Big, bold and beguiling, India rarely fails to transform visitors with its sheer onslaught of sensory stimuli. Yet while an ever-growing number of American queers are making the long trek to immerse themselves in the South Asian behemoth’s many wonders, until recently a great many have left “gay” entirely out of their Indian trip mix, convinced that if there is such a thing as a queer India, it’s likely buried too deeply for the short-term tourist to uncover.
That’s all changing, as gay India continues to undergo a major transformation, one in which its previously below-ground LGBT scene is, albeit with baby steps, venturing evermore out in the open. Case in point: Mumbai's Queer Azadi (or Freedom) March, which in August drew an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 gay Indians to its second annual incarnation, doubling last year’s attendance numbers in spite of Summer 2009’s swine flu worries.
The most seismic shift yet toward queer Indian visibility had come a month earlier, when on July 2 the country’s High Court repealed Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the British-era statute that for 150 years had criminalized sexual activity “against the order of nature.” Though no convictions for homosexuality had actually been handed down in India for decades, the law had served, as similar laws do in so many other places, as a way to quietly sanction homophobia and mistreatment of the country’s gay citizens.
While several conservative groups have opposed Section 377’s overturn and are actively fighting the High Court’s decision, India’s Union Cabinet (comprised of its top ministers) has opted not to weigh in on the matter, leaving the ultimate decision with the country’s Supreme Court. A ruling is expected in October.
Each city has its own particular flavor in terms of its gay culture, Doctor adds. “Delhi has a larger NGO/activist scene, because it’s a city more conducive to activists, politicians, and policy makers,” he says. “Delhi also has a larger expat gay scene because of the embassies and allied trades. Bangalore has a lot of gay techies, and some good community-based spaces – it’s a smaller, friendlier city, and that shows.”
For the gay tourist, India is an always dazzling and sometimes bewildering place, not least in terms of finding queer locals. “Lots of foreigners feel that so much in Mumbai is cruisy, everyone looking and giving them the eye, and it’s confusing,” says Doctor. “Some of those guys are looking because you’re foreign, some are looking because they think it’s safer to have sex with foreigners than Indians, some are hookers, some want to sell you a carpet. Very confusing.”
Despite the dearth of exclusively gay venues in India, Doctor says locals have no trouble finding places and ways to meet up. “Most cities have well known parks or places for cruising,” he says. “The big cities have gay parties that are becoming meeting places. And of course, and hugely, there's the Internet. Sites like GayRomeo are particularly popular.”
For travelers who want to meet gay Indians, Doctor says local LGBT organizations are an invaluable resource. “Check at sites like Gay Bombay for the next party or meeting,” he recommends. “Also Time Out, which publishes in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, always has a Queer Page with contacts for organizations.”