community. But the unwillingness to learn is exactly what leads to hurtful and discriminatory rules.
Raksha believes “orientation needs to be done at a widespread cultural level across the country.” As she remembers, “the day after the Supreme Court judgment, I heard two men saying women cannot have same-sex relationships, because they can’t have heteronormative Penis-in-Vagina sex.”
Perhaps the new year’s resolution that all of us should be making (and sticking to!) is to battle this lack of knowledge, and work towards a society that is respectful and dignified for all LGBTQ people.
And for all those who think why this fuss over a meal and that they can go somewhere else, it’s not about that. It’s about everyone’s right to live, breathe and love freely.