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Mumbai commerce puts blush-on

Updated on: 23 January,2011 10:30 AM IST  | 
Dhamini Ratnam |

This year, the annual gay pride march has turned bigger and louder, with a whole week of activities planned, some even at popular public venues. And with a gay men's fashion store and a queer bar opening last month, queer entrepreneurship seems the next big tool to participate, integrate, and engage with the mainstream

Mumbai commerce puts blush-on

This year, the annual gay pride march has turned bigger and louder, with a whole week of activities planned, some even at popular public venues. And with a gay men's fashion store and a queer bar opening last month, queer entrepreneurship seems the next big tool to participate, integrate, and engage with the mainstream

Since she was a 16, Mumbai resident Toral (name changed) was keen on opening a resto-bar that would provide a safe, entertaining space for the queer community to let their hair down.
When the 31 year-old finally opened shop in the Western suburbs last month, she sent out invites through popular social networking site Facebook, to her gay and straight friends.

Toral's Saturday night parties are popular in the queer community, but she also has clients who approach her to rent out the premises for kiddie birthday parties and wedding anniversaries. "During the day, I have college kids chill over snacks at the restaurant in my bar," says Toral.

While she has no doubt about who forms her target audience, she is clear about her business aim: Everyone's welcome.

Twenty nine year-old visual merchandiser Inder Vhatwar would knowu00a0 what she means. Vhatwar who opened the city's first queer multi-designer store in Bandra last month, makes little distinction between gay and straight clients.

"At the end of the day, a customer is a customer. And if he likes the
product ufffd whether it's a shoe or a T-shirt or a pair of pants ufffd he'll pick
it up. Besides, I need straight customers to bring their money in. That's
the only way I can expand operations," says Inder Vhatwar, the man
behind Mumbai's first multi-designer queer fashion store. Pic/Satyajit Desai

To begin with, he says, there's nothing about D'Kloset that shouts "queer". "There are no badges, no logos." No sex toys either; that are still illegal in India.

Dimitri and Vhatwar are among a gradually expanding group of queer entrepreneurs who are keen to strike commercial success by straddling both worlds. They draw inspiration from Queer Ink, India's first queer virtual bookstore that launched last April, and Azaad Bazaar, the country's first LGBT Pride store that opened in December 2009. Both are seeing encouraging commercial results.

Business is the newest tool to help the queer community carve out a social identity. And even while some, like Toral, aren't keen for visibility through the media, they readily accept the impact that straight clientele have on their business.

Vhatwar says the largest purchase at D'Kloset was by a straight client. Heterosexual men have been streaming in to get styled, he claims. Vhatwar is full of anecdotes -- a Gujarati gentleman who entered wearing a safari suit and left in low waist corduroys, or the 40-year-old straight guy who tried a pair of harem pants after some persuasion from Vhatwar, and bought two.

Jai, a 22 year-old college student, who identifies as gay, was introduced to the store by a straight girlfriend. "She bought a bag from D'Kloset, and that's how I was introduced to the store. Several friends -- straight, gay, guys and girls -- have visited it."

Tanya Sharma, a 31 year-old stylist, chanced upon Vhatwar's venture a few weeks ago while she was hunting for a suede waistcoat for an advertisement shoot she was working on. "As a customer, I don't care whether a shop is for gay men or straight, as long as I find what I'm looking for," she says.

Vhatwar who worked his way up from being a salesman in a South Mumbai mall to a visual merchandiser for a multinational retail store in just 10 years, doesn't want to cash in on the sexuality label, and would rather have you discuss the brands he stocks.

Like Toral, Vhatwar is clear about his target audience, but his marketing strategy doesn't spin on the homosexual pivot. "At the end of the day, a customer is a customer. And if he likes the product -- whether it's a shoe or a T-shirt or a pair of pants -- he'll pick it up. Besides, I need straight customers to bring their money in. That's the only way I can expand operations."

Travel journalist Neha Dara, 27, seems to be that customer. "As a customer, all I want is a product that is value for my money. The sexual orientation of the owner is irrelevant, as is who the store is aimed at," says Dara, who shops at Azad Bazaar for badges, cigarette cases, and bags, and plans to attend the QAM Mela today.

Entrepreneurs Simran and Sabina -- who reveal only their first names to maintain their privacy -- opened Azaad Bazaar, in Bandra's chic shopping districtu00a0 in December 2009. The women behind the shop that stocks eclectic buys from local independent artists, say they are more than happy to cater to straight clients.

"When Azaad Bazaar began retailing T-shirts four years ago under the brand, Jailbird, Sabina had no idea of the size of her potential market. We knew it existed, but we had no clue about the numbers," says Simran. The tees are the best-selling item at the store. "It's only natural for queer entrepreneurs to start ventures, because like any other business, it's ultimately a question of identifying a gap in the market and filling it."

The two are looking at expanding their mainstream integrations. Az Baz, as the store is popularly known, already retails at People Tree in New Delhi and Either Or in Pune.

