Tag Archives: gay

The Venus Flytrap: After Orlando

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“What does it mean, though, gay bar?”

I’ll tell you. Some of the best times of my life involved dancing on tables and painting other people’s eyelids in unisex bathrooms and reading my poetry out loud in gay bars, in countries where the right to love and to wholly exist are not guaranteed. Queer allies don’t do a service to queer people by offering their support; we are here because of their generosity and trust.

Someone wrote that a massacre like the one at Pulse in Orlando couldn’t happen in India because we have no gay bars, but we do. Some just don’t advertise. Others occur like flash mobs, with seeming spontaneity: a random afternoon when the “Private Event” sign is placed in front of the door, an evening at the end of June when the décor, the music, the drinks are the same, but there are discreet rainbows on the flyer and flagrant ones on people’s bandanas.

Gay bars are not about sex. They’re about safety. They’re about selfhood, community, solidarity and fun. They are not divisive, compulsory, or automatically elitist. They are not (just) about partying and revelry; they are equally about resistance, defiance and speaking truth to power.

And sex with complete strangers? Wait, that’s not gay bars you’re thinking of, but your average heterosexual arranged marriage, in which all of Indian culture’s precious glory is banked (honour, of course, is stockpiled inside female bodies).

In gay bars you will hear the word family. Among those who have been disowned, those who had to create their own tribes, it means “s/he is also queer.” It means people among whom you belong.

In the holy month of Ramzan, in the heartfelt month of Pride, on Latin night in a club full of – mainly – young men of ethnic minorities, a hateful person opened fire and committed a massacre.

As I write this, I have deliberately not looked at the lists of names of the dead. What little I stumbled on regardless – one man who texted “I love you mommy” as the gunman drew near, another who helped build a Harry Potter ride in a theme park – undid me. I do not think I knew any of them, but in another way, I know every single one of them, that disparate group of dreams and flaws and kindredships and would-never-have-gotten-along-withs.

Most were queer. Many were men. Some had to have been women. (Trans, cis, non-binary? Human.) Some might have had children. Some must have been allies. Some could have been outed for the first time, in death.

We’re watching Pulse from the outside, we’re watching it in retrospect. You may never have stepped into a gay bar, intentionally, and you may say you never will. “What’s a gay bar, really? What do they do?” you ask again. But you already know.

Because if you’ve ever sought love out – filial love, sexual love, companionable love, love that knows you – and if you’ve ever believed it to be a radical force, then you know what the inside of a gay bar looks like. It looks, under any light, just like the inside of your heart, your hope.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 16th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Candlelight Dinner With A Difference

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“No, I won’t write about Valentine’s Day!” I texted my friend back, when he suggested the topic. I’d barely hit Send on my next line – “V-Day is vaandi-day only” when I remembered that for several years as a politically-aware young adult, I had refused to acknowledge the romantic festival because I believed so strongly in another V-Day.

V was for Vagina. V was for Violence. V-Day was the global movement founded in 1998 by playwright Eve Ensler (who created The Vagina Monologues) to fight violence against women. February 14th is where you’ll find it on the calendar, and it began as a series of fundraising performances of the play, and expanded to include a variety of artistic and political forms of grassroots engagements worldwide, all of which confront and try to change the disgraceful UN statistic that 1 in 3 women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime.

I couldn’t ever observe Valentine’s Day, knowing that it is in intimate relationships that this abuse is most pervasive.

“Do I write too much about women?” I started texting my friend, and once again I corrected myself: I realised that when we talk of violence against women, or any form of gender-based violence, we need to stop calling it a ‘women’s issue’. If anything, it’s more of men’s issue. It’s an issue of toxic masculinity, of what happens to men in any society that demands that they be unemotional, aggressive and authoritative. Women aren’t the problem. Men aren’t the problem. Patriarchy is.

I had never stopped believing in its principles, so why had I somehow forgotten about this other V-Day? It was probably because once I moved to India, I discovered that Valentine’s Day itself is subversive. To declare romantic interest or sexual involvement under the hostile watch of right-wing ideologies and discriminatory constraints is itself a radical, and therefore dangerous, act. Every year, couples are attacked, forcibly married or forcibly separated, by powers-that-be that do not recognise the power of love.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s probably healthy to crinkle one’s nose at least a little at saccharine hormonal garblings and socially-pressured exhibitions of rosy veneers. But let’s not forget that to feel love and not be ashamed of it is a human right. And before we celebrate it, let us first demand and exercise that right. It belongs to people of all genders, across all castes and communities, and of any sexual orientation.

