The Biblical phrase “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” has been rewritten by a history which talks of a linear trajectory of heterosexuality as the accepted norm as “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself UNLESS, of course, he or she is part of the LGBTQIA community”. These practitioners of “unnatural” acts of sex, a part of life that is already considered by taboo, have been cornered to a marginal section of society.
Since 1861, almost around the same time since queer sexuality was ostracized by a heteronormative hegemony, the need for queer friendly spaces has been a necessity. The allotment of dark spaces imbued with alcohol and burlesque have been considered to be the only places that metaphorically suit the unexplored alleys of non-conforming sexualities. The narratives that are fraught with colonial anxieties coupled with contemporary manifestations of discrimination against this community always dreamed of finding a space devoid of judgmental stares and snide remarks that only bring forth a deep-seated collective insecurity of a society, and this very issue might finally have a solution in the form of queer cafes and queer friendly spaces, especially in the aftermath of the scrapping of parts of the discriminatory provisions of Section 377 of the IPC.
The fact that eateries can be associated with safe spaces for the queer community where one can freely express his unique queer identity as part of a collective organization to unconditionally support one another, is an act of rebellion itself. Moreover, the isolation from the idea that queer notions of engaging is intricately linked with a city’s nightlife points towards the concept of yin and yang, where non-heteronormativity comprises all the notoriety that usually takes place at night. Embodying one’s queer idiosyncrasies in a public cultural space, thus becomes a revolutionary act.
This year Zomato launched the “LGBTQUIA Friendly” tag on their app but it indicates a long way for its adoption by several restaurants. Echoing this thought, a new café has opened in Kolkata on the 7th of August, 2019 called Café #377, the first pink-themed café in the city, which several Zomato users have interpreted as an attempt to break male-chauvinist themes as pink is considered to be a quintessentially “feminine” colour. The entrance encompasses a wall with mural art, with writings that resonate the emotion of pride with the queer movement, such as “Be proud, be visible” and “There’s nothing wrong with you, there’s a lot wrong with the word ‘you’”. The interiors are luxuriously decorated with tints of pink reflecting on every surface of the café with the pride flag painted on an entire wall. There is another mural with musical instruments on one of the walls on which the colours of the pride flag have been mainly used.
All graffiti points towards the singular idea of a safe space for the LGBTQIA community as messages like, “We don’t judge” can be seen sprayed on their many walls. Their signature dishes raging from a wide variety of momos, burgers and baos are also pink in colour. However, the signs on the washrooms reflect the gender binary commonly accepted as the norm, male and female.
“The main idea behind the café was that of equality and unity among all citizens. My place is open to all those interested in good food and a place where you can hang out with your friends without the fear of judgment. The name of the café too, has been left open-ended by me for the interpretation of my visitors. The name was given to enable discussion about the subject. It is my dream project because I have always wanted to embark on such an endeavor that perpetuates notions on love and respect for all. We also have pink signature dishes for people to devour,” said Sk Manirul Islam, the owner of Café #377.
But why pink?
“The simple reason is that in the food industry, pink food is not that common. We wanted to do away with all sorts of pre-conceived notions about something should look like, trying things that would intrigue customers. The mocktails too, coupled with live music, make the Café #377 experience all the more enjoyable.
All sections of society come to my café, not just the queer community even though they feel extremely comfortable in this atmosphere. They are appreciative of the non-discriminatory nature of the place. In terms of staff too, we have extremely friendly people working for us. If a person from the LGBTQ community seeks a job here, we will be the last to judge and accept them with open arms,” he added.
Zomato users have expressed their opinions on the place. “What is freedom if you can’t choose the person with whom you want to be? Or the color of dress that you want to wear? Well, cafe #377 is one such place which promotes liberty equality amd unity in its truest form,” wrote Tuhin Samanta in his Zomato review.
Paradoxically, there were more queer friendly places before. We always feel that with dating apps, things have become easier but with that policing also has increased, especially for queer people.
Arjun, a student of Jadavpur University says, “Before the advent of dating apps like Grindr and Tinder which now ask for sexual preferences before matching you with someone with the same interest, there were spaces for cruising in Kolkata. Even at the Maidan and Rabindra Sadan, gay men used to meet each other quite openly.
Cruising also helped all rungs of society to meet like-minded people. For queer cafes, the gesture is nice but the crowd is not diverse. Only an English-speaking, urban and elite class can go to such places. Not many from the LGBTQ community even know the term “queer”. A queer rickshawala won’t be able to enter such a place during the day because of “nuisance” policing which is not as stringent for heterosexual couples. They do not fear being beaten up. These places are extremely capitalist in nature. That is something that I have a problem with,” he added.
Co-founder of the first LGBTQ café in Kolkata, Amra Odhbhut, Upasana Agarwal, opened up about the aspect of sexual predators in such spaces. The founders’ first endeavor called Adamant Eve had to be shifted for this very reason.
“We are a self-sustainable community centre acting on the need for a space has always existed. We wanted to fund community members, provide community employment and give other folks money to start their own queer and trans-run businesses so that they face less harassment in their work environments,” Agarwal said.
Commenting on how queer spaces might someday turn into capitalist ventures, catering only to the urbane queer community, she added, “People who eat at Amra Odhbhuth can also donate a plate of food which can be picked up anonymously by someone who cannot afford it. We also wanted to do one day a week community cook-ins where we would cook together and have one free or an extremely reasonable lunch. Corporate chains severely coops the queer movement making it primarily a space for gay men. We try to eradicate this problem within the community.”
There are several “LGBTQUIA Friendly” restaurants and cafes in Kolkata such as Café 75 and Chit Chaat, out of which the Lalit group has been the most vocal when it comes to providing such safe space, spearheaded by Keshav Suri, executive director of the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group.
“In the last one year, I see a positive change of attitude and acceptance towards the community. Millions of queer people have found the courage to speak up and come out of the closet. There is serious intent with regards to conversations and engagement with community members. Pictures of my own wedding and my drag video were viral and there was no backlash of any kind. Coming out of Dutee Chand is a classic example of acceptance. We recently hosted India’s first LGBTQ job fair, which saw a healthy participation from the community and corporates.
All Lalit Hotels, Palaces and Resorts are known to be inclusive spaces and we have skilled, hired and work with over 100 queer people across functions and positions. We have Pink Parties at The Lalit Great eastern Kolkata and have been getting a great response,” he said in an interview with News18.