Twenty-five days after Section 377 was scrapped, millennial denizens tell us how similar or different it is when travelling within India and overseas as a gay couple. While some responses may surprise you, others will be like reading your personal diary. By Payal Dhar
It’s almost a cliché to call India a land of contradictions. In the context of travel, this paradox gives India a reputation both for its hospitality and for being unsafe for certain travellers. Primers have been written about how women or white tourists should negotiate India safely, and the prevalent notion is that LGBTQ+ travellers are just as unsafe in this homophobic society.
Be that as it may, it hasn’t stopped gay, lesbian and other non-heterosexual Indians from travelling within the country. They have been doing so forever, Section 377 or no Section 377. And they have stories to tell about the places they have travelled to and the people they have met, stories that are mostly about acceptance and adventure.
Acceptance, however, is a relative term. Sheryn Munir, a journalist and author, feels that “flying under the radar” might be a more accurate way of describing it. “In Eastern societies, where the sense of community is very strong and families often embrace close friends within their fold, there aren’t such rigid rules of couple-dom as in the West.” So, travelling with her partner in India hasn’t exactly been much of an issue.
“In fact, I feel much more visible and vulnerable in the West,” Sheryn’s partner, who did not want to be named, adds. The only violence they faced while travelling was in Spain, when a hotel manager attempted to intimidate them with homophobic slurs. “In India, the worst thing that’s happened is people wondering about my gender.”
Ashdeen, a textile designer who has travelled extensively within India with a partner and also with friends concurs about the advantage of this invisibility. There are hotels that will not let a man and a woman check in together unless they can prove they are married; queer couples face no such barriers. “It’s not the first thing they think about,” he says. “I have never been questioned or asked who my travel companion is, never faced any discrimination or homophobia. The only annoying part is when they give you separate beds!”
Sharing a bed, holding hands, putting an arm around each other—all of these things are pretty much acceptable among friends in India. In some ways this allows queer couples to be more physical with each other in certain contexts, more than heterosexual couples, who are always in danger of being targeted by moral policing.
The specific unwanted attention that queer female couples attract is curiosity on account of being unaccompained, that is, unaccompanied by men. This may be especially heightened in certain places where women travelling “alone” is not the done thing. Nina D’Mello and her partner Meena Chowdhry frequently travel by train and to interior regions, and speak of curious glances and questions. “But we’ve never felt threatened,” says Nina. “We only started travelling together in our forties, and the advantage of age, being two women and having very feminine appearances have worked in our favour.” She, in fact, also points out that heterosexual couples are at greater risk of “dirty attention” in touristy places.
Public display of affection is, of course, out of the question in most places in India, even for straight couples. Though younger couples these days are more confident about expressing intimacy in public, it is still very much frowned upon. This gives rise to a somewhat ironic situation where LGBT couples can get away with more PDA, like holding hands or sharing a drink. “Even though one is too self-conscious to be able to take advantage of this privilege,” says Sheryn. Nina agrees, adding that “self-censorship,” comes into play automatically.
But, of course, one cannot in all honesty, paint India as an inclusive utopia. The so-called acceptance is predicated on an erasure of anything that does not align with hetero-patriarchy, the “normal.” It is a trade-off many queer couples are happy to make—“I just want a holiday with my partner, I don’t care if people think we’re sisters or friends,” Sheryn says—but there are others who are not, who want the romantic dinners and honeymoon packages they should have a right to. Plus, gender-queer individuals have a very different story to tell, one of overt hostility and violence. Section 377 may have been read down, but the journey is far from over.
Some of the gorgeous resorts that respondents have stayed in recently (which should not necessarily be taken as recommendations):
Atithi Parinay, a boutique home stay in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra: “Safe, secluded, without soul-destroying holiday essentials.”
Deo Bagh, Gwalior: “Beautiful heritage property.”
Winnie’s Holiday Resort, Kasauli: “Beautiful views, attentive staff; away from the hurly-burly of Kasauli town.”
Orchha, the temple town of Madhya Pradesh: “Charming, hidden and beautiful.”
Thekkady, Kerala: “Touristy but so beautiful.”