So if you’ve got a candlelight dinner planned this weekend, why not bring that awareness to the table? Light at least one candle in memory of someone killed for falling in love with someone of a different religion, or someone driven to suicide because they were bullied for being gay, or even an ancestor of your own who was forced into an arranged marriage while the heart longed for deeper companionship. And maybe light another candle for the other V-Day: in memory of a woman lost to violence in a bond where there should have been love. Bring the revolution to the table, let it illuminate the conversation, and see if it doesn’t change your relationship for the better too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 11th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica

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We’ve come a long way since those anthologies from a dozen years ago, as groundbreaking as they were, consisting mostly of anonymous personal narratives of queer living and loving and very little creative writing of notable quality. That what we are seeing more and more of are stories that are not content to rest on the fact of their queerness alone reflects not only changing societal mores and a greater ease with that fact itself but also an attention to craft. While some of the pieces in Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica imply autobiographical inspiration, many are pseudonymous and most use the first-person narrator, every single one successfully makes the leap from being testimony to becoming fiction, allowing the reader in through an artistic aperture.

The term “queer”, though hotly contested, is an expansive one, the least descriptive and therefore most open of sexuality and gender identification categories, and this anthology certainly cuts across the spectrum, featuring everything from sex between two transmen in different stages of transitioning to sex between a gay man and his straight female friend.

These stories trade not in definitions but in desires, and offer a large array of them. Anirban Ghosh’s “Ark Erotica Endpapers”, which fill the inside covers of the collection, kick things off with a fantastic visual: the animals may have gone in two by two, but humans do it a little differently. Yes, there are pairings, like two mermaids coiled around each other (busty, though lacking in genitalia), but there also those content to watch, like a toothy chef with a hardly-subtle fish fetish, and a team of indeterminate dynamics. Midway through the book, Nilofar’s “Shadowboxer”, the only other visual offering, is powerful sequential art: a woman takes her own pleasure, her fat, blemished, oddly-tattooed body a locus of sensuality.

Compiled by Meenu and Shruti, first-name-only editors from an NGO background, a collection like this could be a self-conscious one, but self-consciousness and erotica hardly make a fiery marriage, and the anthology does well to avoid it. Its most political story works because the politics are not the point. Iravi’s “All In The Game” has a blindfolded participant being kissed and nuzzled by a succession of friends and made to guess who’s who. In guessing their identities, a mix not only of orientations and biological situations come up, but also ponderings on monogamy and other arrangements. There’s a twist in this story that is perfectly delivered, and drives home a message about bodies that pushes the inclusivity of this anthology past a new margin.

On the subject of bodies and back to the main premise of the anthology, there is much that titillates. Annie Dykstra’s women spy each other underwater and slip into a locker room shower together in “Pity That Blush”. D’Lo’s transman falls for the woman he has been assigned to board with on an exchange program and makes love to her – the verb deliberately chosen, for in contrast to the emotional cruelty of some of the casual sex stories this one is quite romantic. As for emotional cruelty and casual sex, Dykstra’s takes the lead, but L.R. Ellen’s “Conference Sex”, Nikhil Yadav’s “Upstairs, Downstairs” and Doabi’s “The Half Day” quickly follow – all are fun, but the last could have done without the rather forced recipe for rajma chawal. The biggest name in the collection, Devdutt Patnaik, spins a new myth about two young men who disguise themselves as newlyweds in order to collect a reward, only to have the gods take their artifice further than expected.  Michael Malik G. weaves a “meditation on [the] cock” of a gorgeous man on a houseboat in Kashmir, and Vinaya Nayak’s “Screwing With Excess” pokes a little fun at the adoring faghag – but ensures she is also pleasured.

