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In A Gay Bar For The First Time At The Age Of 31, I Felt Complete Liberation

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By Pat:

“And this is our local digs”, said Stephen, turning inside a glass fronted shop, narrow and long, with a profusion of potted plants; “This is where us homos come to cheer our favourite Footie players.” Stephen was being butch referring to the hyper masculine game of Australian Rules football, where hunky and drop-dead-gorgeous players wear a sexy and scant ensemble. I had cycled straight from the Uni, all the way to that den of inequity, Fortitude Valley, for my second official date, and my first with an Australian. I think it was one of those places on Brunswick Street, but can’t remember the name. I was thirty-one and like a babe in the gay woods, felt lost.

  (Image: Couple hug, Artist: Raphael Perez)

I had had my first ever date the week before with Yasushi, whom I had thought to be an extraordinarily beautiful man. I had burst into tears after being kissed and embraced by him at his house. The evening before this day, Yasushi had asked me to meet him outside the main post-office so that we could check each other out. I remember him, sitting on a bench, reading a book, in a tee and shorts. He was probably the only Japanese guy around, so it was not difficult to spot him. Two things I noticed, and remember: cascades of glossy hair and bee-stung red lips. He was tall, toned and had that glorious golden hue that many Japanese people have. “Come in the afternoon, my flatmate will be away,” he said.

So I had taken the ferry and walked the rest of the way. And then, we were alone in the hall of his house and all I could do was stare at Yasushi, drinking him in from afar.

“Is this your first time?”

I remember shaking. Not the shivering we get when we are cold, but a deeper, painful tremor of tiny pulses in the abdomen and the hams. I did not have a straight answer to the question. It was my first date, sure, but it was not the first time I was going to have sex with a guy.

I had lived in a hostel for four years and we would have sex very frequently indeed, sometimes with my roommate in the next bed, sometimes with the lad in the next room. Sometimes, boys would pop in for room service. All for a lark, and raging hormones, of course. This was pre-internet so one didn’t really know the mechanics of gay sex. I doubt if we even knew the word gay. None of us connected the sex with being gay. I didn’t. But I knew I liked looking at boys, I liked imagining being held by a boy.  I discovered that I liked kissing and nuzzling into my bed-mate after our orgasmic highs. But did not have the vocabulary to slot it. That came four years later. But that’s another story. I don’t think we were anything more than rank amateurs at lovemaking. We  tried, fumbled, failed and learnt. It was in Australia that I realized how much I had fumbled and how little I had learnt.

Since I was 21, I had imagined about loving men and had told myself that it was idiotic to expect another man to feel likewise. Sex, yes, but to feel all this roiling in the stomach, needle pricks in the heart? The emotions that I felt disturbed me. I had not yet figured out that gayness was a way of being; getting hardons was not the problem; adolescents get used to it, right from the ritual of the morning wood to the stiffening at every whiff, sight, touch and thought of the sensuous.

My problem was the thudding of the heart on seeing Tushi smile at me in the hostel staircase with his gold-flecked green eyes; or dissolving into a puddle when shaggy-haired, manga-faced Panjo crept stealthily from behind and folded me in his arms and gave a loud kiss just below the ear – his delightful habit. Or, on realizing that when I closed my eyes, I could remember Vinod Khanna’s dimpled chin and Tom Alter’s spare body and nothing of Parveen Babi or Abha Dhulia. I could not explain all this. And for a very long time, I thought I was possibly the only person who was created thus – a man who not only desired other men sexually but who also dreamt of being romantically involved with some of them, living together perhaps; cooking together, playing badminton and cricket, going trekking and cycling and long walks, and….and maybe keeping two Labradors…

And now here I was, all of thirty-one, already one year over-the-hill from the moment Brian Kinney first felt himself to be mortal – here I was, experiencing male erotic tenderness for the first time. And I told myself, O what a wonderful world!

