At first blush, India seems like the gayest country in the world. Step out of the airport and the first thing you'll notice are men holding hands, shoulders brushing as they pass by in their long, dress-like kurtas. If you're foreign, you'll think every man in the country is cruising you like you're standing on the intersection of 7th and 23rd. The country's major religion even pays homage to female deities, though I don't mean Lady Gaga and Madonna.
Don't tell that to the Indians though. Homosexuality is a taboo subject for most Indians and, until recently, gay citizens had no legal protection. Over the last several years however, India has undergone tremendous social progress.
The nation's capital has been the epicenter of progressive change, creating the legislation that struck down section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which had ruled homosexual acts punishable by prison. The country organized its second Gay Pride parade last month in New Delhi.
That being said, India still has a long way to go to catching up to the West even if it's finally become a welcoming place to gay visitors hungering for an "Eat, Pray, Love" moment.
When I arrived in India a little over six weeks ago, one of the first things I did (don't judge me) was fire up Grindr - the Gay GPS application that shows you the proximity of the nearest homosexuals. In New York, each time you refresh, a new batch of men pops up no more than a few blocks away. Here in Delhi, there were a handful of men within a twelve-mile radius, then the nearest handful were 712 miles away, in Bombay. From there, I was basically looking at a soldier or two in Afghanistan.
Obviously there are many more gays than that in India, but I was sullenly resigned to being alone in this country, an alien among Indians. Then, two weeks later, a breakthrough occurred: I was invited to my first house party. To mark the occasion, I wore my very gay blue patent Marc Jacobs brogues, which caught the discerning eye of the host, a French expatriate lesbian named Sandra, who was to become my fairy godmother. Within a few days, my Facebook was bombarded by friend suggestions from Sandra. Not surprisingly, as I perused the suggestions like items on a menu, I noticed that most were friends with one another. I added them all and waited. Not for very long.
In India, white, young, and passably cute gay man are basically shark chum
. It wasn't long before I made it into my first gay house party with an introduction from Sandra. Shaan is an out boutique owner in the city's trendy Hauz Khas village. Having studied abroad in London and owned his own business, he's in a different class from most Indians and for him his sexuality isn't an issue. As such, he was hosting the party in the apartment in which he lived in his parents' building, who lived on the floor below. It wasn't so different from a gay house party in New York: Adele and Britney Spears blasted through the speakers, large quantities of alcohol were consumed, and dancing ensued.
Sometime around midnight, a group of about ten strong headed over to Cibo, a lounge bar owned by openly gay fashion designer Rohit Bal. For a cover charge of 500 Rupees, or about $11, you were allowed entrée into the mainstay of the gay scene in Delhi, as well as two drink tickets. Because this place basically has a monopoly on the Delhi party circuit, gays of every stripe unite in its Abbey-like outdoor terrace and indoor bar. Transvestites, Indian bears, skinny village types, and the odd foreign embassy official mingle together over a mix of Western and Indian pop music. Less sceney and more seedy is the Tuesday night party at Pegs n' Pints in Chanakyapuri, the country's oldest gay meeting spot, which has the feel of a dingy East Village dive.
Sandra introduced to me another gay Indian named Rajii. Rajii was 24 and worked for Dell as a call-monitoring supervisor. She knew him because he had a fling with one of her gay friends that met him online. Outside of the Tuesday and Saturday night parties, the most popular way for gay men to connect in India is through the internet. GayRomeo is particularly popular here, a free service similar (insofar as I haven't used either) to Manhunt. Unlike Shaan, Rajii wasn't out to his family, which I imagined was problematic because you'd basically have to be blind and deaf to not know he was gay.
"Around them I have to be on my best behavior," he told me one afternoon while taking me on a Delhi shopping tour. "I talk like this," he said, switching his voice into a deep monotone. I couldn't help but feel bad for him. Like the vast majority of Indians, he livesd in his family's home, which meant not having an autonomous life, and not having boys over.
Through Rajii I meant Druv (not his actual name), an American-born Indian who worked for the German government. I didn't understand it either. Druv lived in his own apartment with a straight American roommate. He told me how sick he was of India and how impossible it was to date here. "All the Indian boys have to go back home before their parents wake up, and most of them end up getting arranged marriages anyway."
Six weeks into my stay in India, I've realized how small this scene is, in a city of eighteen million no less. Everyone goes to the same two parties so it's wise not to make any enemies, otherwise you're bound to run into them week after week, unless their families eventually force them into an arranged marriage (though they'd still probably sneak out) or they move away (only if they're expatriates). All that said, none of this would even be thinkable only five years ago. India shows many signs of progress, from the number of clubs willing to host mixed nights to the nascent activist groups pushing for positive social change. Nonetheless, It'll be still some time before society as a whole is ready to talk about the six-limbed dancing elephant in the room.