Wars are won by conquering small battles. While the victory in these battles needs to be cherished, it should never make one lose focus of the ultimate goal. After all, victory isn’t achieved overnight, and a revolution isn’t triggered out of nothing. Having said that, it does give me immense pleasure to ring in a year of dispelling the ‘criminal’ tag in India. I am equally aware it is but a drop in the ocean…
It was September 6, 2018 when the Supreme Court read down Section 377, decriminalising homosexuality in our country. The celebrations lasted for months, including back at our base – The Lalit. But it is time we got out of the festive mode to charter a course for the future. The Supreme Court verdict could resemble a notification on the phone, sometimes you read it and follow through; on other occasions, you ignore. This notification cannot be ignored. The road ahead for LGBTQIA+ rights in India is more personal and complicated. It is about acceptance and the fight for equal rights. The challenge now is to change individual perceptions. A law or government ruling, can’t force society into acceptance.
Over the years, in my struggle, I have tried to be a conversation starter. I have tried to skim a stone on the water, in the hope that it will create a ripple effect. My quest is simple. I am not aiming for the stars when I say we all want basic civil liberties. The rights and duties that citizens of this country enjoy, should be imparted to all.
I want to be a responsible citizen fulfilling my duties, and I want the freedom to enjoy my rights. The great Nelson Mandela said, “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” I am waiting for that day when our liberties are not curtailed. When an inclusive and equal opportunity society is not a dream, but a given. When respect is not a by-product of sexual orientation. If I sound like a pessimist to some, then I hope to change your perception by the time you reach the end of this piece.
Take the basic institution of marriage, for instance. Gay couples may no longer be prosecuted by law, but they still don’t have the legal standing to marry in the country. I am happily married today, but I could neither go through the ceremony here, nor does the country recognise my nuptials. Let’s say a couple decides to forgo the notion of marriage, they still can’t plan a family in India. Our country does not permit adoption when it comes to gay couples. Marriage is a beautiful institution, and for me modernity is the freedom to choose your life partner irrespective of gender.
If family life for gay couples is still a far-fetched dream, then basic personal security is not guaranteed either. We take matters of insurance for granted, but the same can’t be said for the LGBTQIA+ community in the country. When I decided to provide health insurance to my queer employees, I was faced with an uphill task. After intense negotiations, our insurance partner came on board for a landmark insurance policy. As part of our all-inclusive drive, we were able to make additions to our employees’ health insurance cover. Since May 2018, The Lalit provides cover for LGBTQIA+ people and their families, adopted children or those born through surrogacy to heterosexual, same sex couples, single parents and also for sexual reassignment surgeries up to Rs 3.5 lakhs.
I consider the above very important basic civil liberties. But it is shocking that they aren’t the only rights being denied to us. The fight for the LGBTQIA+ community is still about survival. Education, and ultimately employment, is still a pipe dream for most. The lack of these basic rights led us to launch our Foundation, whose motto is to embrace, empower and mainstream the LGBTQIA+ community. The Keshav Suri Foundation is working tirelessly to impart skills that can aid job search. Towards this cause, The Keshav Suri Foundation provided scholarships to trans students for a diploma program in Food Production and Bakery at The Lalit Suri Hospitality School. Companies and institutions need to open their doors and truly become equal opportunity workspaces.
The Foundation provides a platform to the community to express their concerns as we work towards finding solutions. The Lalit also hosted RISE, India’s first job fair for the LGBTQIA+ community in Bangalore, and there was a healthy participation from corporates and community members seeking jobs. The Lalit is home to over 100 queer employees, and we are working every day to increase this number.
We, at The Lalit, conduct regular workshops for gender sensitisation, plus hold therapy sessions to help families and individuals come to terms with their true selves. In fact, to spread the message on a macro level, we have put our weight behind films like Intezaar, Queen, U for Usha and Sheer Khurma.
We have worked hard to mobilise various platforms to spread the message of inclusivity and equality. We utilised the powerful written medium and collaborated with several content creators to spread the message. I am particularly proud of our book series for children, Elphie. It is an attempt to mould the minds of the younger generation towards the ideas of respect, equality and inclusivity. And, when it comes to inclusivity, how can I not mention Kitty Su?! The club has been the epicentre of the revolution. It popularised drag culture, broke stigmas in many ways, helped people embrace their art and emerge from the closet. Today, we have more than 35 drag kings and queens who perform regularly at Kitty Su.
For the record, I am an eternal optimist. I am happy that we are no longer ‘criminals’ in our country. I don’t consider acceptance among society, friends and family a challenge to be ignored. I don’t want education, financial freedom, marriage equality to be dreams. We needed allies; now we need accomplices. I believe in this country, and that’s why I continue to raise my voice for a just and equal society. Because I am waiting to celebrate again, as we conquer frontier after frontier!
Hospitality tycoon Keshav Suri, of The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group and Founder, Keshav Suri Foundation, wages a multi-layered fight for the right to equality for the LGBTQIA+ community
(Co-ordinated by Anika Crasto)