A Four-part Journey Through South India in Search of LGBT Life
Hyderabad is the capital city of the state of Andhar Pradesh in central India. Over the past decade it has seen exponential growth in its hi-tech sector. There is a Hi-Tech City suburb, dubbed Cyberabad, where sleek modern buildings rise up many floors to house the research and industry of the future. Located here are many tech-help call-centers for American and European manufacturers such as Apple, HP and GE—this is one of the main cradles where ‘outsourcing’ was born.
Unborn is a visible LGBT ‘community’. Despite a large population of over 5 million people there is not a single overt LGBT group or organization. As in Bombay and Bangalore a visitor learns not to look for rainbow flags or Pride venues but rather more obliquely to health organizations that serve the HIV/AIDS populations; here is where at least some of the gay community can be found.
The most active organization in town is Mithrudu (http://www.mithrudu.org/newhtml0123/Update-Activates.html), a non-profit outreach education organization focused on HIV/AIDS and alternative sexuality. Its staff visit the different cruising sites in Hyderabad and the suburb of Secunderabad where MSM activity is high. It also offers psychosexual counseling and HIV counseling to the MSM. It offers advocacy help for dealing with the legal system when sex workers are harassed or arrested. And it runs an informal support group.
Another gay-run organization in Hyderabad is Saathi (http://www.saathii.org/, firstname.lastname@example.org) an advisory charitable trust organization that works behind the scenes to help strengthen the capacity and efficiency of organizations working against the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India. It’s based in Chennai. See gay Chennai (Madras) story.
‘Expression’ is a gay support group in Secunderabad. (e-mail: email@example.com). I did not have contact with them.
Prior to November 2006 there was no public social association or group where ‘middle class’ gays could gather for chat and networking. But recently, efforts have been made to address this vacuum.
Several weeks before I arrived in India I joined the Gay Bombay Yahoo group (www.gaybombay.org), one of the most active Indian gay online groups, to establish contacts across India during my visit. GayBombay members live in many places around the country–a virtual club. One day, a message was posted from a member in Hyderabad: “Hey guys. let’s start a live gay Hyderabad social group and meet each other–like gay Bombay.”
<June 2007 update message from Hyderabad: As far as Gay Hyderabad is concerned, people still meet at the famous Gay Park at Nampally Public Garden near the Assembly Hall. Mostly the crowds gather on Sunday. They try to meet new guys, talk bad / good among them and socialise. As far as parties are concerned, people get together on Saturday at 99 MHZ Pub. This place is not specifically for Gays but here you can find mixed people of all races and communities and genders, irrespective of being Gay or Lesbian. Some time back there was a fight among two different sex’s, so this pub to socialise is bit risky. Gay Hyderabad Group I believe has completely been abolished. It’s no longer working as the moderator Deep moved to Mumbai and the rest of us were busy with our work, our travel and other activites. Such is what the gay life today in Hdyerabad.>
Gay Hyderabad Yahoo Group
Although there has been a Gay Hyderabad Yahoo online group since 1999 (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/gayhyderabad/) it is little used and contains mostly postings for sex. The idea and energy for a renewed gay Hyderabad group came from a man who had lived in Bombay and had been transferred to Hyderabad by his company so he knew what he was looking for.
A few days prior, I had received an e-mail from a member of GB named Ravi, from Hyderabad, who invited me to chat on Yahoo messenger.
One of the first questions I asked him was why there has been no LGBT organizing in this very large city. He said he didn’t know. When pressed for another answer he replied “scared”. Scared of what? I don’t think anyone had asked him that question and he seemed at a loss to know what he was afraid of. All he could say was “the closet”. Pressed again he seemed frustrated as he said “you have to understand this is a very conservative place; sexuality is not discussed here.”
For Ravi, a man of thirty with a job and family responsibilities (even though unmarried) meeting a stranger for a gay liaison risked exposure and possible blackmail. I asked him where gay men made contact: “bushes and toilets” he replied. Where did he find an outlet for sexual intimacy? “I wank” was his truthful and poignant reply.
Granted this was only one isolated man’s experience. Still I wondered how accurate his description that intimacy is not possible or available here: did this cause gays here to stop expecting it? Is it wanting the moon—something not in their realm of thinking? Is an intimate, long term homosexual relationship likely in Hyderabad or in conservative Hindu traditional India? Over the course of my five-week visit I would slowly come to find an answer.
Cruising through Golkonda Fort
My first glancing awareness of queer desire in Hyderabad came when during a walk through the enormous and ancient Golkonda Fort in a suburb. It was Friday, the Muslim day of prayer and rest so the number of visitors to the Fort, a 17c capital of the state, was higher than other weekdays.
Among the usual clusters of mom-dad-kids families were numerous young unmarried hetero couples playfully lounging or chasing about. There were also clusters of same-sex friends walking around looking at the fort and at other clusters; brightly clothed girls flirting cautiously with groups of mostly drab dressed boys.
As my partner and I came out of one ancient temple a group of six boys, aged about 15-17 were walking toward us giving us the usual curious stare that many Indians give to pale-faced westerners. We exchanged smiles as we passed and they turned to watch us pass. We too turned to watch them and saw one of them make a gesture suggesting he wanted his photo taken (my camera was in hand).
