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Keshav Suri: Queering the pitch

  • Keshav Suri, executive director, The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group talks about the loss of ‘pink money’
  • He looks back at one year of the Keshav Suri Foundation, which aims to empower the queer community professionally and economically

(Photo: Jayachandran/Mint)

The reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code last year sent a wave of joy through queer rights activists across the country. One of the more enduring images was of the employees at The LaLiT New Delhi breaking into a flash mob at the hotel, sporting rainbow scarves. And right at the forefront was a beaming Keshav Suri, executive director of The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group.

A prominent LGBTQ+ activist, his was one of the individual petitions, along with those by artist Navtej Johar, architect-hotelier Aman Nath and chef Ritu Dalmia, to have sought the reading down of Section 377. “Neither the state nor the Centre has a right to enter anybody’s bedroom," Suri had said in his petition.

An ardent advocate of inclusion at the workplace, Suri used this momentous occasion to launch the Keshav Suri Foundation in October, to empower the community professionally and economically.

It’s going to be nearly a year since the launch. I meet Suri at The LaLiT New Delhi to understand what the foundation has been able to achieve so far.

Suri, 34, began with his own group—it now has a dedicated diversity and inclusion team, making The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group the only one in the sector to have such a department. “Even before the launch of the foundation, I spearheaded campaigns such as ‘No Hate’ and started organizing LGBTQI nights at the 24x7 Bar," says Suri.

It was in 2013, when the Supreme Court first reversed the Delhi high court verdict declaring Section 377 unconstitutional, that the group’s activism really started. “Then Kitty Su came on board at The LaLiT and became India’s most inclusive nightclub," he says.

Suri’s activism, of course, has some deeply personal roots. In a May 2018 article for the news website DailyO, he wrote: “I am a proud member of the LGBTQI community in India. I have no qualms in admitting that I have been in a committed relationship with an adult male for a decade. Though my personal life is not up for discussion, I felt it was important to highlight the fact. Being a member of the community, I have first-hand knowledge of the trials and tribulations faced by them in India."

It helped that he had the support of his family—his mother Jyotsna and his sisters, Divya, Deeksha and Shradha—who embraced Suri’s marriage with his boyfriend, Cyril Feuillebois, in Paris in June 2018. It was heartwarming to see a December Instagram video of Suri doing a drag performance dressed in a Gaurav Gupta gown with his mother to the song Kaisi Paheli Zindagani in Goa. “I have been out to my family for 11 years now but it has still taken me so long to talk about it openly," he wrote in the DailyO article.

It has been far more difficult to change attitudes in the boardroom. Suri began helming affairs when his father, Lalit, died in 2006. While his siblings handled corporate purchase, legal affairs, sales, revenues and human resources, he looked after food and beverages, marketing and expansion. One of the turning points came when an employee, Hamza, transitioned to Mahi and became the hotel’s first trans employee, with Suri paying for her sexual reassignment surgery.

“For starters, we made all our forms gender-neutral and started hiring from the trans community in a big way," says Suri, who pursued a masters in international management from King’s College, London, and has a law degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Today, the group ensures that its insurance provider covers same-sex couples in its family policies, including 3.5 lakh as part of the cost of sexual reassignment surgeries. “Right now, we have around 50 members across the group who are openly out, of whom 12 are trans. And that is not counting the Kitty Su roster, which includes 20 trans artists and performers, over 60 drag queens, and promoters and consultants," he says.

Suri has often talked about the economic cost of criminalization and the loss of “pink money", a term used to describe the purchasing power of the LGBTQ+ community. Through the foundation, he is hoping to change that, albeit with small steps. The first of these has been to launch scholarships for LGBTQ+ students for a diploma in food production and service at the group’s hospitality school in Faridabad, Haryana.

The foundation’s motto is “Embrace, Empower, Mainstream". “This can sound like fluff, right?" smiles Suri. “But how do you empower a community in this day and age? It is through job creation, it is by helping them become tax-paying citizens of the country." This is why Suri hosted the first-ever job fair for the community in Bengaluru in July.

Is it that not even one company had even one employee from the LGBTQ+ community earlier? Not really. It’s just that they didn’t have the courage to speak up, says Suri. “Even with the reading down of Section 377, people are afraid of coming out of the closet. Just think of it as this: People who are leading a double life at the workplace are not going to be able to give their 100%. They will not intermingle and will go into depression. You will, as a company, end up losing an efficient employee."

Though the numbers were small, the job fair helped highlight that it is no longer possible to run a company that shies away from inclusion. At the next edition of the job fair, set to take place in February or March, he hopes that besides multinational corporations, many more home-grown brands will visit the fair and hire members of the community.

For Suri, inclusion isn’t just restricted to the LGBTQ+ community. He also works with the NGO Make Love Not Scars and has funded surgeries of acid attack survivors, one of them being a trans member, Sonia.

He believes that the success of such initiatives lies not just in training, but in providing suitable infrastructure too. For instance, at OKO, the pan-Asian restaurant at The LaLiT New Delhi, the team has created a special console for Varun Khullar, a differently-abled disc jockey. And now, the group’s 12 hotels in India and London have gender-neutral toilets as well. “We were the first and only hotel chain worldwide to have adopted the UN code of conduct, whereby we have zero tolerance for discrimination against any of our team members," he says.

No amount of sensitization or policy creation, however, can work unless all employees take up the role of “allies" rather than looking at it as “us vs them". This is why all 5,500 members of the group—permanent or hired on fixed contract—are requested to sign an equality pledge. “It is written in all regional languages so that the employees understand what they are signing up for. We also work with local NGOs and activists on sensitization modules in vernacular languages," says Suri.

While these efforts are laudable, they do give rise to critical questions—for instance, employees from the LGBTQ+ community are within a protected environment at the hotel, but how does one ensure the safety net extends further, in their interactions with the neighbourhood and their families? “Through the Pure Love campaign, we encourage all our employees to carry their learnings back home. Are you enforcing gender stereotypes on your children? How inclusive are you in your neighbourhood? All opinions matter and we debate and discuss a lot of these," says Suri.

The campaign has been a steep learning curve for him as well. For instance, Suri is aware that his employees from the trans community have been denied housing in the past. “While housing is not the group’s responsibility, we have handled this on a case-by-case basis, with the team informing the landlords that these employees work with the Lalit group. The mindset, unfortunately, is that trans is equal to sex worker and beggar," he rues.

The group is trying to challenge such norms by ensuring that there are members of the trans community in managerial positions and not just in back-of-the-house jobs. “We are also in the process of creating housing for the employees, but that is still in the early stages," adds Suri.

He says the next step is to ensure marriage equality. “Weddings is a multibillion-dollar industry. Imagine if you added LGBTQI weddings to that," he says. Suri cites his own example—besides hosting a ceremony in Paris, he organized receptions in Goa and Delhi.

“I generated employment in some form, which helped the economy. If we just looked at it from a capitalist point of view, it would be stupid not to grant marriage rights. We need to wake up to the power of pink money. Brazil is an example, as is the US. Even though Singapore has not legalized gay marriage, some very important papers are emerging from it on the pink economy," he concludes.

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