Essay: A queer rite of passage - Hindustan Times
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Essay: A queer rite of passage

Jun 14, 2024 10:35 AM IST

On cruising, Grindr, the gay gaze, a sudden explosion of violence and its unhappy aftermath that exposes the insensitivity of our law enforcement and health providers. A personal piece on confronting and overcoming very real fears #PrideMonthSpecial

In his pathbreaking queer cultural history Gay Bar: Why We Went Out (Granta, 2021), Jeremy Atherton Lin writes that he went “out to [gay] bars to be literary.” In 2016, when I had first started “going out”, I didn’t know that what I was doing was called cruising or that it would —much later — metastasise into literariness, albeit nearly costing me my life.

People out in Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi. “While the cruising scenes before the era of dating apps like PlanetRomeo and Grindr have been documented, digital disruption has added another layer to cruising.” (Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times)
People out in Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi. “While the cruising scenes before the era of dating apps like PlanetRomeo and Grindr have been documented, digital disruption has added another layer to cruising.” (Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times)

While the cruising scene before the era of dating apps like PlanetRomeo and Grindr has been documented, digital disruption has added another layer — meaningful or depressing, depending on your positionality — to cruising. Earlier, just a pose or eye contact signalled interest to help lead things to their natural conclusion. Nowadays, in this app-infested world, everyone quickly confirms their hunch with an immediate — and almost compulsory — Grindr check before making a move. (Grindr is a distance-based dating app, showing profiles of nearby people. You could find someone — or maybe many — at zero metres!)

Some places in Delhi, however, remain unchanged. Connaught Place, Kashmere Gate, and Saket, to name a few. While I had been out, as Atherton Lin would put it, I had never experienced “washroom fun” until 2019. Because we were just meeting, my date said, “Can I invite two of my friends? They’re nearby; both are queer, too.” My hesitation didn’t show on my face when I agreed. But I was glad because one of the two friends was amusing and cute. To my surprise, I engaged in healthy flirting, an exercise that soon entrapped me in a challenge: You guys go and make out in the washroom, said the other two witnessing this scene. Though I giggled, I was thrilled. A feeble “yes” left my lips immediately and we decided to go upstairs — to the washroom. Later, this friend told me it was his first time, and I couldn’t help but confess that it was mine, too. I couldn’t articulate this experience until I read Gay Bar. It notes that no one ever ventured into a “gay bar” to be or because they were gay; they always exited from such spaces gay.

The gay gaze

I must confess that cruising wasn’t something I relied on naturally given my job required me to report to the office every day — and if I may add, no adventuring in the office, as a rule. Grindr, on the other hand, kept things interesting, which is why I say my office is in Gaygaon, not Gurgaon (renamed as Gurugram).

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the office went virtual and my sex life for a toss. Yet, with a mask on, I saw multiple queer bodies linger near the obvious hangout places when the lockdown was lifted in phases.

One day in 2021, when I was with a “straight” friend, she posed this common question: How do you figure that out? This was in response to my statement that the boy sitting ahead of us with a girl was definitely gay. We had exchanged multiple glances. I knew he was going to steal a moment to check his phone, and he did.

“No way,” my friend yelled, sipping the unsavoury coffee at the A Block Starbucks in Connaught Place. I assured her that my eyes are gay, and that gays ace the gaze game — we rely on our gaydar, mostly. But she needed concrete proof, and at that very moment, we heard a drumming sound — multiple Grindr notifications on my phone. This man had shared pics with me and had asked to meet me in the washroom. While I laughed hysterically, my friend was shocked. Feeling hurt for a fellow woman, as she left the café, she gave the man a hard stare. For the curious, no, we did not make out.

Whether at a mall or a coffee shop, “gays ace the gaze game — we rely on our gaydar, mostly”. (Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times)
Whether at a mall or a coffee shop, “gays ace the gaze game — we rely on our gaydar, mostly”. (Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times)

Interacting with both “open” or “closeted” LGBTQIA+ people and reading queer-themed literature, I’ve perfected this art of knowing, for it is the only thing that queer people have: a shared inheritance. Undoubtedly, the dangers of this knowing have been socialised too. I had often read about how several queers were robbed, beaten up, or blackmailed in both pre- and post-377 India. Between being found out — leading to disownment and worse — and having to offer bribes, most chose the latter. For what choice do people have? Being queer is like being a refugee, you will never know what it feels like until you are one.