He came toward me and turned me to face his friends so they could take a photo of us , which they did giggling and embarrassed. Seizing on the moment I motioned for the others to join us. The original boy made sure he stood next to me so I put my arm around him as well as the boy on my other side. There were two quick photos followed by a bit of conversation, the usual ‘your country?’ and ‘how are you liking India?’ Their English did not extend much further.
It was an innocent moment of shared souvenirs for all—except for the initiator who was the most effeminate of the group, with fey gestures, high voice and long thick black hair almost to his shoulders. (Such an effeminate man is usually called a ‘kothi’ in India.)
He was especially pleased at the photo exchange and it’s a reasonably good guess he felt some delight beyond the usual curiosity toward foreigners; his flirtatious smile and lingering eye contact were obvious even during the brief encounter. Let’s call him Ravi.
Reflecting back, I’d guess this is one face of gay youth in Hyderabad today—desirous and willing but hidden. Ravi didn’t make any attempt to mask his energetic enthusiasm for us from his friends. Obviously they knew him for what he was and accepted him in the group’s camaraderie and friendship.
I didn’t see any of them make mocking gestures behind his back as he orchestrated the photo op with him standing next to me. My gaydar easily picked up on this which is why I put my arm around his shoulder for the pose and I have no doubt he was more than pleased.
All very slight and quick but enough to offer me a fragment about gay life in this highly conservative city. In a brief moment I sensed a generational shift in this culture that’s not confined to technology. His open flirtations and the group’s acceptance spoke to—or hinted at–the future of Indian attitudes toward sexuality differences slowly emerging from the youngest generation. But it will take a while; India is very old and very traditional. I doubt he would have shown his feelings so easily had he been in a less public place with Indian strangers. We were safe because we were foreigners.
Another moment, at the Government City College
After the old fort we walked past the ornate Raj style buildings of Osmania Hospital and the elaborate Andhar Pradesh state High Court. Between the two is the Hyderabad Government City College where we wandered onto the campus.
Surprisingly, for a Sunday it was bustling with students, half a dozen of which gathered around to ask the usual questions of where we were from, why we were here, where our wives were, how did we like India. Some playful and polite chatter informed us these were week-end students taking their Sunday-only classes.
Friendly cheerful eyes became serious when I asked what their opinion would be if a friend told them he was homosexual. “Oh, it is not good…it cannot be allowed…it is not for man to be with man…a woman was made to be with a man…” There was no dissenting voice in their homophobic chorus. The topic did not last long and we moved on to marriage (hetero of course) and that it is bond that is for an entire life, even if a husband and wife dislike each other.
One student, a Muslim, thought that western men changed wives every few months and this contributed to the many rapists there. He could not hear my corrections that most people were not rapists and did not change wives frequently. He was convinced and satisfied with his own ignorance.
Meanwhile, back at the Gay Hyderabad Yahoo Group:
A time and place was set that luckily coincided with our visit and one evening the first gay Hyderabad social group met at the Spring ice cream parlor in KBR Park in upscale Banjara Hills (a suburb not far from High Tech City), surrounded by straight people licking cones and scoops.
There were seven gay men, young and middle-age middle-class professionals in software engineering, corporate consulting and banking. Dressed in preppy style, with mid-scale salaries and shared homes (with work colleagues or parents and siblings), probably a motorbike, interested in human rights, current events and cultural activities–the types familiar to western minds, although having a private flat is usually out of reach financially even for young professionals.
The modest initial meeting unfolded comfortably as the men talked of common interests including other guys, careers, residences, families, relationships, dating, favorite pop stars and how the core group might be the start of Gay Hyderabad Yahoo group and a real-time social circle.
My partner and I were pleased at being invited to the initial meeting. I brought with me a recent copy of the American LGBT magazine ‘Advocate’ as a token gift. Coincidentally the cover story was about how gays in USA hide their love in public—obviously a universal theme for our tribe.
However, to be accurate, I was informed this was not the first gathering of queer boys in Hyderabad. The Public Gardens, a leafy park adjacent to the State Assembly Building downtown, is a known cruise location for MSMs of various stripes–drag queens and TVs, closeted husbands looking for a quickie, fearful men afraid of their own
Crippled man carried by a friend
sexual impulses, money boys looking for customers and window-shopping voyeurs. Needless to say, it’s not likely the Public Gardens attendees have much discussion during their time together on Sundays from dusk to dark.
Given this as the only gay ‘open’ happening in this huge city, the new GB offshoot group is a welcome change for the young professionals who showed up at Spring ice cream parlour.
A couple of weeks later the second Gay Hyderabad group had fourteen men show up.
Note: This and the other 3 stories posted about gay India 2006 describe numerous organizations with which many LGBT folks are associated. As a consequence the stories do not portray much about personal lives and feelings as they are experienced on a daily basis. For more intimate insights about the ‘inner’ lives of LGBT people I suggest the following sites: Movenpick: http://www.orinam.org/comingout.html and Gay Bombay Yahoo Group: www.gaybombay.org.
by Richard Ammon, GlobalGayz