May 26, 2012

Pride Over The Counter: Queer India and the Pink Economy




A magazine recently published a version of the following piece I wrote, and I wanted to share the unedited original here.

Following the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code by the Delhi High Court on 2 July 2009 – in effect decriminalising sexual acts between consenting adults, irrespective of their genders – we are witnessing the beginning of what it means for India’s LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community to be able to live their lives and sexual identities outside of the closet. Alongside liberation rights, continuing struggles for respect, sexual health and an end to discrimination, the face of LGBTQ India is witnessing the start of a very specific market trajectory, similar to those in developed countries where queer rights movements have been established over a longer period of time. With a growing number of consumer products and services including designer stores, travel boutiques, publishing houses and clothing lines, the ‘pink economy’ – both nationally and internationally – is predicated on the idea that gay people, and in particular gay men, have larger disposable incomes to spend on specifically tailored goods and services. It is also argued (often rightly) by many that a growing pink-economy invariably leads to a greater visibility of the LGBTQ population, which is particularly pertinent in countries like India where the movement is at a relatively-speaking nascent stage. However, the wide economic and gender disparities within the country result in only a small percentage of the gay population having the power and freedom to spend what advertisers have termed the ‘pink rupee’ – coined from Britain’s ‘pink pound’ and America’s ‘pink dollar’ – causing some to question to what extent the pink-market is actually framed within and working in tandem with the ground-realities of queer India.

Image courtesy D'Kloset Facebook group

Both the national and global roots of what has now come to be called the pink economy lie in gay male magazines –today two of the most popular in India are Bombay Dost and The Pink Pages – which historically began with the desire to connect queer activists and publicise liberation initiatives. Today however, diverse companies targeting queer consumers in India are sprouting up in at least a few urban areas, and span various markets in themselves. Often arising from the need for spaces for LGBTQ people to meet and interact safely, queer parties are no longer hosted behind entirely closed doors (and private homes). From Kolkata-based Pink Party, which hosts everything from club nights in hotels to picnics and movie screenings, to Gay Bombay, which organises queer events at popular nightclubs in the city, queer parties serve as both business model and social initiative. The growing demand for queer social spaces has also led establishments such as Delhi-based Pegs n Pints and Mumbai’s Banana Bar to organise regular nights for their LGBTQ patrons. However, it’s not only nightlife that’s singing successes for this nascent economy – retail stores explicitly catering to the queer community are slowly but surely establishing themselves in the more forward-thinking areas of cities like Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata. The years following the 377 judgement have also witnessed a rise in queer cinema, with mainstream gay films including Dostana (heavily-criticised by members of the queer community for its faux homosexuality, but nonetheless bringing LGBTQ issues to the fore) and Dunno Y…Na Jaane Kyun, as well as film festivals bringing together both mainstream and underground queer cinema from across India and the world. It is difficult to estimate the scale of the pink economy within the country, given that the scattered businesses and initiatives are yet to be collated into a comprehensive survey. However, attempts to do so will have to first question what exactly it is that makes a business ‘pink’. Is it one that targets solely LGBTQ individuals as its consumers? One that includes advertising or products that may appeal to queer customers alongside their wider consumer base? Or one that provides a service that does not discriminate against sexual minorities? With these shades of rainbow-grey in mind, any exploration of India’s pink economy must consistently question the terms under which this emerging market is being defined, and most of all, who is doing the defining.

