LGBTQ community people celebrate the Supreme Court verdict that decriminalizes consensual gay sex, in Bengaluru.

Photo: PTI Photo

After decades of legal battles, last fall the Supreme Court of India ruled against a colonial era law that describes homosexuality as “against the order of nature” and a punishable offense with up to ten years in prison. This historic decision is a drastic shift in mindsets and a significant step ahead for my country. My friends back home in India have been deeply affected by harassment in workplace and policing in public spaces because of their gender or sexual identity, but couldn’t report these incidents since it was a criminal offense. Not anymore.

Yet, legal approval doesn’t always imply societal acceptance, which usually takes longer. When even public display of affection between heterosexual couples is frowned upon at times and safety is still a concern for many women in India, ensuring that our public realm be welcoming and equitable for everyone is of the utmost urgency.

The Amra Obudh Cafe in Kolkata is one of the few places that offer a safe space and support for the LGBTQ+ community, especially for the young people kicked out by their families. In New Delhi, on the other hand, the relatively increased visibility and acceptance of queer culture has led to the creation of exclusive clubs accessible only by the elite class.

City planners and policymakers should recognize the value of accessible collective spaces for everyone. I came across two projects that connect queer communities in public space. 

Queer Potli is an anthology of a wide ranging LGBTQ+ experiences in India’s urban areas. 

Queering the Map is an interactive geotagging platform that locates and archives memories that specific places hold for LGBTQ+ communities across the globe. 

I spoke with John Bezemes and Jourdan Sayers about the value of LGBTQ+ places in cities. John studied queer public space in New York City at Pratt Institute’s Urban Placemaking and Management program. Jourdan, who was the 2016-2017 Equitable Public Space Fellow at the Design Trust for Public Space, is a doctoral student in Environmental psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Their research centers on the ways queer and trans people of color make and maintain place and the factors that support the production of Queer and Trans People of Color (QTPOC) space.

Dhanya: As the queer culture has become more mainstream, we see less and less specifically queer places. Bars, nightclubs or bookstores that were once “gay” don’t feel the need to stay distinct anymore. Is that good or bad news?

John: I think you'll find different answers from people within the community, with an especially pronounced difference between older and younger LGBTQ+ people. Some of us do not want to lose the places and customs we've established over decades of struggle. Others view full integration as a marker of full equality even if it is at the expense of our collective history and culture. Still others find LGBTQ+ culture to be perverse and want to embrace heteronormative customs. LGBTQ+ "acceptance" at least in the west, has been rapid and we are just now beginning to deal with the repercussions of more visibility and integration into the broader culture. 

I personally think we need to preserve our history, celebrate our contribution to the larger culture, and most importantly not lose our radical and subversive nature. The value I see in our LGBTQ+ culture is our history of pushing and challenging social norms and boundaries, especially around gender and sexual norms, but also in other more progressive, collectivist politics and health advocacy. The principle reason for focusing my thesis on LGBTQ+ placemaking and the places associated with it is because I felt an obligation to document a very universal practice that is under direct threat from the very integration you mention. It is my way of trying to preserve one aspect of our subversive, radical, and sexually progressive social practices. So to answer your question directly, I think integration comes at the expense of our culture and history. Rather than integration and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people and places, there should be recognition and inclusion.

Jourdan: I’m not personally aware of bars, nightclubs, or bookstores that were once “gay” and still operate but no longer as LGBTQ establishments. It seems more likely that the reason we see less specifically queer bars, nightclubs and bookstores has more to do with the systems that grant access to those types of spaces. When we talk about bars, nightclubs and bookstores, we’re talking about places that have to stay profitable in order to stay open, and this reliance on profitability is prone to reproducing racist, ableist, transphobic, and misogynistic violence. As a working-class Black gender-non-conforming trans-masculine person, my experience of gay bars and nightclubs has included being ignored by staff, dealing with transphobia from other patrons, and being asked to leave because I haven’t bought anything yet or in a while. These places are already suffering from the requirements capitalism puts on their existence and these requirements often make them uncomfortable and unsafe for a lot of queer people. That isn’t to say that there aren’t places that work hard to overcome the pressures to exclude, but these businesses are also working hard to overcome financial pressures to continue operating.

I’m Black and queer and trans, and these facts of my existence are inseparable, so most of my “queer” life is with other queer and trans people of color (QTPOC). When I think of the queer places where I’m able to build with and be in community with other QTPOC I think more of homes, organizing centers, and public spaces. Mainstreaming isn’t a threat to these places, but tenant discrimination and harassment, increasing rents, employment disparity, rules about what income “counts” when applying for a lease: these things threaten the homes we often rely on for community space. Changes in non-profit funding landscapes, governmental attacks on trans identity, racist and ableist ideas of professionalism, commercial rent increases, and inadequate pay and employee benefits all threaten the institutions where we gather for political and community organizing. Then, in public spaces, we see policing that unjustly targets Black and brown people, especially Black trans and gender non-conforming people, inherently limiting our sense of (and actual) safety in public space.

