Exploring India’s Underground Gay Scene And How Indian Travelers Find Freedom In Travel

I think I’ll start this article with a little story… if only because it serves as a good segue into all the things I’m gonna be ranting on about.

Ninh Binh, Vietnam

I grew up in a boarding school in a little state called Assam in the North-East of India. The boarding school itself was quite Lynchian. On the outside, it was an idyllic image of suburban beauty replete with lush green tea plantations, state-of-the-art facilities, and picture-perfect students garbed in pristine uniforms. But what the naked eye failed to see was all the bullying, late-night ragging sessions, homophobia, sexism, and physical violence that thrived within its confines — I once had to do a little striptease and pole dance while singing Britney Spears’ Gimme More while a bully repeatedly cracked a horsewhip on my back. I was 14 and I hadn’t yet acquired a taste for the BDSM arts so — it goes without saying — I wasn’t thrilled.

Anyway, on a bright and sunny afternoon, I exited my hostel at 4PM because it was mandatory for us to step outside to engage in sports. I was never one for sports and I felt my time and productivity was entirely wasted on it, but I won’t dwell on that. As I exited the hostel, late for the “sports hour”, I was greeted by the headmaster of the school. Upon seeing me leaving the hostel so late, he confronted me, berated me, and asked me to run a kilometer as he chased me down with his car, hurling insults along the way. He kept repeating, “Prance! Faster, faster! Run, you pansy, run!”

Petronas Twin Towers, Malaysia

What shocked me about this wasn’t the humiliation of being chased down and insulted — punishments of that nature were fairly customary — but the particular vocabulary he used on me, i.e., “Prance” and “Pansy.” The words stuck with me and made me feel debased. And, for reasons I couldn’t articulate at the time, I knew he wouldn’t have used those particular words on any other boy in my position. It was too specific to… something that I hadn’t yet figured out.

Several years later, I would Google the words and check their meaning in Urban Dictionary to understand what they meant exactly. “Pansy” is a derogatory term for gay folks and “Prancing” refers either to a woman who’s been whoring around, or to a particularly flamboyant gay man.

Well, if I hadn’t then, my recent sexual escapades through Asia have certainly made me worthy of the titles. I am — certainly— a slutty gay man, or a “prancing pansy” as my charming headmaster had already predicted way back when. It’s a badge that I now wear with great honor.

The reason I mention this little story is because my recent “wanderlust” has been fueled by an “EscapeLust” that was a lifetime in the making. (On a side note, is “EscapeLust” a thing? If not, then Dear Internet can we please make it a thing, thanks!)

Anyway, so if I’m gonna be writing about why I travel, I’m gonna have to lose my inhibitions to the night and give you all the reasons why escape was so crucial for me.

The 15-year-old me

Being Gay in India

As you can probably tell from the story in my intro, my boarding school was a bedrock of sexism and homophobia. I can’t really claim monopoly over that, teenagers in general are shitheads and homophobia runs rampant in schools in most countries across the world. The whole trope of the closeted gay boy in a boarding school has been explored to death so I’m NOT. EVEN. GONNA. BOTHER! I got nothing to add on that front, Just Google “Gay-Teen Movies” if you’re not all caught up.

Over the past 5 years, I’ve lived in the big city — New Delhi. That’s where I moved for my university education. Ever since moving to the city, I hadn’t faced any overt discrimination, mostly because I’ve been sheltered in my bubble of liberal-leaning university, peers, and friends.

When I first moved to the city, I used to frequent a club that hosted Gay Nights every Tuesday, so that’s where I would go to prance on the dance floor and get my Queer on. For a while, that felt like the epitome of queer liberation to me.

India-Delhi Queer Pride 2017
Delhi Queer Pride 2017

But, in 2013, a centuries-old colonial-era law called Section 377 was reinstated, which threw queer rights back by a decade and effectively criminalized all acts “against the order of nature”, which was generally understood to be specifically targeted towards the gay community. Shortly after that, the only club that hosted regular gay nights shut down. I never did find out the exact reason for it, but the timing seemed suspicious.

Ever since then, the queer social scene in India has been extremely underground. There are several closed Facebook groups that you can seek entrance into via connections, or you can become a part of a text-chain. These groups and text-chains inform you of parties a couple of hours before they’re about to happen. The location and the time always changes.