But why washrooms? (I can almost sense people wondering: aren’t there “respectable places” to make out? Fancy — and sheltered — queers despise washroom cruising immensely. Which is why I detest the usage of the word community. There’s no such monolith in the queer realm: homogeneity is limiting, and queerness is anything but that. Debates that have ensued post-377 clearly reflect the same.) Atherton Lin offers a response: “We go out because we’re thirsty. We go out to return to the thrill of the chase. We want to be in a room full of penises wherein each contains the strong possibility that it is, to use the old-fashioned queer initialism, tbh — to be had.”

A room full of penises? That’s both heaven and hell. And where does one find both together? In that intimate space that reeks of beedi and cigarettes, piss and sweat, alcohol and desire — the great leveller, the male restroom. Because it is frequented by people of all classes, castes, languages, and ethnicities. And each one entering this queer sanctorum finds themselves naked — in both, a literal and literary sense — as they fill in the spaces between urinal separators, peeping, smiling, making eye contact, participating in this collective act of fulfilment. It’s an emotional necessity first, one must know, before labelling it merely a physical one. Cruising in public washrooms is a rite of passage, full of joys and risks. Sometimes, one often underestimates the latter.

Risky business

Once, while I was cruising, a man turned to me and said, “Be cautious. You look like you’re from a good family. They may snatch your things”. I said all right and moved on. But one unfortunate day, when I wasn’t even cruising, the worst materialised. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t come there for a quickie. What mattered was that my body was breakable, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates. And someone did show me that.

In July 2022, in one of the public washrooms outside the Kashmere Gate metro station, I was assaulted by one — or maybe two or three — men. From a café in Majnu Ka Tilla, I had boarded an auto to the metro station because I couldn’t get an Uber back home to Shahdara nor an autorickshaw that would take me there directly. One driver advised me to take an auto to the Kashmere Gate metro station, and then ask another for a ride to Shahdara. I was convinced. On reaching Kashmere Gate metro station, I decided to take a leak in a semi concealed public facility.

A public toilet in New Delhi. (Biplov Bhuyan/HT PHOTO)
A public toilet in New Delhi. (Biplov Bhuyan/HT PHOTO)

Once, I saw a man going down on his knees inside this very washroom, which overlooks the very busy Kashmere Gate flyover. It didn’t shock me — this radical act of sexual freedom; I just wondered why this person had willingly put himself out there. What if he got followed? There is a real danger of that. Any man looking for sex with men could reach his doorstep, assault him, rape him. But there was another possibility that struck me later: perhaps it was this man’s way of un-freeing himself from the idea of caution that’s tethered to safety. It’s exactly this that has played a detrimental role in my life, making me oscillate between the acceptable and the forbidden.

To be in that washroom around midnight on that unfortunate date was both unacceptable and forbidden. When I unzipped my jeans to pee, a guy stood adjacent me, considering this occasion as a “possibility of [my] submitting not to male supremacy (those interchangeable dick-swinging men, so naked in their desire to be called Master) but to the body itself, its frightening, consuming realms of speechlessness”, to borrow from Olivia Laing’s Everybody: A Book About Freedom (Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, 2021). And there he stood violently flashing his dick in my direction, as if it had a mind and body of its own outside him.

Despite being inebriated, I tend to remember things clearly. So here’s a sketch: tall, almost my height, 5’9”, dusky, army haircut, a mark (or perhaps multiple, shaped like tilted hyphens) under his right eye. With a slight hint of a frequently shaven beard, a visible cloak of violence hovered around him.

How can I ever forget him? After considering that I had not noticed his non-verbal advances, he asked me: Want to suck? I refused. After multiple failed attempts during that duration — that lasted less than a minute — while I was peeing, he started abusing me. I hurled abuses back. That singular act of losing my temper changed my life. This “incident” became a cornerstone event, exposing me to situations I hadn’t entirely thought were possible.

Though I felt unharmed, I decided not to spend a second more in that hell with its barely functional infrastructure and reek of piss. I say “hell” deliberately, for the “problem with creating hell is that you have to live there, too” to quote from Laing again. These facilities, I reckon, exist in the way they do because their counterparts, the luxurious ones — the desirable and respectable ones —stand as a testament to the exploitation of the labour of people who use these facilities erected by the government, patting itself on the back for its generosity.

