Building a community, one queer karaoke at a time

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Several years ago, I was at a literature festival in Mumbai discussing the gay characters in my novel. At one point, the moderator, who happened to be an old friend and a gay activist, said half-jokingly: “That storyline is moving but so sad. When will we have the happy gay story?” I responded, also half-jokingly: “What to do? Sad stories are more literary, I guess.”

At the time, homosexuality had not been decriminalised by the Supreme Court. That happened in September 2018. This week marks the fifth anniversary of that decision. On that day five years ago, I got together with friends, some queer, some allies, for an impromptu pizza party at home. Almost every year, my social media feed brings up that selfie of all of us gathered around the living room, some of us lounging on the couch, some sprawled on the floor, arms draped around each other, craning our necks to fit into the frame, flashing victory signs, grinning at the camera. The lighting is bad, the picture a bit shaky, but the joy is palpable. For that night at least, it was a “happy gay story”.

Movements tend to be serious business, and rightly so. They are about righting injustice, demanding equality, filing appeals in court, chanting slogans on the street. The judgements reflected that anguish and urgency as well. “Victorian morality must give way to constitutional morality,” insisted Justice Rohinton Nariman. Justice Indu Malhotra felt history owed members of the LGBTQ+ community an apology for the “delay in providing redressal for the ignominy and ostracism that they have suffered through the centuries”, compelling them to live lives “full of fear of reprisal and persecution”. The then Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra, hoped that LGBTQ+ Indians would have “equal opportunity to advance and develop their human potential and social, economic and legal interests”.

Obviously, there is a long way to go for that. As constitutional law scholar Gautam Bhatia notes in his book Unsealed Covers, it encompasses “civil rights, a guarantee against horizontal discrimination in the domains of housing, education and access to services (under Article 15(2)), a potential right to affirmative action to services and, of course—eventually—equal marriage, if demanded”.

But somewhere, amidst all that, it also has to be fun. Without that, everything else is pointless. We are taught to distrust pleasure as something frivolous. Goals should be worthy like algebra homework. Fun cannot be a goal. And yet, without it life becomes a chore. It is the bedrock of community, where we come together communally to do things we enjoy.

We must fight for our rights but sometimes it’s okay to have a beer, gossip with friends, watch Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani and regret ordering the large tub of cheesy-caramel popcorn mix. Everybody deserves these things, gay or not. But those who grow up feeling they do not fit in (whether it’s for reasons of sexuality or otherwise) have a more complicated relationship with pleasure. Fun seems to be something that can only exist underground, tucked away safely out of sight. Those scars from not fitting into the box remain no matter how accepting our families turn out to be.

Even within the gay world, there are boxes. Apps demand to know who is top, who is bottom or versatile. In 2022, the popular app Grindr added “side” for those who are not into anal sex. Dr Joe Kort, who coined the term in 2013, created a Facebook page called Side Guys, saying: “I wanted to create a community. I wanted to help people get rid of the loneliness and the shame.”

The operative word here, though, is not sex, it’s community.

Recently, some friends in Kolkata started a queer karaoke night at the Tavern, an establishment that’s part of Trincas, a mainstay of nightlife from the days when Kolkata was Calcutta. Queer karaoke on Thursdays at Tavern has taken on a life of its own. The singing isn’t always stellar or even in tune but it’s boisterous, and, when all else fails, someone puts on ABBA so that everyone can sing raucously to Mamma Mia.

Unlike the big gay parties, it comes with no cover charge. It doesn’t start too late, it’s more “evening life” than night life. Best of all, the network coverage inside is weak and most people’s phones do not work. At first, that sparked panic. But slowly it also became liberating. Finally, we were free from our phones, forced to smile and talk to each other.

The other day, a young man had come on his own. He was sitting quietly in a corner, sipping beer. Someone noticed and greeted him. He mustered the courage to go up and talk to people, something that can feel intimidating in a bigger party.

He turned out to be from Bangladesh. He had heard about this weekly queer night and extended his trip by two days to attend. “You are lucky,” he said wistfully. “We can’t do any of this openly in Bangladesh.” Before he left, he said: “Please let me know when other parties happen. I really want to come.”

Sex he could possibly find on an app. But he was also looking for community, a place to, as the Tavern invite says, “come, chill, vibe and just be”. Nil, of the designer duo Dev r Nil, who is the moving force behind the idea, says it was just an experiment. He didn’t know how many people would show up but he wanted a place like this to at least exist.

Some Thursdays are busier than others. But even when it was pouring with rain, people came and waited patiently for the staff to mop the floors so they could drink sweetly potent pink Bagan Bari gin litchi cocktails, listen to their friends try to sing and catch up on the gossip.

It’s not the only game in town. Porshi, a café run by the lesbian and bisexual women’s group Sappho, has become a wildly popular meeting spot with coffee, snacks and cool art. Across the country, there’s talk of a queer arts month, LGBTQ+ stand-up comedy, a Rainbow Literature Festival, a queer entrepreneurs pop-up, and more.

All this is tacit acknowledgment of the importance of leisure in our lives. In the essay Capitalism And Gay Identity, historian John D’Emilio writes that capitalism made the individual less dependent on a family unit, whether a business or a farm. Instead, wage labour became common, leading to greater mobility and independence. Years ago, I remember gay researchers commenting on how the much satirised call centre culture boom in India had also led to the blooming of a gay subculture, with young people living away from home and with disposable incomes able to explore more freely their sexual identity.

In the US, as the gay movement developed, leisure became more commercialised but also contested as gay men (and they were mostly gay men) struggled to pursue leisure while society frowned on that pursuit and tried to stamp out that pleasure. Capitalism, writes D’Emilio, weakens the bonds that once kept families together but also makes “lesbians, gay men and heterosexual feminists” scapegoats for the social instability of the system. That tension has helped foment the new anti-LGBTQ+ backlash in many parts of the US.

Now ironically, as the queer movement becomes more about securing rights, leisure’s importance in the LGBTQ+ world itself has also shrunk.

No one thinks about all this while singing a Hindi song tunelessly at Queer Karaoke or sipping coffee at Porshi. But it’s all baby steps in building a community of sorts, one song, one cup of coffee, one 2:1 beer offer at a time. Imperfect and fractious (and tuneless) as it might be, it’s a community that neither has to be hidden away at home, nor does it only need to march on the street. It is a network of support that requires neither blood ties nor state sanction.

Most of us didn’t have anything like it growing up. The Supreme Court might have helped remove the legal cloud over LGBTQ+ Indians but the hard work of creating a community has to come from within. And it’s much harder than demanding a law be repealed.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr.

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