India-A sign in protest of Section 377 at Delhi Pride 2017

However, these parties don’t garner a lot of attendance for a number of reasons:

1. You have to basically drop everything on a last minute notice to go to them.

2. Delhi is huge. So, depending on where you live, you can be looking at an hour or two’s worth of travel via the Metro.

3. The metros stop functioning late at night so if you want to get back home from the party, you have to get a cab, which is too expensive for most people to seriously consider.

4. I’m not gonna be shocking anyone if I say that Delhi isn’t safe at night. For women specifically, but also for gay men. The few times that I have gone to these parties, I’ve felt extremely uncomfortable about leaving the venue and hitting the streets in the middle of the night.

5. Because of Number 3 and 4, most people who don’t live in the immediate vicinity of the gay party venue try to arrange for some overnight accommodation so they don’t have to risk the long late night travel.

As you can see, going to one of these parties and meeting other gay folks (beyond apps like Grindr) usually entails a LOT of planning and effort. I pretty much gave up on making all that effort two visits in.

India-Gay Parties

But that’s not all, though. These gay parties often got raided by the police as well. And by that I mean the police often came in to take “their cut” from the organizers of the events. The first time this happened, my heart leapt up in my throat because I feared that we’d been “caught.” But I soon realized this was fairly customary. I don’t know what’s worse — if that really had been a dreadful anomaly, or this normalization of gross abuse of power.

If you try to look for precise statistics on how far gay folks in the country are being persecuted, you’ll hit a brick wall. You can find statistics on the number of individuals arrested under Section 377. However, the numbers don’t distinguish between non-consensual sex with minors, rape, and gay sex between consenting adults. So, when you find out that 778 cases were filed under Section 377 in the year 2014 (the year after the reinstatement of the law), there’s no way to tell how many of them were cases of consenting gay adults being charged, as opposed to actual child predators. And if you know anything about queer history from any part of the world, you probably know that this commingling of gay sex with pedophilia has been one of the greatest hurdles for most societies to debunk.

India-Gay

That is not to suggest that queer folks are being rounded and locked up. I don’t want to create a false narrative here. Most queer folks can go about living their lives. However, this law does rear its ugly head in other ways — through the practice of extortion, for example. It has been reported that police officers across the country often extort money or expensive “gifts” from gay folks by threatening exposure or arrest. I know this happens because I’ve read up on it and through anecdotal evidence of the friends-of-friends-of-friends kind — not the most convincing evidence, but in situations like these definitive evidence is hard to come by.

I also don’t intend to suggest that the reality is so very grim for all gay folks in the country. It’s not. Awareness is at a steep incline. In recent years, several of the major cities have seen their own chapters of LGBTQ+ Pride and attendance in the recent Delhi Pride numbered in the thousands. A recent judgment on the Right of Privacy has also encouraged the country’s Supreme Court to review Section 377. Furthermore, there are plenty of people — especially in the cities — who date regularly, live with their partners, and don’t have to hide their sexual orientation, at least not from their immediate circle of peers. And so the future seems relatively hopeful and it’s entirely possible to lead a happy gay life in India.

Having said that, I do think that even amongst the more “privileged” — and I happen to be one of them — this state of comfort is an illusion. The bubble can burst at any time.

As it did for me when I was date-raped. Twice.

Let me clarify, rape isn’t unique to India. It sadly happens in every corner of the world. What’s unique here is that I can’t press charges. Mostly because I don’t want to deal with all of that right now. But even if I wanted to, even if I really needed to, I wouldn’t have the option. Why? Well honey, if you’re asking that question, you haven’t been paying attention.

India-Bali
Working from a co-working space in Bali

EscapeLust

If I had to use a single word to describe what life has felt like back “home”, I’d say: Suffocating.

Suffocating, yes, in a literal sense because Delhi is so polluted and we inhale SO MUCH toxic shit every second I’m pretty sure I’m half-mutant by now. But that don’t bother me. I mean suffocating for all of the reasons I’ve mentioned previously.

Suffocating because of a social scene that caters almost exclusively to an upper-caste cis-het male experience. Suffocating because I still feel the pressure to tiptoe around my sexuality all these years after having come out. Suffocating because I’m never really completely out to begin with (again, this is more of a universal queer thing, though.) And suffocating for so many more reasons.

India-Suffocating

Besides societal though, I think there are also a lot of personal factors that fueled my EscapeLust. It might have something to do with the fact that I was routinely molested growing up — so much so that I can never be comfortable around a group of cis-het guys anymore, no matter how “nice” they may be. It might have something to do with the fact that I was sexually exploited not too long ago, as I’ve mentioned already. It’s more likely that it doesn’t even have anything to do with these “big” events, they’re just catalysts to the sense of uneasiness and alienation that’s followed me my whole life. So much so that, given the opportunity, I immediately seized the chance to get out and was like bitch, bye!

