If my first few hours in the US were anything to go by, I would say everything we see in the movies is true. Taking a cab from the airport to the city, I was met by sizzling summer sidewalks, loud block parties, two open fire hydrants and, as I entered the brownstone stoop, a punch bowl sized wine spritzer. An hour later, I had met my future roommates, almost all seven of them and had added a few ounces of alcohol to a twenty-three hour jet lag. Seeing me struggling to stay awake at the house party, my friend and host led me to my room and bade me goodnight, adding “…and welcome to New York.”
I settled into my routine quickly, first semester of grad school, studio classes in Manhattan and living it up in Brooklyn. “Gay Bars” I typed into Google maps, scanning the red dots that sprouted up around my location, going through their reviews, ratings and contemplating which one to visit first. I had been out for a few years but had never set foot in a gay bar. The choice was made for me when my housemates decided to head to the east village on a Friday night and I eagerly accompanied them. Flashed my passport at the doorman and gingerly stepped into a place I had often associated with one word – Sanctuary, and I had to get a passport to get there. Once inside, my company dissipated to their respective agendas. I would later learn to recognize the habitual bathroom breaks of the cocaine user and the aggressive socializing of the straight-woman-in-a-gay-bar, but at that moment I was left standing awkwardly on the dance floor, holding a beer and trembling at the fact that I was an occupant of that space and so to anyone witnessing, a homosexual. It was a defining attribute, one that I never took for granted back in India.
New Delhi is home to approximately seventeen million people and when I lived there, there was only one bar that had a ‘gay night’ on Tuesdays. I had to find people through online support groups, meet them in person at a discreet gathering at a coffee shop once a month, make friends, and only then did I get to know about the mythical safe-space. On a Tuesday night, the club would have a sign at the door that read ‘Private Party’. “Sorry sir, private party” the bouncer once said, seeing me alone, his eyes searching me for a sign. I have a distinct memory of suddenly acting ‘gay’, giving the doorman every stereotypical effeminate affect from the limp wrist to the lisped “Eh, I know what party it is!” before he allowed me to enter. There were around a hundred men inside, a pulsating crowd packed into a dimly lit space, dancing to Bollywood music while others stood on the mezzanine above, scouting the party like preying birds. When two worlds live side by side, they are often unaware of how close they are to each other. I saw acts of affection, both sensual and desperate, which would never escape the walls of the bar. Aliases were rampant and every second or third guy had a wedding ring stowed away in his pocket. The queerness of that place, the excitement it held for me, the escape it provided to gay Delhiites, all of it was momentary; like a fort made of blankets used to be when I was a kid, a secret clubhouse with exclusive access one minute and non-existent the next. Come Wednesday the sanctuary disappeared, no one would acknowledge the rumor that a gathering of sodomites happened at the bar. “The private party? Arey sir, we have those all the time. It is normal only.”
I remembered those words as I stared at the rainbow flags, one marking the door and another at the corner of the building; visible from both street and avenue. And all it takes is the flag, a symbol, to make the space feel permanent, made out of more than blankets and Tuesdays. It is a validation most queer people in the world have never received, and for a few moments I was overwhelmed. I knew that I was experiencing something life owed me years ago, a scene of revelry and life instead of self-loathing and disgust. I had chosen an eventful evening to go drinking; New York had just legitimized gay marriage and Amy Winehouse had just died. One minute the crowd was chanting, “The dog days are over” and the next they were mourning their dark, troubled idol. I danced till everything around me faded into a blur.
Both these bars are by definition queer space but with different lifespans. One lives for a night and the other a few years or, real estate gods permitting, a few decades. The space in New Delhi is closeted, pun intended and the one in New York is out. A bar is still largely seen as a sign of debauchery in India and so is a sign of the profane, easy to erase and ignore, and eventually forget. A bar is a space of celebration in the USA, a place of memory or in the case of Stonewall Inn, sacred, and anything sacred is unfailingly memorialized. In a matter of days, I had managed to escape the profane and sneak into the sacred. I could state publicly where I was headed and not have anyone react or even care. When an identity is unacceptable to most of the population, ones very existence is an act of rebellion according to the majority, then the radical act of assembly feels charged, cruising is the intent but as pressing is the presence of the collective. Not many people I know are convinced that the days of needing to signify presence is in our past, but for this one person, there is a dignity, and a privilege denied to millions of his countrymen, in his drink.