New Delhi: Away from the watchful gaze of the monarchy, Parisians in 18th century France huddled in cozy coffee-houses and cafés. Over piping hot cups of coffee, an eclectic mix of people would meet to discuss politics, life and culture. As German sociologist Habermas noted, it was the city’s bustling café-culture that brought down an oppressive regime and ushered in the French Revolution.
Cut to 21st century India, where the archaic Section 377 continues to criminalise same sex relationship between consenting adults. With LGBTQ activists rallying vociferously in legal corridors for justice, a conversation for change is also brewing in cafes and restaurants.
Nestled inside a lane in South Kolkata’s Jadavpur, Amra Odbhuth is a café run by members of the LGBTQ community that seeks to provide a safe space for them to come together. The name Amra Odbhuth itself translates to ‘we are queer’ and has its origins in a popular Rabindra Sangeet.
Upasana Agarwal says that the café-collective is different from other spaces in the city because it stems from shared experiences. “When an LGBT person organises a space, they can empathise with you and not just sympathise. Even within the LGBTQ community, the experiences are diverse, say, what a lesbian has to go through might be very different from what a trans-person has to go through. But we all share a degree of familiarity and trust. Community for us is like a chosen family, it’s not an abstract group of people that we are providing services to,” she says.
She adds that the café aims to celebrate the rich LGBTQ culture and history. “We host events where we discuss queer art, poetry and culture. Many people who are not from the community come to these performances and start thinking and questioning.”
Chef Jerome who runs the Q-café in Delhi’s Ladao Sarai agrees that LGBTQ cafés allow members to take the conversation forward. “The biggest problem the community faces because of the law and the stigma is that LGBTQ people are scared of stepping out in public spaces. Over the years, our café has become a spot where members grab a drink and do whatever they want. It’s a safe space for a drag artiste’s performance, a lesbian couple to dance and for all LGBTQ members to just hang out,” he explains.
Recounting his experiences in cafés, equal rights activist Harish Iyer says that the café-space has indeed become a hub for the LGBTQ movement to flourish. “I have kissed people in cafés and gone on dates in cafes with a partner and it did not seem to irk anyone. Cafés are becoming a safe space where people can come and just be themselves without twenty eyes staring at them.” He describes how the LGBTQ friendly cafés open up avenues for other thoughts.
“People have come to believe that diversity helps everybody. When cafés put forward the fact that they are welcoming of LGBTQ community, they are sending out a message that they are an open for all space. You get more variety of customers and it helps the business. Being diversity-positive is not the HR’s decision; it’s a business decision,” he adds.
Besides queer cafes, scores of established hotels and pubs are calling themselves LGBQ-friendly, by regularly organising events and parties dedicated to the community. Queer posters and fluttering pride flags are slowly becoming a common sight at cafés. Keshav Suri, the executive director of Lalit Suri Hospitality group, who identifies himself as a part of the community has been spearheading the battle against homophobia in courts and clubs alike.
The hotelier recently filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging section 377 and strongly believes in the power of the pink rupee. “My writ petition spoke about how the LGBTQ rights and LGBTQ economy is too large to ignore. We have a few spaces such as ours that do promote inclusivity, but many people are afraid to travel to India because of the law. So why are we hampering the tourism of the country?” he asks indignantly. He goes on to add that while LGBTQ members do need cafes and hotels to bring in more tourism into the country, it’s about time that the government and the people wisen up.”
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Parmesh Shahani who heads the Godrej India Culture Lab points out how LGBTQ cafés and hotels are using food to bring communities together.
"These LGBTQ-owned or LGBTQ-friendly cafes give people a chance to meet, learn and interact over a meal. Across the world, people bond over food. When you break bread with someone, the experience in itself is quite precious," he says.
Shahani feels that this is adding nuance to the movement."It is very important to recognise that LGBTQ citizens are also entrepreneurs and customers."
The year also witnessed the creation of India’s first homegrown LGBT community app, Delta Connect App, which allows users to locate LGBTQ-friendly spaces and networks near them. Innovations like these are putting enterprises like cafes at the centre-stage of promoting inclusivity.
Rituparna Borah, co-founder of Nazariya- A Queer Feminist Resource Group agrees, that cafes started by LGBTQ members do make the community feel at home but the activist also feels that there are limitations in terms of outreach.
“We are talking about a certain class of people and it’s all right to talk about them. But let’s not forget that many still feel uncomfortable visiting cafés where the price is quite high.”
She however adds that the queer movement is the coming together of many movements. “Any step by an individual helps take the movement forward. So starting cafés is also an important aspect even if it’s for a certain class of people.”
Borah says that she and her friends love to chit-chat in places that welcome LGBTQ members. “It’s always nice to see a pride flag.”
But what if it’s just symbolism, you ask? To which she instantly replies, “So what if it’s symbolism? It still makes many of us happy.”