"Commercial ventures help spread the message of the queer cause. The more the message is out there, the easier it will be for queer entrepreneurship to flourish," says Sabina.

Just as queer entrepreneurs are connecting with gay and straight clients through the common denominator of commerce, mainstream commercial establishments seem to reaching out to the community too.u00a0

Cafe Goa, a popular Bandra restaurant, will screen a queer film as part of a Bombay Elektrik Project event scheduled for this Monday, while Candies, Bandra's favourite snack joint, has rented out their Cooper Gate hall for today's Queer Azadi Mumbai (QAM) Mela, and a Queer Ink Open Mic Night on Friday. Yesterday, a Gay Bombay QAM fund raiser and pre-Pride party was held at Dio's, a popular lounge in Tardeo, to raise funds for the January 29 Pride march.

"As a policy, we welcome all customers irrespective of faiths, colour, age, perspective and choice. We do not discriminate," say the Cafe Goa owners. "We are not singling out the queer cause for particular attention, or pursuing a niche clientele. We simply don't believe in making any distinction among our clients."

In much the same way, Shobhna Kumar, who launched Queer Ink last year, doesn't think sexual preferences define her customers. Kumar also sells children's books and academic titles for research students, besides queer titles.

"I am as mainstream as any other business; I fulfill legal requirements such as holding a bank account, or a pan card, and file taxes. The only difference is that I stock books that are not available in bookstores, and reflect an alternate world view."

Kumar says society must understand that a queer individual has straight parents, and so, the two worlds cannot be separate. "My business is one way of bringing that message home."

Chayanika Shah, member of Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action (LABIA), however, urges a note of caution. "The market will always adapt itself to new consumer segments. While it is good to see queer businesses emerge, and I'm happy that new spaces are opening up, we must remember that this will affect only a small section of the community, who can afford to spend the money."

Vikram Doctor, a member of Gay Bombay, a 'self-evolving informal group, a product of like-minded gays', is wary of seeing queer businesses alone as indicative of definitive change. "I would like to see banks offering home loans to queer couples. That would be real change."

Come & watch: Transgender spin to Mumbai Pride Week
Abheena Aher readies for a Helen number while Piya Tu plays on a music system at the Humsafar Trust officeu00a0 in Vakola. Transgender dance troupe Abheena and the Dancing Queens that's set to perform at the upcoming Pride Week, is bringing drag culture to the Indian mainstream, using it to forge personal and collective identities that are neither masculine nor feminine, but rather their own complex genders. Spearheaded by the statuesque Abheena, a communications specialist with Johns Hopkins University, this 14 member group spreads awareness on HIV/AIDS through musical plays.

Handy guide

Mumbai Pride Week


23> 1 pm: Queer Azadi Mela at Copper Gate Candies, Pali Hill
24-25> All day: Flash mobs at a public place near you
24> 8 pm to 10 pm: Kashish short film screening at Cafe Goa, Bandra
25> 6 pm: Book reading of Pink Sheep at Azaad Bazaar, Bandra
26> 5 pm: Performance of Ek Madhav Baug, and dancing Queens at SNDT, Juhu
27> 7 pm: Live music and dance at Carter Road open auditorium
28> 7 pm: Graffiti wall and folk dance
28> 8 pm: Queer Ink Open Mic night at Copper Gate Candies
22-28> Get dressed for pride at Azaad Bazaar
22-28> Give your clothes a Pride makeover at D'Kloset, Bandra
26-28> 1 pm to 9 pm: Paint your tee at Azaad Bazaar
29> 1.30 pm: Queer Azadi Mumbai march, August Kranti Maidan to Girgaum Chowpatty
29> 9 pm: Gay Bombay QAM post-pride party at Liquid Lounge, Opera House

Constitutional rights next, say Mumbai's queer
Mumbai's queer community is in the mood for change this year. The Queer Azaadi March (QAM) format has metamorphosed from just a march that was held from August Kranti Maidan in Gowalia Tank to Girgaum Chowpatty to an entire week of celebrations that kicked off yesterday.

Book readings, plays and performances, shopping fests and a mela will culminate in a grand march scheduled for January 29.

The most significant difference, insiders believe, is the scale and choice of event dates. Pallav Patankar of non-governmental organisation Humsafar Trust, says, "We had discussed expanding the march into a festival last year. The change provides greater opportunity for not only the gay community to mobilise itself, but also for dialogue with the external community. It is an important stepping stone for gays. It provides them a chance to be in different spaces, and find a niche, since the festival spans from South Mumbai to Bandra-Juhu."

Mahesh Natarajan, Bengaluru-based writer and author of the recently released Pink Sheep, a book of 18 short stories on gay men finding love in India, is expected to arrive for a book reading at Pride Week. "A whole week gives us the chance to explore, demonstrate and hold activities that a single day does not allow," he says.