The funny thing is, up until about 2 years ago, I hadn’t even seriously considered traveling as a lifestyle. Not in my wildest dreams. And that brings me to the next part of this long-ass article…

Indians Don’t Travel Much, Do They?

A lot of the other tourists and travelers I’ve met along the way often comment on how they don’t see a lot of Indian travelers and backpackers.

That’s entirely true.

India is the second most populated country in the world. Yet, in all these months that I’ve spent on the road, I’ve only met a handful of other Indians.

When other backpackers say something along the lines of “Indians don’t travel much, do they?”, I feel it often comes with certain implications — Indians don’t travel perhaps because they’re not adventurous enough, or don’t have the same desires, or aren’t as curious as the rest of the (white) world, or whatever…

But bitch, you know why Indians really don’t travel so much? It’s because they can’t fucking afford to! Because of limited internal salaries, but also because the rest of the world seems to believe that we’re worthless regardless of our skills or work ethics.

I recently had a conversation with a guy from the UK who highlighted this exactly. His dad was a business-owner who outsourced all the IT related work to Indians because… as he put it, they’re far more skilled at IT than folks in the UK but they work for a small fraction of the money.

Let me give you a little picture. If you graduate from a decent university in India, you get paid a starting salary of approximately Rs. 18,000 to Rs. 25,000 per month — that’s less than $400 a month. Of course, this also differs based on the line of work you’re getting into, but the ceiling isn’t much higher either.

And within that, people have to manage all of their expenses, food, rent, etc. Between all of that, most salaried people in India live paycheck-to-paycheck. Backpacking as a concept doesn’t exist because most people can’t afford to simply take months off to go trotting across the globe. And no, saving for a year or so doesn’t work either because people hardly make enough money to be able to save. And if they do, it’s only enough to travel domestically. This was the reality that I grew up with. And so I never even bothered dreaming about being a full-time global traveler. It was simply too bizarre to contemplate.

KL Tower, Malaysia

Of course, I have managed to transcend that now. I started freelancing and that took off well enough that I have a roster of international clients who pay me what I know I’m worth. But even there, I have to surpass several hurdles constantly. A lot of potential-clients are dubious of hiring me even after I’ve shown them plenty of samples of my work. Some of them seem highly dubious of the fact that I (an Asian) could have written them myself. I’ve also been told — several times — that I’m demanding too much for someone from the Indian subcontinent. One of my first projects entailed writing a 20,000-word document in 2-weeks for a measly $20! However, I’ve managed to come to a place where I can comfortably charge as much as $100 to $200 for about 1000 words.

But even so, I still have clients who don’t just question my ability to deliver on a particular project, but also my basic language proficiency. One of my clients recently went so far as to overtly tell me that they would pay me less than writers in the US despite the fact that my work was superior to that of several “native” writers they’d hired. Naturally, I dropped them IMMEDIATELY over a particularly sassy email. But only because I’d already come to a stage wherein I could afford to pass off on shitty clients. Had they said the same thing a couple of months earlier, I woulda prolly swallowed my pride and taken the damn job.

This is a really frustrating dynamic to keep coming back to, especially when you consider the history here. India is a post-colonial country. The British tried, for centuries, to make English the lingua-franca in India. Well, even though they’ve been gone for almost a century, their work continues. Right now, English is the official language used in most of the “good” schools, and it’s a necessity for most high-paying jobs. I’m personally a lot more comfortable in English than in Hindi, the latter of which doesn’t really even feel natural to me anymore. Due to a multitude of factors — colonial history, the cultural hegemony of the west, etc — my “adapted” language has become my “native” language, and yet I have to constantly explain myself to clients and jump through hoops to merely convince them that I can write “like” a Native Speaker.

Besides these hurdles to just earning enough to be able to travel, there are also a bunch of obstacles set in my way because of my passport. But that’s a whole other digression that I won’t get into right now. If you’re curious, you can read my blog: Why I Hate having an Indian Passport.