Never alone in the city: “Nowadays, in this app-infested world, everyone quickly confirms their hunch with an immediate — and almost compulsory — Grindr check before making a move. (Grindr is a distance-based dating app, showing profiles of nearby people. You could find someone — or maybe many — at zero metres!)” (Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times)
Never alone in the city: “Nowadays, in this app-infested world, everyone quickly confirms their hunch with an immediate — and almost compulsory — Grindr check before making a move. (Grindr is a distance-based dating app, showing profiles of nearby people. You could find someone — or maybe many — at zero metres!)” (Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times)

And I had invaded that space. Thinking of the incident now, I am convinced that, to that man, I was everything he hated: power, money, and, most of all, privilege. Must he exact revenge, he must have thought. And he decided to go for it. He followed me when I left.

I saw his shadow striding ahead of me on that mildly lit sidewalk. I turned. Angry, I warned him to not follow me. He took a step back or two. When I ran towards the metro station, I saw a man gesturing from the corner of my eye, which is why I note that I don’t know how many there were — two or three? Was it a well-orchestrated plan? Who knows. The moment I turned again to check, he lunged from behind and grabbed me by the neck, choking me. His grip was firm; he had hands made of iron, I recall from my statement in the police station. In less than three seconds, I passed out. My failed attempts to free myself by punching him in the face multiple times didn’t do much. I don’t even know if those blows struck him.

I woke up feeling like I was in hell – that’s achievable only after death. “Gays have nine lives,” Atherton Lin noted in Gay Bar. I thought I only had one, which I had lost. Was it an afterlife experience, waking up after 45 minutes of lying on my stomach in dirt and piss? Where the hell am I, I thought when I gathered the courage to stand on my two legs — were they still attached to my body? Recalling that moment still feels surreal. I first wiped my hands. They were the shape of a disaster but not more than my throat, which was burning as if I had gulped down a bottle of whiskey neat. Had I been forced to inhale something that made me pass out? That must have been the case because I smelt atrocious. It wasn’t the smell of dirt and piss anymore. It was the reek of violence, too, and mostly of death. But death was what followed this incident. Each time I narrated it, first to my family, then to the police, then to the doctors, then to my friends, then to my manager and my colleagues, then to my dates, and so on, it felt like a narrative of death. How many lives were left now?

Somehow, I’ve never narrated this incident to myself — until now, in this essay — because I knew that doing so would implicate the very people who are responsible for my safety.

“Had our father been alive, he would have killed you,” said my brother. You must be wondering why. During the process of filing an FIR for assault and mobile theft, I didn’t conceal the fact that I am queer. When I told the investigating officer (IO), he assumed I was cruising there. “Wrong place, wrong time,” he offered instantly and hesitated to touch me as I wept narrating the incident. His humanity doubted mine: of a queer, a deviant. If I had met him in a washroom, this sturdy, 6-foot-tall man, would he have given in to a quick blow job, I wondered? Then, he’d have touched me everywhere.

“Are you passive?” asked the Station House Officer (SHO). He also made me walk. When this demand failed to register on my post-traumatised mind, he shouted: From the door to my table, walk. Basically, he wanted to know if I take it in the arse. They both — the SHO and the IO — must have said something to my brother. Hence, his response.

Then came the doctors. I saw several of them for several injuries. “He’s a man. How can we do a test to confirm rape?” asked the attendant who was tasked with examining my body in Delhi’s Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital. I am finding it extremely difficult to swallow, I explained to one ENT expert in Dilshad Garden. Not even water, I emphasised. It always feels like something is stuck in my throat. He looked like he wanted something from me. Sending my brother out, he wanted to know the excruciating details of what had transpired and only retreated when I cut him short.

One day, when I stood in front of the mirror, naked from the waist above, I almost seductively ran my hand over my throat. I remembered my assaulter’s grip, his manliness. He will still remain that — a man, or a template of a man I desire. Sometimes, I wonder if the reality would have been different had I simply swallowed his cum. My throat wouldn’t have hurt at all. Because this way, I would have easily avoided the possibility of my body being “continually assailed by larger forces, sometimes too powerful to withstand”. But I’d any day choose a liminal existence over the patriarchal notion of safety. After a month, I went to that very site once again to eliminate fear; to be a fraction of the unsafe I am now, compared to the completely unsafe I was earlier. As a refugee, of course, I had to return.

Saurabh Sharma is a Delhi-based writer and freelance journalist. They can be found on Instagram/X: @writerly_life.

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