Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
"Space is power, right? We don't have a lot of it."
While the U.S. Supreme Court is still debating same-sex marriage, public opinion has already come down in its favor. For many, the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act last year ushered in a new chapter in the history of the LGBTQ-rights movement. In this new era, queer spaces—decades-old bars and iconic clubs—have been shutting shop, giving way to more integrated spaces, embedded into the urban mainstream.
But on the other side of the world, in India, such queer spaces exist in the shadows of the city—transient and shifting. And not everyone has equal access to them. “Our Stonewall movement has just started,” says the gay rights activist Mohnish Kabir Malhotra, referring to a 1969 uprising in New York City that became a symbol for the LGBTQ struggle around the world.
An Archaic Law and a Dearth of Queer Spaces
In India, homosexuality isn't a foreign concept—it's been referenced in ancient religious texts and decades-old literature. Still, it was re-criminalized last year: The Indian Indian Supreme Court reversed a 2009 lower court verdict, which had declared a roughly 150-year-old colonial-era law banning gay sex unconstitutional. Activists have since sought legal remedies, but it's unclear when their efforts will bear fruit (especially under a government with an ambivalent stance on the issue).
In the meantime, the law continues to be an excuse for blackmail, homophobic violence, and persecution of LGBTQ Indians. And because of these threats, queer spaces have largely existed in the private realm, or under camouflage.
“Your sexual identity is criminalized, so it sets in that paranoia," says Malhotra. “I think that once the law changes, India is pretty much ready for a permanent [queer] space.”
Malhotra has been at the forefront of the annual Queer Pride Parade in Delhi. He has also organized weekly LGBTQ parties for about six years in the city—first at the houses of friends, and then at bars where he has a rapport with the owner.
These “gay nights,” held once or twice a week at Delhi and Bombay watering holes, have been going on for years now, he says. The weekly soirees transform a visible, public space into an exclusive LGBTQ one for a small amount of time. (For the record, bathhouses and guesthouses targeting the queer community also exist, but they're more under-the-radar.)
But, as with all space in India, these gatherings suffer from social and economic inequalities.
For Those Who Identify as Women, Visible Queer Space Is Even Harder to Claim
Being a queer person who identifies as a woman in India comes with its own set of social pressures. Certain public spaces are already unsafe to women, and this is further complicated by a woman's queerness.
“Space is power, right? We don't have a lot of it,” says Amalina Davé, a queer feminist activist and scholar living in Delhi. “Public space is problematic when it comes to women. You find less and less queer females moving around in public spaces.”
Queer women in India have tried to find each other throughout Indian history, she says. But very few tangible records of these spaces exist, mainly out of concern for safety.
Davé is a part of a collective for queer women and transgender people called Qashti (Hindi for “boat”). She and her colleagues organize social events, discussions, and workshops centered around queer identity. One of the big struggles they encounter is finding alternative spaces that balance the need for visibility with the need for safety. Currently, queer Indians who identify as women use academic lectures on gender and sexuality, film screenings, theater and spoken-word performances as safe places to build community, she says.
For the Very Poor, It's Hard, Too
In India, all space is heavily segregated by economics—and this wealth disparity further restricts access to queer spaces. For example, the entry fee to one of Delhi's regular “gay nights” is 400 to 600 rupees ($7-10). Malhotra points out that this fee isn't exorbitant, and he's right—it's actually cheap compared with popular bars and clubs in South Delhi, where high entry fees serve as a velvet rope. It's also unavoidable given that organizers are dealing with business-oriented venues, he says.
But such fees may be prohibitive for those at the bottom of India's wealth ladder, who only make 400 rupees in a full day's work. That means low-income queer Indians—many of whom could really use this space to find information, resources, and community—may not be able to do partake in these events as readily as the well-to-do.
“There are things we need to tackle, such as recognizing our class privilege,” says Davé.
She clarifies that she doesn't mean that LGBTQ Indians aren't organizing at every level of society. (In a recent milestone, for example, a lower-caste transgender woman was voted the mayor of an Indian city—a win on many levels.) But going forward, India would benefit from a diversity of gay spaces—created for the different classes, castes, languages, ethnicities—that intersect with a person’s queer identity.
“What does it mean to be in a space? To claim a public space is to claim that you exist in a public sphere. It comes down to that," Davé explains. “To be able to be in a space where you can coexist with people like you—that's validation.”