When it comes to travel aspirations, gay men and straight people want a lot of the same things: to see the sights, absorb the culture, sample the food, soak up the sun, and yes, test drive the locals and/or fellow tourists.
But despite the travel bar being raised by wanderlust-ful onscreen heroines, from Katharine Hepburn in Summertime to Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love, we’re not necessarily looking for romance. Grindr and Scruff have seen to that. Some of us might skip the sights altogether in favor of sitting up in our hotel rooms, scrolling for the next score.
Bangkok, where I’ve spent a total of 20 months over the last six years, makes it so easy. It’s like the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Spartacus world. Sex tourism has thrived here for years. No-one has to go to bed horny – unless it’s by choice.
Obviously, all travel destinations aren’t created equal. One night in Bangkok is bound to be different from one in Mumbai. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for what I found in India, where sexual acts between consenting adult males is illegal. During the five weeks I spent traveling around the country – from Mumbai, Alibaug, and Goa on the Arabian coast, to New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, and Pushkar up north – I saw a lot of things, but a year-round gay scene wasn’t one of them.
Sydney has Oxford Street. Bangkok has Silom Soi 2 and Soi 4. New York City has Chelsea. San Francisco has The Castro. Chicago has Boystown. Gay men in the India I saw have no particular place to go. Big cities like Mumbai and New Delhi host occasional gay-friendly parties, and some towns have launched LGBTQ Pride events, but when it’s time to raise a glass to bad dance music, get ready to mingle with the straight crowd.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of scoring options. Grindr is as bustling in major Indian cities as it is any urban center in the Western world. If you’ve got a Wi-Fi connection, sex is as readily accessible as your next curry meal.
But those Indian spices can be overwhelming. Here are six flavors of gay life that caught me off guard...
1. The closet is packed tighter than local trains at rush hour, but when the door swings open, watch out.
Considering the restrictions on homosexual activity in India (maximum punishment: life imprisonment), the local gay men I encountered were surprisingly not shy about going after what they want. They constantly floored me with the blunt force of their come-ons. In five weeks, I read more XXX messages and saw more graphic c**k shots and up-close butt pics on Grindr than I’d received in the five previous years I’d been using the app combined.
I suspect the lack of self-censorship is directly related to the repression gay Indian men face in everyday life. A paucity of offline options is bound to beget a certain level of manic overcompensation in presumably safe online spaces.
2. Dogged persistence appears to be the default gay setting. Me: Not interested. Him: Why not?
It’s an unspoken rule on hook-up apps: No answer equals no. It wasn’t that simple for me in India. I received an endless stream of XXX entreaties from guys I kept ignoring. I could have sworn some of those zoomed-in butt-holes were laughing at me. No answer? No problem. Many suitors just kept coming back until they got a response.
Sorry, not interested.
Even then, some were undeterred. Financial compensation was the least of the indecent proposals I received. And as was the case with every gay Western expat/traveler I spoke to and even several locals, the messages came so fast and furiously, I couldn’t possibly have read and responded to all of them and still have had time to see India.
3. Despite the manic sexuality online, the guys I met offline were above-and-beyond hospitable and demanded nothing in return.
The last time a date picked me up in a car before India, he took me on a 10-minute tour of Newcastle, Australia, and then requested a peek at my “big black c**k.” (I showed him this article instead.) Raj in Jaipur, however, pulled up with, um, smaller expectations. He spent several hours showing me the city’s major sights, a tour that ended with good wishes and a friendly handshake.
In Mumbai, Jeet spent an entire evening helping me find a decent hotel in South Mumbai because I hated my Airbnb in Andheri East. After negotiating with a half-dozen receptionists in Hindi and even borrowing a phone from my neighbor when his ran out of battery power, he left with nothing more than a hug. Later on, he texted me to say he wouldn’t have minded a cuddle, too. Awww.
4. Guys who see you online will actually approach you in real life.
This was such a refreshing change from what normally happens. Everywhere else, it seems, guys will boldly approach you on the grid but completely ignore you when they see you out and about. Then they’ll go home and message you: I think I saw you at [insert name of gay bar or supermarket here]. It’s like they don’t realize that you have to actually meet to hook up.
In India, I found the reverse to be true. Guys who hadn’t even messaged me approached me on the street to tell me they’d seen me on the grid. I spoke to one Australian expat in Jaipur who said locals sometimes follow him around town because they recognize him from Grindr and Scruff.
A week or so earlier, an old friend from South America kept mysteriously running into the same two guys on a moped after they first approached him in Goa and invited him out for beers. I was with him for two of the encounters. We never figured out if they were gay, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they first spotted my buddy online.
5. Zayn Malik is the only ex-One Directioner who matters.
Even with potential prison stints to scare gays straight-acting, there’s a surprising surplus of faces on the Grindr grid. But hold on! Many of those gorgeous DPs don’t belong to the guys behind the profiles. (“DP,” by the way, is shorthand in India for “display picture,” which is their equivalent of “profile pic.”)
At any given moment, up to half of them might be “fake” – and not just a throwback pic from 1995, but a snapshot of someone else entirely. There can’t possibly be that many Zayn Malik clones running around town. Though he could easily pass for a Rajasthan stud, the singer is actually of Pakistani descent.
The guys who use fake DPs are pretty upfront when you ask if they’re real, so it’s less about catfishing than discretion and a lack of self-confidence. I assume the latter because with all of the stunning Indian men I saw offline, so many opted to substitute photos of Zac Efron, Justin Bieber, and other random white dudes for their own online.
Sadly, I’ve seen enough “No Asians” in profiles throughout Asia and Australia to get it. Racism is as rampant among gays in India as anywhere else, hence the white stand-ins. That’s a shame, though, because brown is just as beautiful as black and white in India.
6. Despite the strict rules about homosexual activity, straight male-on-male PDA is perfectly acceptable.
If you ever make it to India, don’t be surprised if you keep passing guys who are holding hands. It doesn’t mean they’re gay. (It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not either.) It’s perfectly acceptable for straight men to be openly affectionate with each other, which means you can’t really trust your gaydar.
I was often approached by groups of guys asking to take a photo with me (also common if you’re clearly a foreigner). Sometimes they’d comment on my muscles while caressing them. One guy cupped my crotch just because.
I didn’t get the impression that any of them were hitting on me. They’re just secure enough with their masculinity to cross the line of what straight Western men deem appropriate guy-on-guy behavior. That they’re so permissive when it comes to physical contact with each other makes the hardened stance on homosexuality more confounding.
India is an incredible country, full of exciting extremes and bursts of color. If it ever eases up the restrictive stance on homosexuality and gay men are allowed to live openly and unafraid, it could become one of the hottest gay holidays on the planet.