The timing of the march has been shifted from around August 15 (Independence Day) closer to January 26 (Republic Day). August 15, a day symbolising independence for all Indians made sense when the homosexual community was fighting for freedom against Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalised sexual activity, "against the order of nature".

The section was read down to decriminalise same-sex behaviour among consenting adults in a historic judgment by the High Court of Delhi on July 2, 2009. Shobhana Kumar, member of the Pride organising committee, says, "Since that July 2, we, in a sense are freer than we were before, though social barriers continue to exist. What we want now is Constitutional freedom. That's why the date was shifted closer to Republic day." By Constitutional rights, Kumar is referring to laws such as the Inheritance Law. Although India is home to several homosexual live-in couples, who create a life and financial future together, and buy a home, even, the law doesn't consider a partner next of kin.

"There has been a shift. Several events at the Pride Week areu00a0 being held in mainstream spaces like the Carter Road open auditorium,u00a0 away from venues that are considered 'safe' places for the community," says Patankar.
Behind the festivities is a serious attempt at breaking down walls of misunderstanding. In yet another debut,u00a0 on January 28, the organisers are putting up a graffiti wall at the Carter Road auditorium. "Everybody is welcome to come and post messages. They could be supportive, or hate messages," says Kumar. "We want to know what everyone has to say, even if some of it is negative. We expect it. We must address those who are homophobic as well. The wall will be a window for community dialogue," believes Patankar.
By Hemal Ashar. With inputs from Rudayna Bahubeshi

The Mankini has takers in Mumbai

D'Kloset may be the city's first queer fashion store, but it sees enough heterosexual women and men drop by to get styled, and shop

The first time we spotted Borat aka Sacha Baron Cohen in a lime green mankini, his butt exposed, body hair in full view, we wondered, 'Would anyone wear that for real?'

Vhatwar stocks what he calls queer fashion. Super skinny, grope-friendly jeans, tees ranging from sober stripes to a burst of colours, three-quarter length denim shorts that come with colourful, flappy pockets (we loved the one in sunshine yellow) or teensy sling bags ("for those who prefer skinny jeans and have no place in their pockets for essentials") and even roomy harem pants for the slightly conservative -- it's all packed in this tiny Pali Hill store.

For men who love skin show -- hairy thighs be damned -- Vhatwar stocks vibrant cycling shorts and underwear, some even sporting butterflies. While the raunchy quotient is enough to send the self-respecting Bandra aunty into embarrassed giggles, the store also offers a good enough range that would interest the straight male (funky sneakers and stylish, well-fitting tees). It's not surprising then that his biggest customer so far has been a straight guy who walked away with goodies worth Rs 25,000.

But Vhatwar says he opened shop with the intention of providing the gay male customer easy choice in a comfortable environment. "I want to provide everything a gay guy fancies and finds hard to come by in Mumbai , but I'm not screaming sexuality from the rooftop," says Vhatwar, who sources most of his collection from Dubai and Bangkok. "The store is for everyone who appreciates fashion, and experimenting."

By Dhvani Solani

AT: 1, Villa Queenie, Plot No 369, near Hawaiian Shack, 16th Road, Pali Hill, Bandra (W). Call: 9820319195

The handbook

Your guide to different sexualities

There's a reason why the Pride march has adopted the symbol of the rainbow -- to refer to the various hues of identities that exist besides heterosexual. LGBTQI refers to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Inter-sex, but these are only broad terms used to describe the different sexualities.

Lesbian: Women who are romantically or sexually attracted to other women.

Gay: A section of men who are romantically or sexually attracted to other men. The preferred term is MSM or Men who have Sex with Men. There are several sub-groups marked on the basis of gender and sexual behaviour. Self-identified behaviourally homosexual men include Indian identified 'kothis', or allegedly effeminate men, Doru-kothis, who penetrate other men, Pav-bata-wali-kothi or married effeminate men, and Panthis, male partners of kothis.

Bisexuals: Men who have sex with men and women. They may be divided into two groups -- self-identified bisexual men, and behaviourally bisexual men (such as some members of floating or migrant populations). Women identify as bisexual too.

Transgenders: Men who cross dress and are involved with gender self-allocation. These include the 'akwa' and 'nirwaan' hijras.

Akwa are those in preparation for castration after rites between guru and chela. These hijras are biological males who cross dress or wear male attire (khada-kothis) and have joined hijra 'gharanas' by leaving their biological families.
Nirwaan hijras are ritually castrated men who are then part of ritual 'houses' called gharanas.

Jogtas: Hindu hijras who are male temple prostitutes. They are mostly male children decisated to a goddess. They ritually crossdress for religious purposes.

Queer: Those who choose not to identify with dominant heterosexuality or for that matter, define their identity on the basis of sexuality.

Intersex: Persons who possess atypical combinations of physical features due to chromosomal difference (not the typical XX-female or XY-male presentation)
Then there are women who identify as men (Female to Male or FTM) and vice versa. They come under the category of transsexuals and do not identify as lesbian or gay.
(With inputs from Humsafar Trust)

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