You could be on Oxford Street, Sydney, or anywhere in the world's large cities where young gay men congregate. But these four immaculately styled men are sitting in an old Irani cafe in Mumbai, perched on creaking mahogany chairs atop a linoleum floor, under ceiling fans and old Indian Railways posters on the walls. It's too hot even for mosquitoes, and the street outside slowly curves and shimmers under the weight of sun and car fumes.
We eat toasted chicken sandwiches and custard, odd leftovers from the Raj, and I watch the four men, their gestures immediately familiar. Like us they have crossed the road, past the auto-rickshaws, the sleeping dogs, the many small pharmacies, and the constant cars and taxis, to come to the Sassanian Boulangerie.
Also like us, they are here, near the Churchgate Railway Station, to attend the sixth Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. The festival is centred on the Liberty Cinema, a well-preserved dowager from 1947, whose owner had helped welcome us on opening night. The Liberty has remained a cinema since Indian independence; this week it is flying a rainbow flag just down the road from Mumbai's main hospital.
I had come to Mumbai to speak at Kashish, which takes its name from an Urdu term meaning attraction or allurement. This is one of a number of such festivals, which play an important role in the development of Asia's queer communities, offering both community and privacy. Unlike a protest rally, you can retreat into the dark of a cinema knowing you're there with others who share an aspect of your life you don't necessarily want revealed in broad daylight. Nor is the audience exclusively queer; a number of attendees, particularly middle-aged women, had come along to expand their understanding of the communities depicted.
Not that the people who thronged the Liberty, and a couple of other smaller venues, seemed concerned about visibility. While homosexual activity remains illegal in India, a large and visible group of people are openly homosexual or transgendered, and many more may not have adopted Western identity terms but live out various forms of divergence from the presumed norms of sexual and gender orthodoxy. Best known outside India are hijra, a term that describes a range of male-to-female transgenders and transvestites. Hijra are often identified as "third gender," the term used by India's Supreme Court when it ruled last year for legal recognition of gender diversity.
Kashish unapologetically sees itself globally, showing 180 films from forty countries over four days, less than a fifth of them Indian. This year the emphasis was on Australia, and Saturday night's major attraction was the first Indian cinema screening of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The three drag queens on stage during the opening ceremony could have walked straight off the set of Priscilla; watching them was like going back thirty years to the drag bars of Oxford Street. (And when I took Gore Vidal to one of these bars long before Priscilla was made, he said we could have been in New York twenty years earlier.) But social change is never linear; while there were echoes of the past, the opening of Kashish was taking place in a very different time and place. The references might seem familiar, even hackneyed; their meaning for the audience was very different than it was for me.
The queer world I saw in Mumbai was both familiar and alien, but because the language of the festival was predominantly English, and the various formal discussions were led by cosmopolitan Indians at home in several languages, the rhetoric and the reality were strangely disconnected. Several locals complained to me that Westerners come to Mumbai looking for bars, saunas and pink businesses, and complain at their absence. But these same locals use a global language to describe themselves; they are very aware of the latest international developments, and I heard constant references to the Irish vote for same-sex marriage. The impact of the internet means that men seeking sex with other men now use their smart phones much as their counterparts would in Sydney or San Francisco.
As in Australia, the term LGBTI – sometimes in India without either B or I – has become a noun without any reflection on what the initials stand for. "I am a proud LGBTI," declared a friend on Facebook, even though he clearly fits only one of those categories. The bigger problem is that conflating gender expression and sexual identity muddies already clouded waters: to wish to transition one's gender is not an expression of either homo- or heterosexual desire, indeed in some ways it makes nonsense of the very division. Those of us who remain influenced by Freud might well note that if all humans are potentially bisexual then the idea of a bisexual identity becomes problematic, if not all-inclusive.