Anyway, my point with this whole digression is that I managed to transcend my country’s limitations thanks to freelancing and the power of the internet. But a lot of people don’t have the same opportunity, and many don’t want to lead such an isolating work lifestyle.
And so I feel privileged to have the ability to travel, and for having the mere option to act on my EscapeLust. I’m sure that there are millions of other boys and girls and gender-non-conforming individuals around the country for whom the bell jar is just as much of a looming presence as it is for me, but they don’t have the option of simply exploring greener pastures in hopes of a solution. Not saying everyone wants to go about it the same way, but even if they do, most don’t have the option. But I do. And that awareness — I think — makes me value this lifestyle so much more than I would otherwise.
But… is traveling really a magic wand solution or an escape from all of my issues? Brace yourself for another mini-rant.

Langkawi Sky Bridge, Malaysia

Traveling as Escape

The first locations I pranced off to when I finally started earning enough were Bali and Bangkok. I knew that both of these locations had a vibrant queer culture — thanks to a book called ‘Gaysian’ by Benjamin Law (highly recommended) — and I was eager to explore that.

In fact, traveling for me — initially — was just about exploring queer cultures in other parts of Asia, and eventually the rest of the world. Falling in love with the very act of traveling — even to locations without a strong queer culture — was a happy accident.

During my first couple of months on the road, I was a total slut, fucking my way through Asia on my many sexcapades. I think that’s true for a lot of gay folks while traveling. But for me, my sexuality — something that had long been suppressed — had to take precedence over most other things. The act of casually sleeping around on a daily basis with a multitude of guys from across the globe felt empowering.

With drag queens in Chiang Mai, Thailand

I’ve been traveling almost full-time now for about a year or so. In fact, I have started recognizing the mere act of always being on the move as more of a “home” than any one fixed location. But since traveling is “home” to me, that means I’m constantly trying to create a community for myself wherever I go. And when I go on dates, I throw myself into them 100%. So much so that it can be a little intimidating for most people who are traveling just as a brief holiday and aren’t looking for the same things I am.

But even so, I’ve fostered some intense relationships on the road — both platonic and romantic/sexual. And some of these relationships have been extremely volatile because of an ever-present and looming time-stamp. It has created a situation wherein we’ve barreled through the “getting-to-know-each-other” phase at such a pace that it has exposed the nerves on issues that we’ve long suppressed. It was during one of these brief relationships that I was made to confront how some of my past trauma might still be impacting my actions and decisions currently. That veneer of sexual liberation I had adopted started slipping and I could glean darker underpinnings.

Initially, when I started traveling, I had been sleeping around a LOT. I should have probably recognized something was wrong when I Ubered all across Chiang Mai from one Grindr appointment to the next to the next, to meet guys that I was barely interested in. I should have recognized something was wrong when I tolerated a helluva lot of bullshit from guys and kept coming back for more, clinging on to every kernel of affection they deigned to toss towards me — a vacuous term of endearment, a smile, hell even a smiley emoji.

GoGo Boys In A Gay Bar In Bali

Over the past couple of months, I’ve read up on the lingering affects of sexual abuse enough to know that it often manifests in a deep craving for sexual validation. I didn’t even particularly like a lot of these guys that I was so desperately chasing after, I just needed them to be attracted to me. And even if they were, that would not be enough. I needed them to sustain their attraction towards me — for a night, and then for another date, and then for another week, and so on. The need was unsustainable. And, when it inevitably caved in, I would have another one of those days when I felt saran-wrapped and suffocated… when an act as simple as smiling became a herculean task… when I’d see a stranger’s passing smile as a personal affront to my sensibilities.

For the longest time, I had filed away all of my past trauma into the back of my mind and I convinced myself that I had dealt with it. Sometimes, I would even create narratives around it — “they were just boys being boys”, “I had a boner so that probably constitutes consent” (it doesn’t), “I’m not physically injured, isn’t it wrong to call it ‘rape’?”, and on and on and on.

But solo traveling — and actively (almost desperately) dating on-the-road — has shaken me off the state of ennui that had been my reality for a while. They’re both highly volatile experiences with thrilling highs and devastating lows. And, in their own unique ways, they’ve helped me realise that I hadn’t remotely dealt with any of my issues. I don’t know how much of one’s past influences their present. But now that these nerves have been exposed, I find myself constantly clawing at them to figure it out.

I guess there’s something perversely satisfying about putting the damage on a cold operating table, slicing it open, pulling out its entrails, stroking your chin, and going “hmmm… now what do we have here?” It gives you a sense of control, or maybe just an illusion of control. Either way, rendering yourself — almost clinically — into an objective observer at least helps with compartmentalizing so your past and present aren’t always bleeding into each other. With self-awareness comes the… well, awareness of how little we really understand ourselves or our motivations. Which is why I’ve been considering seeking therapy… as soon as I’m ready to sit still in Delhi long enough for it.

