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Give me pink

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on July 27, 2018

Money matters: Keshav Suri, who has been in a relationship with a French man for a decade, filed a petition in the Supreme Court in April to underscore the “economic cost of criminalisation under Section 377”.   -  Courtesy: The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group

The battle is over — or nearly so. Those who have been waging a war against Section 377 may soon blow their last bugle when the Supreme Court decides on the law that criminalises homosexuality. Among those looking forward to a favourable verdict is hotelier Keshav Suri. His ascension to a corporate hot seat was preordained, but as a challenger to the controversial section in the apex court and a queer boss, he is treading uncharted territory

The colours must be neutral — khaki, blue, grey, white and black. The sleeves should touch the base of the hand. The hair has to be neatly combed, with every strand in place. The tie must complement the overall look. And there is no place for belts with broad buckles, ripped jeans, polka dots or bright socks.

Keshav Suri could never wrap his head around the self-imposed dress code of the corporate world — a mantra that almost ran in the blood of his business family. Breaking the code by wearing all colours and scarves to work, he remained deaf to nervous whispers about not being taken seriously for he was a queer boss.

His ascension to the hot seat that once belonged to his father Lalit, a Member of Parliament and renowned hotelier, seemed preordained. What many others around him — perhaps even Suri himself — didn’t see coming was the other task that the youngest executive director of The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group would have to take on: That of challenging the controversial Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in the country’s apex court.

Lalit and Jyotsna’s only son spent his childhood and youth like the fabled privileged kids of Delhi. Except there were many moments of disquiet and contemplation, which Suri often keep to himself.

“I went to a Catholic school in central Delhi, where boys would often ridicule me by making me enact women’s characters in plays. I would always tell them that playing a woman would not diminish me. The history of theatre, whether in India or England, is replete with examples of men playing women,” says Suri, 33, in a telephonic interview. “You can say that wearing my mother’s sari to such performances in school made things easier for me. It helped me accept my sexual orientation and brush the sniggers and the crude jokes aside.”

Suri’s next acid test was coming out to his family at the age of 20. “I did that in 2005, and the next year, after my father’s sudden death, I spiralled into depression. I started blaming myself for his heart attack,” he recalls. Unhappy with the therapy options in Delhi, he flew to London for counselling. “Stigmatisation is almost a given in the life of sexual minorities in India. Even I wasn’t spared it, but it’s true that my family’s social standing made things a little less difficult for me. I could have the treatment I preferred, I had more freedom to talk openly about being gay, and also avoid the daily harassment that many in the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) community face at the hands of the police, colleagues, neighbours, landlords and so on,” he says.

Suri says that settling abroad in a country — where same-sex couples could buy insurance without being grilled by the company, where a gay man could make his partner a nominee for a savings account in a bank or where corporate houses did not shy away from recruiting transgendered workers — would have been an easy way out. “But something inside me didn’t agree to the idea. I wanted to stick on and see if the country’s judicial system would grant me the right to live with dignity. Many Indians have left the country for the same reasons, and the brain drain is substantially high. The existence of such morality laws as Section 377 also deters thousands of gay and lesbian tourists from visiting India,” he says.

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A Delhi High Court (HC) order from 2009 — striking down the provision of Section 377, holding that it violated the fundamental right of life and liberty and the right to equality as guaranteed in the Constitution — was a ray of hope for Suri, then 24. “It was big news for me and for my friends,” he says. “The verdict gave thousands the legal protection that all other citizens in the country enjoy.”

In 2013, however, the Supreme Court (SC) reversed the HC order, giving a new lease of life to the Victorian law that criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal”. Suri likens the judgment to a flame being extinguished. “It was a crushing blow,” he says, “and that’s when I started thinking if I had a role to play in changing the way things are.”

His resolve strengthened in 2016, after 50 gay men in an Orlando nightclub fell to a gunman’s bullets. The Florida killings stirred sentiments against homophobia across the world, leading to an outpouring of grief and sympathy on social media. “One of the tweets following the incident came from the Prime Minister’s Office in India, in which the PM sent his ‘thoughts and prayers to the bereaved and the injured’. Many Indian users were quick to call out the PMO for expressing solidarity with a community that is criminalised by the law of the land. People started demanding the quashing of Section 377 on the same thread. Eventually, the tweet was deleted,” Suri says. But not before it brought home the message that many outside the LGBTQIA community also opposed the law.