There is an urgency to the best of these passages that illustrates quite perfectly the difference between beautiful writing about sex and sheer erotica. In the former, it is the way the phrase turns that matters. In the latter, if you’ll forgive my crudeness, it all comes down to whether or not the wrist turns away from turning the pages.

For proclivities that test the comfort zone a little, Satya’s “I Hate Wet Tissues” lightly brushes the subject of necrophilia, and Chicu’s “Soliloquy” attempts to both eroticize and find empowerment in the nasty experience of being molested on a bus. A couple of the stories fall short – Abeer Hoque’s “Jewel and the Boy” and Msbehave’s “Give Her A Shot” play with structures that suggest creativity but leave one stumped as to their purpose – but by and large, the book excites.

Close, Too Close is inclusive without losing sight of its purpose. It’s surprisingly well-written for a collection peppered with pseudonyms. It feels offbeat but not obscure. And most of all, when it’s hot, it’s very hot.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Book Review: The Man Who Would Be Queen: Autobiographical Fictions by Hoshang Merchant

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As one less famous homosexual complained about another recently, “He does no justice to the adjective gay!” If a grievance can be leveled against this memoir by India’s most famous homosexual (and that happens to be the preferred self-descriptive noun in this book), it is that it is rather lacking in gaiety indeed. Hoshang Merchant’s The Man Who Would Be Queen: Autobiographical Fictions is romantic, lyrical, vivid, but also, above all, sad.

In an almost stream-of-conscious style, Merchant chronicles some of the highlights of sixty years of his resolutely interesting life: beginning with his first memory of his mother (“I believe Mother-rule is the root of male homosexuality,” a small literary journal quoted him as saying last year) and ending with his current situation as a professor who “fathers” – as the author bio says – “his books, his students and a young friend”. The almost staccato impressionism with which he renders his childhood and adolescence does not belie their darknesses. His wealthy family is rife with dysfunction: his father’s infidelity, his parents’ eventual divorce, a sister who tries to shoot herself, and even an almost unspeakable incident in which the author shakes his mother, causing her to fall and break her hip, after which he attempts suicide. Merchant left India at the age of twenty, a year before his mother died, and it’s impossible not to sense the mourning in the two decades he spent abroad.

But those decades, in the USA and in particular in the Middle East, are the stuff of legend. “Sex is a way to sainthood,” he quotes his icon and penpal Anaïs Nin more than once – and Merchant certainly attempts canonization. In California, “a retired army man bent again and again to kiss a herpes sore on my inner thigh”. In Netanya, he enjoys a sexual encounter on a nude beach with a “Venus with a penis”, cheered on by onlookers. In a cemetery near the Dead Sea, which he notes as the site of the ancient Sodom, he watches as “people made love athwart graves”. Ironically, it’s in details like these that the pigeonholing of this book as the autobiography of a gay man is overshadowed by its importance as the autobiography of a poet.

Merchant is the author of twenty books of poems and the editor of a seminal anthology of gay Indian literature, and while the trajectory of his literary career finds surprisingly little mention in these pages, the celebrity accrued through it precedes this memoir. For those seeking arty scandals and name-dropping, however, this book contains quite little of either. “Gossip had become aesthetic,” he writes of a time in his life during which he is accused by a lover of using their affair for the poetry it inspires. Perhaps the experience chastised the author just a little too much.

Although the vast majority of other people who populate this book are barely sketches (with the exception of his vicious stepmother and perhaps some other relatives, it’s difficult to imagine anyone taking umbrage at what is revealed), what emerges is a well-rounded, often searingly honest image of Merchant himself as a person, rather than as a persona. Demanding diva? Homosexual paragon? His time in Palestine nuances both perceptions. At one point, he worked as a toilet cleaner and garbage picker. At another, he converted to Islam to marry his sweetheart, a woman named Yasmin.

His difficult time in Iraq, where he faced an especially rough amount of discrimination, is covered in the memoir through a series of letters; it is as though the experience was too painful to revisit in new writings. But it is where the book ends, in the author’s present-day life in Hyderabad, which is most depressing. Merchant eschewed his inheritance, gave away numerous personal items, and chose to live in an attic costing only Rs700 in monthly rent, with few belongings. Are these the choices of someone in the pursuit of austerity, or of attention? There’s a vulnerability in these pages that is deeply convincing of the former, yet also results in the latter. Either which way, the image of a celebrated artist living in relative penury in his old age is discomfiting.

