India has never been a friendly country for the LGBTQ community. Marginalisation and oppression, in multiple forms. But there are some voices of hope, who have been fighting the good fight — like Keshav Suri. A business tycoon and head of the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, Suri has spearheaded the fight for equal rights for the LGBTQ community in the country, specifically the repeal of section 377, which criminalises homosexuality.
And now that the Supreme Court has taken the historic step and has struck down the archaic law, we sat down with the activist and hotelier, who has not only campaigned for equal rights, but actually created safe spaces for the LGBTQ community. One of his most famous properties, Kitty Su, is known to be a club where drag queens, trans people, and basically everyone to express themselves freely, without fear.
Cosmo: What are you working on currently?
Keshav Suri: I’m starting a foundation, called the Keshav Suri Foundation. What got it started was a campaign, called It Gets Better, which began in the US, that gathered a lot of steam and got a lot of the LGBTQ issues out there, in 2011-12. And I always wondered why it did not come to India in a big way. Then I realised that they are in India, but haven’t been able to do much. So, I wanted to bring that to us, and that’s how the Keshav Suri Foundation came about, because they could only work with non-profit organisations.
C: So, how have you implemented the movement in your own organisation?
KS: In the past one year, whilst working on setting up the foundation, I have got 10 transgender employees, and around 35 drag queens and 35 trans queens who are performing in my properties, across the country. I am also looking into skilling the LGBTQ community, because of the raging debate of meritocracy versus representation (where people question the reason why women or anyone from the LGBTQ community who have got opportunities — whether it’s based on merit or just because of their identity). So eventually, I’m going to go into massive skilling, where they can learn the basic skills needed to even go in for an interview.
C: Each part of the LGBTQ community faces different issues and different kinds of stigma, yet people tend to put them all into one lot, leading to more misconceptions. So, can you tell us what are the different issues faced by each part?
KS: There are so many issues to list, but let’s take a look at a few of them. The lesbian community, for instance, faces massive issue of corrective rapes, where families are given the right to father to rape his daughter or a brother to rape his sister in order to ‘correct’ her. The other major issue is that of severe underrepresentation; there are very few women who are out and proud.
The trans community has been marginalised in the history of this country. There’s this parallel war that’s happening, where the trans community is fighting its fight, and then there is the LGB fight. All over the world, the trans community is closely associated with the LGB community, whereas here it’s not the case — they feel segregated within the LGBTQ community as well. The other issue is that people’s mindsets toward them — they still think of trans people as beggars or prostitutes. And the newer generation of trans persons don’t want to be part of the traditional trans communities.
And then, of course, you have the much larger issues of phobias — homophobia, transphobia, and honour killings.
C: What is, according to you, the biggest issue the LGBTQ community is facing right now?
KS: Mental health is the biggest issue that the entire LGBTQ community is facing. Already, it is something that is brushed under the carpet in this country. Everyone in this country thinks that because we have large families we can sort out our mental health issues, instead of seeking professional help. It’s only now, when stars like Deepika Padukone and Mallika Dua have started shedding light on the topic, that we can talk about it. It’s funny that it is only now, in 2018, that the Indian Psychiatric Society admitted that homosexuality and transgenderism is not a mental disease.
A drag show at Kitty Su. (Image source)
C: How did you prepare for members of the LGBTQ community joining your staff?
KS: There was a lot of sensitising and sensitivity training that was done, it did not happen overnight. Which is why I was adamant that I had more than 10 transgender team members, because I needed (the rest of the staff) to see a good representation. My eventual plan is to have a trans person on the board of directors, and a transgender general manager. For that matter, I am probably the only hospitality group that has two, strong, executive lady chefs. I would like to see all members, openly lesbian women and others, to be running the place. But it requires a lot of help and support from every aspect.
C: What can we, as people, do to make the situation better?
KS: I would like to thank the media to keep these kind of conversations going over the past few years. But we need to have more such open conversations, and the content makers who are reaching out more, need to bring these conversations in to a good, positive light. Social media commands a huge influence now, so we need to keep talking about this there, as well. And of course, Bollywood — it really needs to step up now. We need to see more proper representation, because I’m sure there are many transgender actors out there, and we need to include them in this conversation. We really need to start normalising these conversations and sensitising them, where we don’t stigmatise it further or just focus on one part of the community.
C: You and Cyril chose to get married a while back. Did you face any backlash when you took the leap? How did people react?
KS: So, the people in my life knew about Cyril and me for a long time. But when we decided to get married, there was apprehension from both sides, and we considered not telling anyone. There was a lot of fear about what would happen when we did get married — would my business suffer? Would I get arrested? But when we did post about it on social media, and people found out, we got a really positive response. I barely got any negativity, and the little amount that I did get, it was rancid hate, but expected. In fact, my mom got a lot of calls from her peers, asking why we weren’t holding a proper reception in Delhi, because they also wanted to come and wish us and celebrate with us. Then again, this is me, I was very lucky. There are millions out there who don’t have this opportunity.
C: What are you currently doing with Kitty Su and the Drag Queen nights that are hosted there?
KS: Now we’ve built an empire of drag in India, we have more than 35 drag queens with us. Every Thursday night is an inclusive night, which we call ‘C U Next Thursday’. We also do trans empowerment nights, we also do nights that are specifically catered to the differently abled community, and even for acid attack survivors. We have rehabilitated at least four acid attack survivors, and it all comes under the umbrella of Pure Love. Now, Kitty Su has become less of a nightclub and more of movement, and a sort of gathering of free spirits. And I’ve begun to notice that it’s not just Thursday nights that are all-inclusive, it’s spilling out onto a Friday and Saturday as well. And it’s not just men in drag anymore, we see a lot of trans people, and female djs going on stage. It’s all part of a personal oath I took, a long time ago, that for every male artist I would book for Kitty Su, I would book a female artist. And now, for every woman I’m booking, I’m also booking a trans artist. So, now it’s truly become this space for free thinkers.