The final push came in the form of the SC’s landmark “privacy” ruling in August 2017, in which the judges made note of the application of the right to privacy in matters of sexual orientation. “It opened up a world of possibilities, and I decided to take things a step further. I am not a socialist. I am not a grassroots person, but I have the position to open certain doors. A series of meetings, starting with my friend and counsel Neeha Nagpal, helped me find the conduit I needed to file a writ petition against Section 377 in the SC,” Suri recalls.

Earlier this year, the court said it would revise its 2013 verdict upholding Section 377 after a petition challenged its legal validity. The petitioners include bharatanatyam dancer Navtej Johar, culture expert Aman Nath, restaurateurs Ritu Dalmia and Ayesha Kapur, and mediaperson Sunil Mehra. The clamour against the archaic law grew louder with Mumbai-based Humsafar Trust and a group of 20 IIT-ians filing petitions before the SC in April and May 2018 respectively.

Suri, who has been in a relationship with a French man for a decade, filed a petition on April 23, 2018, to underscore the “economic cost of criminalisation under Section 377”. It has two facets, says the petition: “The exclusion and/or limited inclusion of an able and talented workforce” and “the loss of Pink Money”, which is “the purchasing power of the gay community”. It states that in 2015, “Pink Money in the US” was valued at nearly $917 billion. The petition also cites a World Bank study on the cost of homophobia in India, which indicates the widespread prevalence of depression among the country’s LGBTQIA workforce.

“The social bias is a different beast altogether. No one can tell when we can eradicate homophobia from the country. But most people are unaware of the economic impact of this problem. As a businessperson from the community, I always felt that we have to make the judiciary aware of what it means to India in terms of business, of income, of growth,” he says.

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His position in the hospitality group helped him push the agenda in other ways. “The first step was to make everyone aware of my sexual identity. And the next was to help people, the employees, get acquainted with various such identities. I took the plunge with a series of workshops across The Lalit hotels and resorts, where I urged people to drop their reservations against the LGBTQIA and welcome them into The Lalit workforce,” he adds.

Suri maintains that the response was heartening, though an odd question or two would always pop up. “That included questions on what constitutes unnatural sex and how to discipline a son who loves the colour pink and dresses like a woman. And when I launched CU Next Thursday (a weekly event the group describes as the country’s first inclusive night for LGBTQIA) in July 2016, many guests would ask if ‘inclusive’ applied to taxes!”

A little bit of history and mythology almost always helps in dealing with rigid, closed Indian mindsets. Suri used that as well during the workshops with his employees. Readings from Mahabharata created special interest, as did a session conducted by writer Devdutt Pattanaik. Suri financially supported the transition of Humza, a member of the operations staff in Delhi, into Mahi.“The support that Mahi enjoys among her colleagues indicates a positive shift. That means a lot to me,” he says.

This encouraged Suri to employ more such steps: Recruiting drag queens and transgendered candidates; joining hands with Saksham Trust to organise the Chandigarh Pride; scheduling drag shows at Kitty Su, The Lalit nightclub in Delhi, Mumbai and Chandigarh, and special brunches for the LGBTQIA. “The ease with which the staff members from the community interact with guests brings me confidence and hope. I don’t see any awkwardness or inhibitions,” he adds. Among other things, he negotiated with the group’s insurance company to extend medical cover to same-sex couples, single parents and children born through surrogacy. He also rehabilitated 10 members of the LGBTQIA community through his Pure-Love campaign, launched in September 2017.

Such personal victories aside, Suri knows that the road ahead, in light of the SC’s ongoing review of Section 377, is neither short nor smooth. It’s a drop in the ocean, he says, and the churn is yet to come. And the real change has to come from outside his comfort zone.

Hear, hear: In a country like India, conversations around sexuality and Section 377 have to reach the grassroots, says Keshav Suri. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat   -  The Hindu

 

“In a country like India, the message has to reach the grassroots, and that can happen only when we speak the language of the grassroots. Without the support of the vernacular, we can’t reach those ears and minds,” he says, stressing the importance of the role of regional media. Until that happens, there will be thousands that “die a little bit every day”, unable to share their “identity” with anyone.

Published on July 27, 2018

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