But then, The Man Who Would Be Queen is the memoir of a true bohème, and perhaps a poet must be indulged his melancholies. In the end, as much as one wishes for more delicious wickedness in the recounting of the past, or a less sombre depiction of the present, the author is brave enough to feign neither. Merchant writes that (Tennessee) “Williams’ autobiography catalogues the decay of an aging queen. It is a sad spectacle”. Merchant’s own is sad, but at least it is no spectacle.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Vidur Kapur: Closets and Comedy

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When Vidur Kapur emerges from behind the curtain at Museum Theatre in his silver-studded Louboutin sneakers, the audience’s unruffled response seems to unnerve him. He attempts a second entrance, and this one goes a little better – still, the New York-based, Delhi-raised openly gay comedian doesn’t disguise his apprehension. He tests the waters with a couple of tepidly polite Tambrahm jokes, and gingerly eases his way into an oeuvre of material revolving mostly around his sexuality, family and ethnicity… and warms up when he realises that contrary to what he had been led to expect, in Chennai, the audience was already on his side.

In conversation the day after the show, he admits that Chennai surprised him: “I was actually quite impressed with the openness here because everybody was like ‘Chennai’s so conservative, Chennai’s so conservative’. I realized the moment I got on stage that this audience was cold, I wouldn’t hit the ground running with them. They were reserved – ‘let’s see how you’re going to win us over’. But even the really edgy jokes got an enormous response. They were willing to go with it if it was funny.” Furthermore – in the audience were numerous members of the LGBT community, and the evening concluded with a special fashion show by transgendered models. This was also the only Indian city (Kapur has toured Delhi, Hyderabad and Kolkata in the past few weeks as part of The Park’s New Festival) in which members of the audience responded in the affirmative when he asked if anyone gay was present.

His amazement is understandable, given his difficult history with this country.  Kapur’s honours now include a nomination for a “NewNowNext” award from MTV networks, being named one of India Tribune’s “Top 31 Personalities of Indian Americans”, and appearances in a variety of major American TV networks, including NBC, FOX, MTV and VH1. But when he first left India to pursue tertiary studies, he did so having been deeply traumatised by his experience of being a gay teenager in India. “When I began to comprehend my sexuality, it had a horribly depressing effect on me. I communicated it to my parents and they were very disapproving. I was extremely flamboyant in school and it created a lot of hostility and hatred toward me. So when I got a scholarship to go to Wales, I left very battered, and at that young age, I made the decision to never never return to India.”

He survived at least two suicide attempts during this time.

Still, moving to the West did not solve all his problems. “Because of my experience in India, I decided to go back into the closet, and buried myself in academia so as to get all the approval that I had been denied while growing up,” he continues. He went to LSE and the University of Chicago, then threw himself into the corporate world for many years, again suffering a series of emotional breakdowns. “You have people who are closeted artists and photographers and so on,” he says. For this reason, he sees “coming-out” not as a one-time thing, but as a process by which one emerges as an individual, regardless of sexual orientation. In his case, this meant acceptance of himself first as a gay man, and then as a performer.

The turning point came for Kapur when he saw famed comedian Margaret Cho’s show, I’m The One That I Want. Cho, like him, struggled with various issues, including her sexuality, body dysmorphia and being from a racial minority in America. “It was really about her owning who she is and reclaiming herself as a person,” says Kapur of his inspiration. “It moved me. It was what made me want to do stand-up comedy. It was funny but it was also more.”

Almost in pattern with the pain out of which his individuality emerged, his career also began on a double-edged note. The first comedy class he took was on the day before 9/11 – “and there was this strange experience of New York being in shambles and nobody being able to laugh the next day”.

But this surreal scenario dovetails quite perfectly into Kapur’s life story, for this a comedian who isn’t afraid to be very serious in person, who doesn’t mind letting an audience see his trepidation, and whose own path has been marked with severe depression, about which he is unblinkingly open. Regardless of how one takes his comedy routine – which has its highs and lows, and a fluctuating energy – it’s difficult not to admire his courage.

