India's Gay Community Comes Out of the Closet

Published: November 26, 2012

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Mumbai’s western suburb of Bandra—home to observant middle-class Roman Catholic and Sunni Muslim families—is packed with people strolling the seaside promenades. The main streets are abuzz with vendors selling cheap shoes and colorful scarves. On the quieter, tree-lined lanes, customers visit specialty boutiques.

Down the 16th Road, a rainbow flag hangs outside one such store: D’kloset. On its exterior, there is a mural of a man pulling another out of a closet. “No, no,” the latter says. “I’m not coming out.”

D’kloset owner Inder Vhatwar will tell you that is time for gay people in India to step out of the closet that has imprisoned them for more than a century. It’s been almost two years since the 31-year-old designer—polite, flirty, and warm—opened D’kloset, which is part clothing store, part gay hangout. The store’s walls are painted in rainbow patterns, and it stocks colorful T-shirts and shiny plastic jewelry. “Many gays like going to parties, and you don’t want to wear the same outfit,” Vhatwar says. “I make fashion I would like to wear at affordable prices.”

Businesses targeted at gays, such as D’kloset, are still rare in India, but it is significant that such enterprises are opening at all in this largely conservative country, where until 2009 same-sex relations were considered a crime. “When I opened the store I thought that religious groups would come and break the glass,” said Vhatwar, who trained as a fashion designer in London. “But nothing happened.”

In the 149 years since homosexuality was outlawed by India’s colonial British administration, no government had the courage to repeal the law. That was left to the Delhi High Court: on July 2, 2009, the court decriminalized same-sex intercourse in a landmark case commonly referred to as 377, a reference to a section of the 1860 Penal Code that bans sexual activity “against the order of nature.” The decision was appealed earlier this year in the Supreme Court, which heard objections from 10 social and religious organizations. Opposition to the case has united conservative organizations across India’s religious spectrum—many of whom might otherwise be hostile to each other—and even includes a children’s-rights NGO that is trying to argue that legalizing homosexuality will increase child sexual abuse.

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