So… one year into this lifestyle, has traveling proven to be an escape? It’s one of those frustrating Yes and No answers.

In a sense, yes, it liberated me from some of the societal chokehold I had experienced, especially when I’m traveling in queer-friendly places. Initially, little things — holding hands, kissing a guy in public, casually slipping my sexuality into conversations with strangers, perusing dildos and prostate massagers on Bangkok streets — felt like revolutionary acts. And now, I’ve sort of grown to accept them much like the air I breathe. I hadn’t even realized that that chokehold had been lifted until I went back to India briefly. I was working out in the gym when my personal trainer asked me if I was training for my girlfriend. I was about to casually correct him, but then I remembered I was back home, and instead I just said, “I don’t have a girlfriend.” And that little omission bore the weight of personal betrayal. And that’s when it finally hit me — oh yeah, I’m back in India.

But, in a more internal vein, traveling has also been the opposite of an escape — it has been an aggressively confrontational experience. It has made me acknowledge and come to terms with my past. As a result, over the past couple of months, I think I’ve had a healthier relation to my sexuality. While I still like validation (who doesn’t?), the need isn’t as ravenous as it once was. I don’t find myself on Grindr all the time, looking for hits of sexual validation. And fleeting rejections from complete strangers doesn’t unmoor me quite like it used to. It can’t be a coincidence that this change started when I started talking about my past, when I gave it a name.

Langkawi Sky Bridge, Malaysia

… so now what?

To be perfectly honest, I completely reneged on this section of the article during my first draft. The prospect of thinking “what’s next” is too frightening, and it gives me a migraine lol. But then I sent it over to Kiona — the Boss Bitch behind this platform — and she was like “bitch, we need solutions!”

Well, that was kind of the push I needed to start thinking of the future, something I’d completely neglected so far. I wish I could offer up some neat ribbon-wrapped bow-tied answer, but I don’t know what that looks like yet. I know that presently I’m really happy simply traveling actively and seeing as much of the world as I can. As I write this, I’m sitting in the living room of a lavish hostel in Nusa Dua, Bali. It’s peaceful and I’ve established something of a community here. I use Bali as a base to bounce around Southeast Asia while I try to cover all of it. However, I know that constantly traveling 100% of the time isn’t a long-term solution. Eventually, I’d like to have a base that I can call my own.

Basically, I don’t know bitch! For now, imma take it one moment at a time. Imma keep traveling, keep writing, keep dating, and keep being unapologetically queer. And the rest will hopefully fall into place!

Queerfully Yours,

Prancing Pansy

P.S.

The article you just read was written several months before its publication date. Since then, quite a lot has changed so imma catch you up a bit.

I went back home to Delhi a few months after writing this article. I had been in Thailand, about to catch a flight to Jakarta, Indonesia. But instead of catching my flight like I had intended to, I made an impulsive decision to book another flight back home. The thought of exploring other countries just didn’t appeal to me anymore — not while I clearly had unresolved issues to deal with.

After returning home to Delhi, I even saw a therapist briefly. I only went for a few sessions though because I didn’t feel like I was getting what I really needed from it. And my therapist also seemed pretty adamant on pushing her theory that my struggles had something to do with my discomfort with my sexuality — an assertion that’s so off-base (and plain lazy, really), that I found it amusing more than anything else.

So I’ve decided that I want to live elsewhere! I’m currently holed up in my room — working hard and collecting all the dough I can — so that I can pay for my master’s education in Canada or Germany, or hell anywhere but here!

India-Author

About The Author

Rohan is a Queer Travel Blogger and Digital Nomad. He writes from the perspective of a queer Indian guy who isn’t always 100% over-the-moon about traveling. You can follow his travels in his unfortunately titled personal blog 50 First Steps.

Also, he loves his clients! So feel free to HIRE HIM as a freelance content writer. Or follow his journey on the social media buttons below:

8 thoughts on “Exploring India’s Underground Gay Scene And How Indian Travelers Find Freedom In Travel

  1. You’re such a great writer! Fingers crossed for you that you get through with the Master’s degree abroad. All the best!

  2. A lot of your comments struck close to home.. I am a woman who grew up in Bombay, and couldn’t leave soon enough. And despite the fact that I grew up relatively “privileged” it was stifling!
    Yes, having an Indian passport can suck, and yes, it is super annoying when people ask you how you “learnt to speak english so well?”
    I wish you all the best- life gets easier as time goes on. Atleast it did for me- and I hope it does for you.

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