The media wants you to think of gay men as 24-hour party people who have more sex than everyone else. Sadly, Poorva Rajaram finds a less exciting narrative
WALK IN TO the cloud of deafening sound, blinding light and dark patches. Men grinding on the dance floor, moving like dancers in an item number, but shirtless and sweaty, smeared with kajal, hips flying like no size zero starlet’s hips can fly. Puckered lips pose for cameras, strong (not limp) wrists are laden with bangles and manicured hands hold pink and green drinks. In the corner, a few men dance to Kajra Re. One fourth of the party is in the bathroom, avoiding the song they overdosed on in 2005, and retouching their kajal (that never goes out of style).
I was once a gay party enthusiast. I sought out parties in a Bengaluru disco with over 200 gay men, I even paid the Rs 400 entry fee. But my relationship with gay parties now is filled with love-hate feelings. Gay parties, like non-gay parties, throb with vexing social dynamics. Apart from their utility in giving gay men a location to find each other, gay parties too can reek of sticky quotidian matters.
While reviewing the Sex and the City movie, Anthony Lane, the New Yorker film critic, complained, “I walked into the theatre hoping for a nice evening and came out as a hardline Marxist.” Lane perfectly describes one dimension of gay parties: being weighed down by the sheer amount of shiny, expensive lifestyle products and accessories on offer. Dig past the consumables and there is often a lush ongoing body image drama. ‘Gay fat’ (non-gay thin) is the easy insult flung at those who don’t conform to near-anorexic ideals. Gay parties too have their share of rudderless drunk people who, instead of becoming a more captivating version of themselves, simply stay enamoured with their own drunkenness. As the night progresses, a wishful hook-up mania often irons the vivacity out of a crowd.
Gay men and parties are long-time cultural bedfellows. In the US, it’s no coincidence that there has been a long and productive association between alcohol companies and gay men. Absolut vodka, in particular, has run gay-themed advertisements since 1981. In urban gay cultures, partying can have metaphysical compulsions. For many urban gay men, there is nothing casual about Saturday night. It is the night you nervously plan what new clothes you will wear, the friends you will make a fashionably late entry with, the location of the after party and who you might pursue at the party.
There are, of course, those gay men who valiantly resist peer pressure and those who never cared about parties in the first place, who decided early on that cities can be savoured without discos. Age-old popular myths might associate gay men almost exclusively with bodily indulgences. But promiscuity is the reddest herring at a gay party. Gay parties are illustrative of the marked difference between an aura of promiscuity and promiscuity. Only a select few, gifted people, gay or straight, have the enthusiasm and forethought required to be genuinely promiscuous. For every bed-hopping gay man, there must also be those less motivated, who go to work, get home tired and spend the rest of the day watching television and eating chips.
Nithin Manayath, 32, a college lecturer in Bengaluru, says, “I go to parties only when I want to dance. They are not a great place to meet new men.” I, too, unfailingly rely on gay parties for dancing. Not half-hearted shuffling, but a performance with oodles of vocational zeal. If anything, gay parties today ignite an unwholesome nostalgia for a time (that may never have fully existed) when gayness couldn’t afford to be banal. There is a sense parties are now borne out of a slightly desperate need to aggressively counteract sobriety, not a standalone celebration of celebration.
So there is a rich irony in the media reportage that conflates gay men with sex. Let’s follow the latest thread. On 22 February, TV9 Hyderabad aired a Telugu documentary about homosexual men called Gay Culture Rampant in Hyderabad with some semisting footage of gay men, an alarmist commentator and random shots of a gay party. The news value: gay people in Hyderabad! Gay people partying in Hyderabad! They are meeting each other on websites! Gay culture is spreading!
This was TV9’s ill-conceived attempt to imbue a common gay party — the kind held every week in Indian metros — with the seismic reverberations of a disaster movie. The programme went on to declare that unsuspecting men are becoming “slaves to lifestyle that is against natural way”. Their sting operation proceeded to maliciously out four men they found on the gay dating website, Planet Romeo, by displaying their phone numbers, pictures and audio conversations. Urban myths that one of the men attempted suicide immediately started gaining traction.
For every bed-hopping gay man, there must also be those less motivated who spend the rest of the day watching television and eating chips
TV9’s documentary has been met by swift and fitting outrage. A string of protests took place in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi. On 26 February, a protest party was held in Bengaluru — proof that in some happy universes, anything can be an excuse to party. The protest in Bengaluru, held on 28 February, drew around 70 protesters but no media coverage. More irony. The only media interest in the protest was shown by an amused TV9. “In spite of our requests, TV9 Bengaluru re-aired the footage with some of the faces blocked out,” says Siddharth Narrain, 31, one of the protesters and a lawyer who works in the Alternative Law Forum, Bengaluru. On 24 March, the channel was fined 1 lakh by the News Broadcasting Standards Authority.
For media folks reporting on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues, a protest demanding the right to party, creates a conceptual googly. At the best of times, media reporting in India isn’t sure whether to frame queer people as victims, oversexed deviants or defiant activists. But for now, they want it all three ways. The end result is a high-yielding mine of stories across the year ranging from film festivals to stories of couples that run away from home to gay pride.
What is particularly sad about the media’s prurient interest in gay parties is that what should be a fun escapist party acquires the certitudes of activism. But, as of now, some in the media see most assembly-line parties, with minimal debauchery, as a sinister cultural placeholder.
TV9 did create a slight spark on the party scene, though. At the recently held Bangalore Queer Film Festival, the summative words “You’d better fag it up, TV9 might be there” were overheard before the protest party. This grin-inducing combination of outrage and gay exhibitionism reminded me of what I love about gay parties. These parties rarely touch the fantastical or the higher, hallowed tenets of camp. Susan Sontag writes, “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious”. Perhaps Sontag would support an anguished cry to bring the real floozies back. And the simple hope saris replace the starched shirts on gay dance floors across India.
If wishes were queer, gay parties would be as debauched and gay men as promiscuous as popular myths would have you believe. But, even if they are not, I’ll still go to gay parties with faith that for a few moments at least, the ooze of colourlessness will go away.
Poorva Rajaram is a Correspondent with Tehelka