It's Almost 2017 And Indian Restaurants Are Still Turning Away Gay Couples

Far from fine dining.
sign on a door
sign on a door

A recent report in DNA pointed out the trials faced by same-sex couples in Delhi and Mumbai while trying to make restaurant bookings ahead of the impending festive season. Most establishments seemed to have no qualms, on or off the record, about denying entry to two men into their 'family sections', even when they claimed to be a couple -- the consumer group most widely favoured by restaurants.

The family section of their premises, these businesses claimed, may be only patronised by heterosexual couples -- and in such cases, too, the bias was blatant. As a member of the staff at a posh restaurant explained, the management mostly prefers "husband and wife type (sic) couples", presumably over others out on a causal date or simply for a friendly meal.

The biases inherent in such policies may seem too self-evident to elaborate, but in a society like India, where presumptions are internalised, normalised and perpetuated down the generations, it doesn't hurt to spell out the obvious. In fact, we need to undertake such an exercise again and again, until the point has been made and (hopefully) understood.

So here's a summary of the topsy-turvy logic: short of carrying a marriage certificate with them to prove the legitimacy of their relationship, a man and a woman visiting a restaurant are expected to play the part of a couple in order to earn the privilege of being shown to a table -- just friendship between two people of opposite genders is not enough to guarantee them a spot. Yet, if the nature of the relationship between two male diners happens to be deeper than friendship, they will not be allowed in places that should, at least in theory, be open to the public.

As a staff interviewed for the story explained, the management mostly prefers "husband and wife type (sic) couples", presumably over others out on a causal date or for simply a friendly meal.

LGBTQ rights activist Harish Iyer was one to be denied a place at several upmarket restaurants and bars in Mumbai recently because he was happened to be accompanied by a man. One place giggled when the two of them identified as a couple. Another was categorical about refusing entry to men -- no matter how many or the nature of their relationship -- unaccompanied by women, out of concern for safety of other women patrons. Later, following the DNA report and outrage on social media, some of these places changed their stance and decided to welcome gay people in.

Instances of such discrimination are routine in the Indian hospitality business. Many eateries designate areas for "family dining", indicating mixed gender spaces, from where men, dining solo or in groups, are kept away. Incidents of men misbehaving under the influence of alcohol are painfully common and must be accounted for. However, such situations are perhaps best dealt with by having in place a strong team of troubleshooters than by simply imposing a blanket ban on who -- and under what circumstances -- can have access to these sections.

Indian restaurants, especially those of the elite extraction, are unrepentantly classist and exhibit phobias of people who are of another race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. A few years ago, a person from the Northeast was barred from entering a Delhi restaurant for looking "different". In a more recent instance, a famous Kolkata eatery refused to let the driver of client in because he didn't look 'fit' to eat at their table. Unapologetic about its decision, the management said it did not let "roadside people" in. Yet another Delhi restaurant refused to serve a woman who had brought street children with her for a meal. Such examples are a dime a dozen.

Ordinarily, two men or women, dining at a restaurant is much less of an aberration, although two women going out for drinks may still not be alright in India's smaller towns. (Several years ago, a colleague once recounted to me her experience of not being served alcohol at a premier eatery in the posh Park Street area of Kolkata because she had gone there with a girlfriend, unaccompanied by a man.)

Men hanging out together -- even indulging in PDA among them -- is fine so long as they are behaving like dudes and bros. But the moment they decide to identify as a same-sex couple, red flags are raised, they become a public hazard.

Those who justify homophobia by citing the law against homosexuality are, ironically, ignorant of the exact wording of the offending Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The latter condemns sexual intercourse against the order of nature -- irrespective of the genders of the people involved in the act -- which makes nearly anyone who indulges in sexual activity not intended for procreation culpable in the eyes of law.

Those who justify homophobia by citing the law against homosexuality are, ironically, ignorant of the exact wording of the offending Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

In any case, the law doesn't say anything against the right of two men (or two women) having a romantic dinner in a public place, so invoking it to justify a regressive policy is merely pernicious. Of course, like everything else about public life in India, such strictures are pliable and subjected to modifications as well. And here, I'm reminded of a bizarre personal experience from a few years ago.

In December 2013, days after the Supreme Court reversed a 2009 Delhi High Court ruling decriminalising consensual same-sex relationships, I decided to go to a New Year's party organised by Gay Bombay. My idea of a perfect start to a new year usually involves retiring early to bed, preferably with a book, and my phone switched off well into the following morning. But in 2013-14, I resolved to make an exception, to stand in solidarity with the community, which suddenly had a canopy of legal security -- however flimsy it may have been -- it had enjoyed for four years snatched away in minutes.

As we were ushered into the venue, the rules of the evening were explained to us by the organisers. While the party was meant to be fun, relaxed and a safe space, no hanky-panky was allowed on the dance floor or elsewhere. Those who are besieged with visions of blasphemy at the thought of an LGBT party may take note that codes of conduct within the queer community are not too different from norms of civility observed outside it.

What's more, the dance floor had a fairly large number of heterosexual women swinging to the music, several of whom told me that a queer party is one of those rare public spaces in India where they can enjoy dancing without the fear of being groped or leered at by men.

But most extraordinarily perhaps, the entry to the party was guarded by a dozen policemen in uniform -- all paid, allegedly, to ensure no harm came to the members of the community from outsiders and have troublemakers dealt with speedily.

Just when one is tempted to write off this country, it nearly always manages to pull off a surprise.

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