01, May 2018 | Deborah Grey
Section 377, that criminalises ‘unnatural sex‘ has been the bane of every Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Asexual (LGBTQIA) person’s existence in India. But with feisty Millennials like Keshav Suri moving the Indian Supreme Court to decriminalise Section 377, it appears that the day is not far when the sun would shine bright over the Indian rainbow.
“I think the timing is perfect. We have support from the media, our straight allies and most importantly the youth,” says Keshav Suri, the 33 year old Executive Director of the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group. He is not one to either mince words or engage in acts of mere tokenism. “I put my money where my mouth is,” he says.
Suri has spearheaded several campaigns and programs to not only empower the LGBTQIA community but also sensitise people, especially his hotel staff about them. He has hired people from the community (including a transgender chef) and even paid for the the sexual reassignment surgery of one of his employees! “I recognise my privilege. But what good is it if I cannot use it to bring some real change,” he asks.
Suri has recently filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the dreaded Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. The section says,
Unnatural offences.—Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with 1[imprisonment for life], or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. Explanation.—Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.
While there are a total of six petitions along these lines, Suri’s petition stands out because he is asking for a person’s right to his sexual orientation to be viewed as a Fundamental Right. The relief sought as per Suri’s writ petition is as follows,
Declare the ‘Right to Choice of Sexual Orientation’ encompasses the Right of Life with Dignity and Right to Privacy and is thus a fundamental right as part of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and any discrimination based on exercise of Right of Choice of Sexual Orientation is violative of Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
Where others are asking for a reading down or decriminalisation of Section 377, Suri has a more long term vision. “Decriminalisation is just the first step. I want to build an environment where people from all genders and sexualities are treated with equal dignity and have equal rights,” he says.
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You can read Keshav Suri’s entire petition here:
The Power of Pink Money
Another distinguishing factor about Suri’s petition is that it talks about the power of “Pink Money” or the purchasing power of the gay community. According to Suri, in the western world, especially, UK and the US, Pink Money has gone from being on the fringe to mainstream. For instance, in 1998, Pink Money in UK was valued at £ 350 billion. In 2015, Pink Money value in the US reached approximately $ 917 billion. While UK decriminalised homosexuality in the 1950’s, the US began the process in the 1960’s and finally succeeded in 2003.
Suri explains how law affects business saying, “It works against India’s image internationally if we are seen as a country that discriminates against a section of our own citizens. In fact a low of international LGBT travellers want to explore India, but are terrified of being arrested!” He says this is an economic loss for the tourism industry. “I have organised many LGBT events and parties at my hotel. I have invited international drag queens and queer performers, but the people who attend these parties, especially the international guests are always scared that there will be a police raid and they will be thrown behind bars,” says Suri. He therefore believes decriminalising Section 377 will actually help India.
According to Suri’s petition, the Economic Impact of criminalisation Section 377 IPC two main facets:
- Exclusion and/or limited inclusion of an able and talented work-force. This impacts personal wealth creation and work-force loss.
- Loss to GDP of the country.
Suri’s petition relies on the findings of a World Bank Study on the Economic Cost of Homophobia – LGBT Exclusion in India. As per this study, the estimated cost of homophobia in India is approximately between 0.1% to 1.7% of GDP. 56% of white-collar LGBT workers have reported discrimination. Also, homophobia forces people to either conceal their true selves or remain on the fringes. This leads to depression, which in turn leads to lower productivity and output.
Suri asserts, “Homophobia is bad for business and our economy. Therefore, inclusivity is Indian but homophobia is anti-national!”
His Personal Journey
“I was born this way,” he says. “I began to understand my sexuality around the time I was 17 and came out to my family at 21. Luckily I come from a long line of powerful women. My mom, sisters, aunts… everyone was supportive. But yes, they were worried I would get bullied because of my sexuality,” he says.
“I was anyway the kid who would gravitate towards playing female characters in school plays. My family was just afraid of how people would treat me and how to protect me from judgment and negativity,” says Suri.
Suri is out and proud and for the last ten years he has been living with his same sex partner, a fact he mentions in his petition before the Supreme Court. “It’s a big Punjabi family and we attend all functions and festivals together,” he says.
Suri Walks the Talk
Suri has implemented POSH – Prevention of Sexual Harassment at all the hotels run by his group. He has not only hired people from the LGBTQIA community, but also held sensitization training sessions on community across all Lalit properties. A fresh HR Policy on “Equality & Diversity Policy” with clear guidelines on handling discrimination and harassment was drafted along with sprucing up of POSH – Prevention of Sexual Harassment in August 2017.
Suri is in talks with his insurance other service providers to extend the same rights, privileges and facilities to same sex couples as they do to heterosexual couples. He hopes one day he can help same sex couples get adoption rights with all facilities that heterosexual parents get.
Other LGBTQIA friendly initiatives by Suri include:
CU Next Thursday – India’s first inclusive night for the LGBTQI community, it opened doors and created a space for people who were barely acknowledged. An idea to create a safe space for LGBTQIA+ folks runs smooth and has been delivering entertainment since July 2016. The idea of bringing these nights came to Suri after the tragic Orlando Nightclub Shootings in 2016.
Popularizing drag shows in India – Suri invited RuPaul’s drag race winners like Violet Chachki and Alaska Thunderf#*k 5000 and Derrick Barry to perform at Kitty Su. This also created a performance platform for local drag queens. Indian drag queens like Rani Ko-HE- Nur, Maya-the Drag Queen, Kushboo and Betta Naan Stop now regularly at Kitty Su and their talent is being nurtured. Suri has also organised drag queen and transgender performance nights paying tribute to commuity favourite actor Rekha. Also, in April 2018 he brought legendary drag performer Lady Bunny for a 3 city tour to India. Other drag and trans friendly events include beauty pageants and personality contests for members of the community.
Support extended to Sonia, a transgender acid attack survivor – The Executive Director, personally funded surgeries and also supported survivor Sonia’s dream to open a beauty salon. Two of the acid attack survivors are also working at The Lalit on an apprentice programme at the Flower Room.
Financial aid provided to Mahi for Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS) – Suri noticed the turmoil one of his operations staff – Humza – was going through and supported and funded his transition to Mahi.
Feature Image Courtest: QGraphy
Keshav Suri’s images courtesy Keshav Suri and the Lalit Suri Group