Dhanya: Could temporary queer spaces such as pop-ups be helpful in supporting our LBTQ+ culture? 

Jourdan: Pop-ups have been a feature of queer spaces for decades now, but mostly through a long history of voter registration booths, cop watch and know-your-rights trainings, HIV testing stations and public-health service providers in already-queer places like gay clubs, piers and beaches. These types of pop-ups consider the structural issues queer people, and especially queer people of color, face in most of the world and attempt to remedy some of the access issues produced.

In terms of temporary queer spaces in more cis-heteronormative places, I think these are most effective at supporting LGBTQ+ culture when they’re tied to strategies for permanently changing the structural and cultural issues making queer people unsafe or feel disconnected from the place as it usually is. I’m reminded of Eric Shaw’s comments about the whitewashing of tactical urbanism: “I’ve told my staff that PARK(ing) Day is really nice, but if five Black males took over a parking spot and had a barbecue and listened to music… would they last 10 minutes?” I agree that pop-ups, like PARK(ing) Day, are nice. I’m not interested in abolishing the pop-up, but I do think that we sometimes get caught up in the buzzwords and branding of pop-ups and tactical urbanism that we forget about other ways of making temporary queer spaces like being unapologetically queer and in public at the same time. People who we would recognize today as Black trans femmes have been gathering in large groups in the public space of the West Village decades longer than anyone has been placing rainbow flags outside of their businesses, but are we as supportive of these pop-ups as we are of gatherings that explicitly brand themselves as pop-ups? 

Another form of temporary queer space that supports many LGBTQ+ people is the queer party. We spoke earlier of a decrease in specifically queer bars, nightclubs and bookstores, and I love how queer people--especially queer women and queer people of color (overlapping demographics, to be sure)--have creatively responded to this lack of brick-and-mortar space with regular events and parties. For me, QTPOC parties maintain a special ephemeral feeling that an always-open space usually cannot. At the same time, these parties make me feel a little safer in the venue at times where there isn’t an event happening because I develop some sense of trust in the venue’s commitment to holding space for LGBTQ+ people. Organizing events and parties in the absence of specific places of freedom and celebration is a tactic I would argue we’ve inherited from the Black trans femmes and other queer and trans people of color who developed ball culture in the early 1900s.

John: I think these places are crucial. These temporal places transcend site and allow for LGBTQ+ people to create safe and inclusive spaces regardless of geographic or cultural contexts. This is why you see cruising places in every culture and continent on the globe. Incredibly, this allows LGBTQ+ to instantly connect with each other anywhere, even with vastly different language and cultural customs. The semiotics of gay cruising, for instance, are universal and understood amongst all LGBTQ+ people. This allows those with intersecting identities to feel included no matter where they come from or how they identify, because there exists a common ground for all of us in these places.

Dhanya: How can we create a safe space for the LBTQ+ community?

John: I think some of the answer to this relates back to your previous question about integration. Our only real power comes in the recognition and proclamation of our differences and the celebration of our collective strength. This is why so many decades ago, Harvey Milk called for us to come out of our closets and show the world who we are and how many of us there really are. Full integration into a heteronormative culture spreads our collective power thin and makes us vulnerable to the heterosexist violence that we spent so many decades fighting against. With the loss of LGBTQ+ specific places, we also lose crucial safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people. Without a strong infrastructural network of these safe spaces, LGBTQ+ people become increasingly vulnerable.

Jourdan: Whether it’s an abandoned industrial waterfront (Christopher Street Piers), a narrow piece of beach in front of a sanatorium (Riis Park), or the living room of a rotating set of friends, queer people have historically managed to create safe havens with few resources. I think it goes right alongside queer kinship models of chosen family: we make homes and families out of those places and people that feel safe for and supportive of us. I think the actual key to creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ communities is going to be making sure LGBTQ+ communities have access to space as well as the power to create and make decisions about spaces. When doing so, we also need to consider the multiple intersections of queer identity: how are you increasing access for and listening to the needs of queer people who are undocumented, queer people who are homeless, queer people who are people of color, queer people who are differently abled, queer people who have a mental health issue...? If your understanding of making safe space for LGBTQ+ people isn’t intersectional, then you’re likely to miss out on a number of strategies to make spaces safer for LGBTQ+ people. 

Right now, my research is about queer public space in NYC and some of the ways one public space in particular--a section of People’s Beach at Jacob Riis Park--has “outlived” some of its early 20th-century counterparts as a place actively used by working-class queer and trans people of color. The factors that are showing up in my preliminary research are most obviously about public transportation access--meaning comparatively low transportation cost--and an absence of commercial zoning such that the beach’s identity and history aren’t easily commodified and overtaken by privatization.