For Lucknow's gay community, the closet remains an unshakable reality

Published: March 5, 2015
Sonia Paul
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It was almost a year ago, at a Cafe Coffee Day in Lucknow, that she first stunned me with the comfort with which she carried herself. She had paired a dark men’s suit slightly too big for her petite frame with a sky blue and silver tie, a colour combination that synced well with the blue glow emitting from her Bluetooth earpiece. She was still chatting away on it when she sat down, splaying her legs wide and hunching forward slightly as she brought the conversation – a work-related one – to an end. Once she put the phone down, she apologised for making me wait, and extended her hand to shake mine briskly.

Other than a hairband keeping her shoulder-length hair away from her face, nothing about the 24-year-old woman’s dress or gestures was feminine by conventional Indian standards. Her androgynous features, not to mention an obvious self-assurance, worked to her advantage. Hardly anyone cast a second glance at her even though cross-dressing is not by any means common in Lucknow.

A mutual friend had suggested we meet, as I was reporting a story on Lucknow’s gay community at the time. Aside from the city’s elite circles, the LGBTQ scene here is virtually nonexistent. Lucknow is a growing city, but at the same time it climbs to modernity, it clings to the past. It remains tightly conservative. Local organisations working in HIV/AIDS prevention double as social support groups for its more working-class employees and target populations. These populations often refer to themselves as “MSMs” – men who have sex with men – since labelling a behaviour is easier than labelling an identity. Most of them remain closeted to everyone except their closest friends.

Though there have been attempts, establishing a similar group for lesbians or women who have sex with women is nearly impossible, simply because it is harder to find and reach those women. Men might find each other after sunset in public places like parks or railway stations, but most women in Lucknow are never unaccompanied after a certain hour, if they are out at all at that hour.

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