Walking through Bandra’s tiny, intertwined streets, stores like D’Kloset – a gay multi-designer store and Azaad Bazaar – India’s first official queer store (now temporarily closed) selling mugs, t-shirts, and out, proud and loud items, seem to almost seamlessly blend into the area’s urban landscape of boutique labels and frozen yoghurt outlets. However, the very presence of these explicitly queer stores is testimony to the struggles of the LGBTQ community in Mumbai city, and their survival has depended on the ability of the community to rally against attacks of homophobia and prejudice they have regularly had to face. In fact, the sense of closeness and responsibility that queer business owners feel towards the wider movement is extremely prevalent across Indian metropolises (such markets not yet being established in smaller towns, much less in rural areas). Azaad Bazaar is fondly remembered by members of Mumbai’s queer community as not simply a shopping destination, but an important refuge for gay or questioning individuals to come together and meet in a truly safe and welcoming space. Blogger Tappy Tippy writes, ‘They stock my favourite fix of erotica compilations… heart-shaped rose soaps, Italian Nescafe, funky headgear for a perfect theme party…  I’ve come in to find common friends, get advice… [Customers got] support from everyone as they came out to their families and dealt with the aftermath within [Azaad Bazaar’s] walls.’ This integration between movement and market can be found even in some of the most high-end pink businesses. Sanjay Malhotra, founder of Indjapink – a travel boutique advertising itself as ‘exceptional experiences for men only’ – describes how educating people remains the most important aspect of catering to the gay traveller. ‘In every hotel we use and provide for a guest, I’ve met the owners, spoken to their staff – their butlers, their receptionists, everyone – I’ve made them understand what it is to be a gay man or a lesbian woman. They are gay-friendly in the true sense of the word, because we’re not just selling an idea as gay-friendly – we speak to them, we make them understand… It’s very important in today’s times to change mindsets, because ignorance cannot be a reason for a poor or offensive service anymore.’ In this manner, even companies predicating their success on the willingness of the upper-class gay man to shell out large amounts of money on tailored holidays, simultaneously work to cultivate wider attitudes of tolerance and sensitivity. However, with only an extremely small percentage of the queer population being able to access such holiday experiences, it is pertinent to ask just how far and wide the effects of this awareness raising are scattering their seeds.

Writing in the International Socialist Journal, Peter Morgan states, ‘Now to be gay or lesbian is not simply a statement of sexuality but a statement of lifestyle: it defines what clothes you wear, what magazines you read, what furniture you have, or what vodka you drink.’ As gay identities across the globe increasingly become defined by those who can afford to participate in the growing culture of pink-consumerism, the class distinctions within the LGBTQ movement deepen, where those with money to spend increasingly become the face of what is in reality a much larger and diverse community than those who comprise a country’s elite. As the face of gay India starts to take on the polarities of Hijras and HIV on one end of the spectrum and arty, well-dressed male fashion designers on the other, those who also critically participated in the struggle towards decriminalisation – working-class people and lesbian women with ties to the feminist movement – are often left out of the picture, creating profound class and gender divides in both perceptions and lived-experiences of what it means to be a part of queer India.

Across the globe, the pink-economy’s advertisers, entrepreneurs and business people view gay men as their primary consumers. This market model is based on certain ‘attributes’ of homosexual men – their inability (or lack of desire) to form a conventional family unit; a lack of pressure vis a vis bringing up children that lesbian or bisexual women still face (though to a far lesser extent than heterosexual women); and a wider economic inequality that continues to perpetuate higher pay for men across all sectors – irrespective of sexual orientation – leaving them with greater disposable incomes. Even putting on hold the assumptions that gay men do not want to have families and that those with extra money are rushing out in hordes to purchase expensive tailored products, the question still remains – at a time when markets and advertisers are aggressively courting women in every facet of their lives, why do lesbian and bisexual women remain largely outside the focus of pink companies? Shobhna S. Kumar – founder of Queer Ink, an online store for queer literature and publishing, which runs book clubs, workshops, and a crisis helpline – describes how much of this has to do with the largely protected and family-based lives that many Indian women are constrained within. ‘The issue is, if you buy a book from us, where would you keep it at home? Men tend to travel more, but women stay back at home. Even if we choose not to marry, we’re often stuck at home with our parents or older siblings.’ Without a room (or even cupboard with a lock and key) of one’s own, the vibrant mugs, t-shirts and clothes – forget sex toys and sex manuals, banned in a country where female sexual pleasure itself is a crime – for sale to the queer community have no place in the home of the queer woman, whose daily struggle too often comprises the efforts she must make to hide her sexual orientation from those around her.