Kapur’s experiences of alienation, struggle and eventual success seemed tailor-made for sex columnist Dan Savage’s new “It Gets Better” campaign, which endeavours to reach despairing gay teens lacking support within their own communities via the wonders of Youtube. Young people are also one of his primary audience demographics – he is one of the most popular comedians on the American college circuit, and has performed at over 150 campuses around the USA. Asked what he would say if he was a contributor to Savage’s campaign, he acknowledged, “It definitely is true that it gets better. As you get older, you realize that nothing is permanent. Rejection from family and from friends is not permanent. You can get past it. You have the power to create your own life.”

“I was born in India as one of the ‘haves’,” admits Kapur. “So I had the luxury to go abroad. Those who don’t have the wherewithal to do that will have a much harder struggle. But if you hang in there and have hope and faith you can get through it. Pain and joy are a part of life. But there is also joy, and great things to be attained.”

Now happily settled in New York City with his longtime partner, fully ensconced in an entertainment career that takes him all over the world, Vidur Kapur is not just one face of a changing diaspora – a diaspora that has permeated the American media in such a way as to also give us the likes of Russell Peters, Mindy Kaling, Vijai Nathan and Kal Penn – but also a reflection of a changing India. The teenaged Kapur might never have been able to imagine the laughs and warm reception that his performance in Chennai received last week, but the fact that it did is both evidence of our increasingly more open hearts and minds, and a portent of hope for all the closeted people out there – gay or otherwise.

An edited version appeared in today’s Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express.

The Venus Flytrap: Not A Private Matter

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When I became involved with Chennai’s first LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender – or in broad terms, queer) Pride Month, I fully expected to encounter disapproval from openly intolerant people and organizations. But more disturbing were the less transparent remonstrations, from individuals who seemed far more open-minded than the average Chennaiite. The most lingering of these impressions was when I was told that the rights of sexual minorities are less important than other causes, and that they are, and should stay, “a private issue”.

Whether or not an issue is more or less important than others is a highly subjective matter – we always fight against or for what hurts or matters to us most, based on what we are exposed to by virtue of our circumstances. But the underlying contention was that queer rights only affect some people, whereas issues like education, clean sewage and pollution affect everybody.

And this is where I beg to differ.

Fact is that sexuality and sexual agency are extremely public issues. The entire so-called moral bedrock of society is based on forcing people to behave in certain sanctioned ways, regardless of whether or not these ways are in tune with their biological, psychological and emotional orientations. If this wasn’t the case, arranged marriages – which organize people’s sexual behaviour within a regimented, strictly heterosexual social framework – would not exist. Vast swathes of misogynistic behaviour would all but disappear, because much such behaviour comes as reaction to the threat perceived in fully self-possessed female sexuality. Count honour killings, eve-teasing and molestations – any act of “punishment” based on gender and sexuality – among them. Women would have complete autonomy over their uteruses. People could marry out of caste or culture freely. Divorce would be destigmatized. Asexuality, too, would be accepted as part of the continuum of possible sexualities.

And of course, if sexuality was a private issue, archaic Penal Code laws that criminalize private adult sexual behaviours (such as consensual anal sex between men) would not exist. The law would stay out of bedrooms (and yes, bathrooms and brothels), as long as consent is present. Did you know that under Section 377 of the Code, oral sex between consenting heterosexual adults is technically illegal? Does all this still seem like a minorities’ problem?

I see the Pride movement as paving the way for a society that is better for everybody in it, not just queer people. An environment which is accepting of diverse sexualities is one in which everyone, including straight people and people who “don’t make a big deal about their orientation”, is freer. Perhaps then sexuality will truly be a private matter.

Freer to do what, you may ask? To me, the answer is simple – to love who they love, and be who they are. And if that’s not an issue that matters to every person there is, so universal that no one – bar no one – is unaffected by it, I don’t know what is. Ultimately, I don’t think this is about sex nearly as much as it is about freedom, identity – and love.

So this June, as supporters take to the streets in a fabulous parade, raise awareness (and the roof!) with panel discussions, performances and film screenings, bear in mind just how many people we’re fighting for. All with open hearts will be welcomed with open arms.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

For more details about Chennai Pride 2009, check out the Facebook group.