 (Image: Two Men Hugging, Artist Raphael Perez)

Yasushi had pulled me gently, and embraced my shaking body and kissed me. And it had felt wonderful. I had realized for the first time since adolescence what it meant to hold a man, to feel his body, to savour his fragrance. And to realize Yasushi’s willingness – he wanted to hold me, he wanted to crush his lips on mine; he wanted to be tender, he savoured my being – the man I was, just the way I was. That is when I had started sobbing. I shall remember that till Alzheimer’s claims me, and if I had to share the experience with you all, a good approximation would be this YouTube of that little girl Lily, who is told that they were all going to Disneyland. I had cried that day in Yasushi’s arms out of happiness – sharp pangs of happiness; and out of relief that it was possible for me to feel tenderness and yet not feel my shoulders weigh down in heaviness.

The bar had a few people. Stephen and I had a beer each and promised to return later in the evening. I had been to a few bars in India. They were raucous and had bad music. I preferred going to restaurants instead back home. When we returned I was perhaps in an odd frame of mind – several times within a week I had experienced intimacy that was somehow different from the nocturnal hostel romps. I had already had one moment of epiphany when I realised that it was not just I who felt loved and cared for in another man’s arms; the other guy too felt the same. I was not alone to feel this kind of love.

This time the bar was busy and I remember sitting at one end of the very long island inside which were the bartenders, being rude and jokey, all at once, like any other Aussie male between the ages 18 and 40. I sat for hours, Stephen had gone home, he had an early lecture, but I sat nursing my intermittent VB, looking at the boys and men, eyes roaming in wonderment at all the beauty of limbs and face, of carriage and voice. But my eyes would mostly linger at couples kissing; at pairs, all arms and legs, entwined, lost to the world around, and no one gave a damn. There was serious fondling too if one looked carefully. Yet no one looked, no one seemed to be all worked up over this re-enactment of Sodom and Gomorrah.

There was laughter and good cheer. Shouts came from the groups bunched around large TV screens showing different things – horse racing, footie, gay TV shows and news. Random men would ‘how.are.ya.mate’ me, and typically, not linger to hear my reply. Some would pat and brush my shoulders. I cry at the drop of a hat, sometimes even before it touches the floor. That night too, I wept, to myself, within myself. I had never experienced something so beautiful, so liberating. Yet I wept acid tears, and a sense of deep loss overwhelmed me. Why had I not experienced this back home? Could I not have been like that lad, kissing and laughing with my boyfriend, hands clasped, pissing smartass at the bartender? Could I not have been that young man sitting on the floor between the legs of his lover, playing checkers with his friends?

(Image: Sauna Bar, Artist: Touko Laaksonen aka Tom of Finland)

Since all those years, life has taken me traveling, far from the small town I called home till I was 15. I have been to the Christopher Street bars in New York’s gay quarter a number of times. And to Minneapolis’ gay bars, and to San Francisco’s gay streets, to Chicago and Boston. Some places I have felt welcomed, other places, ignored. One place even glowered at. I guess not all gay bars are like home to every gay man. But I can imagine that those that are like home must be precious islands to that community. Perhaps Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, was also home to some gay men. Some of whom would have died that night, their haven destroyed forever by hate.

There are bars in Mumbai that serve gay clientele on certain days. The last time I went to one was in 2006. Perhaps some of these are havens too. What is certain though is that life of a gay lad in Mumbai is qualitatively different now. A thriving community exists where gay men and women seek all manner of sustenance, from the instant to the long-term, from the vanilla to the kinky. YouTube abounds with gay-themed films, with coming-out sagas, documentaries of abandonment and violence, celebrations of marriages and adoptions.

In a roomful of students and trainees, I am reminded that despite the utter invalidation that Section 377 had imposed on gay men until recently, despite the perfunctory debates on sexuality in the media, despite the vaudevillesque depiction of gay men in mainstream films, one is yet to hear of gay-bashing in high schools and colleges in India. That is remarkable. Often, looking at the heads bowed in concentration over their projects, I try my gaydar and imagine which of them has questions like I had at their age? Which of them is out to their friends? Looking at the youngsters nowadays, one wouldn’t be surprised if their friends rib them good-naturedly over distractingly handsome jocks. For those who still secretly worry and burn, I wish I could reach their hearts and tell them it will all be alright.

The author is a consultant, an academic and a mentor.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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