Image courtesy

The marketisation of the LGBTQ movement has wrought a transition from a sexual identity to a lifestyle choice, which closely mirrors the ways in which market trends have commodified various social movements over the last few decades. For example, advertisers and companies have reworked the principles of feminism, transforming a once-class conscious movement into the (purchasing) power to buy a vibrator and a designer pant-suit. In similar ways, the pink economy in its full-fledged Western avatar heralds the availability of gay pride- over-the-counter. For those who can afford it, of course. Furthermore, from Oscar Wilde’s dandies to leading homosexual fashion designers featured in magazines to stock gay characters on television shows, there has been a tendency to portray gay men as actors or artists; personas of wealth and flamboyance. Coupled with the growth of an economy whose aim is not only to respond to, but create, such clientele, an international public perception is formed wherein ordinary (working-class) people simply cannot be gay. With 10% of the male population and 6% of the female population worldwide estimated to be homosexual, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning – suggesting, of course, that the real closeted figures are much higher – the myth of an exclusively wealthy queer community is just that: a myth. Discussing the ways in which the markets courting the queer community are developing within India, Shobhna talks about the question of who is – and is not – counted as having access to pink rupees. ‘The whole queer movement arose out of grassroots level activists – who still go to the police to get permissions, are visible on the road marching…So they also make up a power-base in terms of your everyday retail consumer. But we don’t see them as a [pink] retail consumer, because they don’t buy books, because they don’t go on holiday. But they go to your kirana store and buy rice and daal to support their families. So yes, the BPO-working, English-speaking gay guy comes to my shop to buy books, and is able to spend three thousand – so is that then the qualification to be part of the pink rupee?’ In this sense, the pink rupee is defined not by who is doing the spending, but is crucially linked to what is being bought. The purchasing power held by those members of the queer community who cannot afford to participate in urban, affluent retail markets means that the rupees they hold, despite their sexual orientations and the fact that they are indeed spending, will never turn pink.

Another example of the narrow definitions of what it means to be part of the pink economy can be found in the purchasing trends of the transgender community. Often largely excluded from enterprises such as retail stores and designer labels – despite there presumably being a potential market for drag or trans fashion – there is a tendency to see trans people as falling outside the realm of the pink market. However, as gay journalist Vikram Doctor points out, the services being purchased nearly exclusively by the transgender community are medical ones. ‘Yes, there is a market for doctors who do sexual reassignment surgery, and in that sense there is a [pink] market for trans people, and it’s a very defining market.’ However, given the largely unglamorous and taboo nature of this business, it is not profitable for those who are defining the pink economy – primarily those within the advertising industry – to see the medical services essential to much of the transgender population as a pink business. Doctor goes on to question whether the current forays down which pink businesses are travelling are truly responding to the needs of India’s queer communities. Stressing the importance of not homogenising the queer or even simply gay population into an amorphous group who, due to their sexual orientation or gender, invariably enjoy, purchase and desire the same things, Doctor states, ‘There are lots of gay men who are fairly openly out, and who’ve thought, “There must be lots of other gay men like us who we can do things for.” They see the gay community through the prism of themselves, but in fact the queer community is much more diverse.’ He goes on to talk about what are the most keenly desired but inaccessible products:  those related directly to sex. ‘I mean gay saunas, gay escort services and things like that, because there is definitely a market for sex-related services. But there is no prospect of offering those services legally.’ In this way, critics of the pink economy question just what role these products, enterprises and initiatives have to play in the individual and collective lives of queer Indians, and to what extent they are a reflection of the needs of queer India.

However, even those who are conscious of the potentially detrimental aspects of the marketisation of the movement say it may be too early to speak of its effects. Soraya – a Mumbai-based feminist and queer activist says, ‘Right now, the pink rupee hasn’t reached the level where it’s anywhere close to a kind of pink economy, so I don’t think that there are any cogent messages about its nature or effects we can glean. It’s still in its fledgling stages.’ While recognising the ways in which pink businesses tend to target the affluent, Soraya talks about the need to differentiate between companies that are helpful versus exploitative for the movement. ‘Right now, it’s nice that there are some queer businesses out there who are participating in the movement, as compared to bigger corporate companies who will target money from queer people without thinking about the overall community. This has happened a lot abroad.’ However, in India, it simply is just too soon to tell. As the relatively new pink market continues to foster its ties to at least some strata of the wider movement, it is indeed difficult to draw conclusions as to the ways in which this economy will develop in the future. If the parallel developments in the West are indicators of what is to come, as India’s queer movements gain strength and visibility, corresponding market forces will either support or encroach upon the successes of liberation. Whether or not the pink economy’s current commitment to the cause will become diluted in a balance sheet of profit and loss is difficult to state with certainty. However, for those with little faith in the established trajectories of the market, the predictions are not very optimistic.


2 comments to Pride Over The Counter: Queer India and the Pink Economy

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>