The complexities of sexuality and gender in India underlie the work of the Humsafar Trust, which is not only the major HIV outreach organisation in Maharashtra State but also the largest organisation working for sexual and gender diversity. Touching all bases, the trust identifies itself as a community organisation of "self-identified Gay men, MSM, Transgenders, Hijras and LBT persons." It has become a major service-delivery organisation, reaching out to thousands of people across greater Mumbai and receiving considerable international funding.
Humsafar is part of a dense array of community queer organisations in India, which exists alongside a flourishing publishing world – as is clear from a recent anthology: Out!, published by the energetic Shobhna Kumar, who runs Queer Ink, a publishing and bookstore enterprise. Shobhna was one of the few lesbians visible at Kashish; despite careful programming, very few women were present, and the almost entirely male discussions at the festival reflected the persistent realities of India more than the rhetoric of LGBTI inclusiveness.
Five years ago the Delhi High Court seemed to mark a new step in India's acceptance of homosexuality when it repealed the colonial era's Section 377, which outlawed sexual acts "against the order of nature," a phrase generally understood to refer to male-to-male sex. But this ruling was overturned in 2013 by the nation's Supreme Court, and the current government seems unwilling to make legislative changes. The court's decision was a short-term blow; in the longer run it has opened up discussion about (homo)sexuality that will bring about unforeseen changes.
As in other former British colonies, imperialism is often blamed for the law and all it symbolises, which I find increasingly unconvincing: after sixty years of independence, should not self-styled anti-colonial Indian governments have despatched this legacy of colonialism? In fact, it is now the former colonial rulers who uphold "LGBTI rights" against many African, Asian and Caribbean countries that claim a colonial legacy as part of their essential tradition and culture.
The Western concept of gay liberation, now morphed into the far more respectable call for "LGBTI rights," is based on a strong assumption of individualism, of the right of an individual to assert whatever sexual or gender identity s/he wishes. This assertion is possible in societies where family ties are declining, and the state is expected to provide some guarantee of care as we become sick, feeble and isolated. In India, however, the extended family is still central, and negotiating one's sexuality with one's biological family is a central preoccupation for most people. As Parmesh Shahani wrote in his book Gay Bombay, "Insofar as one's primary community is concerned, the blood family still rules the roost." One of the organisers of Kashish told me that whenever his parents come to visit his partner goes to stay with his biological family.
Arranged marriages are the norm for most Indians, even if the opportunity for children to have a say has increased. They reinforce class and caste lines: in the Sunday Times of India the two pages of ads for "matrimonials" begin with "caste," although other sections refer to language and religion. Could an Indian way for gay liberation lie in arranged same-sex marriages? The idea might seem playful, but one such advertisement was posted in May, seeking a "well-placed, animal-loving, vegetarian GROOM for my son…" The woman who placed this post is the mother of a gay rights activist, and the advertisement caused some consternation.
Queer India exemplifies all the contradictions and delights of hybridity and pastiche common to contemporary cultural theory. (It's no accident that postcolonial theory is largely the product of expatriate Indian intellectuals.) Thus, a cartoon in the publication Bombay Dost can simultaneously reflect family pressures and invoke Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Oscar Wilde as gay heroes.
The people behind Kashish are very aware of the gaps between the cool, middle-class and predominantly English-speaking audiences at the festival and the majority of people in India. But on the closing night, with its transgender dance troupe and the (largely male) Rainbow Choir singing a mixture of Indian and civil rights songs, it was clear that the festival was reaching out beyond the cosmopolitan, educated elite.
On the plane back from Mumbai I watched four hours of Best Marigold Hotel films, and as is my wont at 30,000 feet in the air sniffled through most of it. Clichéd as these films are, they highlight the fact that what is happening in India today is a glorious entanglement of local and global. As the mythologist and author Devdutt Pattanaik remarked at Kashish: "There are events in life that we qualify as climax or start, end or beginning, tragedy or comedy. But life just keeps moving ahead. We are just one act in a never ending play on an eternal stage giving moments meaning."
This article first appeared in Inside Story