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Queer cafés in India that are safe spaces for the community

Ahead of Trans Day of Remembrance on November 20, observed in memory of those murdered due to transphobia, a look at cafes that started as safe spaces

Cases of everyday hostility towards trans people and other visibly queer folks are common. As a response to this, three cafes in Noida, Mumbai, and Kolkata, try to provide safe spaces for the queer community. (Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash)

In a landmark judgement for the transgender community in India, the Supreme Court in 2014 had provided for the right to self-identification of gender and legally recognised the third gender. The Transgender (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 though invited criticism from community members for a myriad reasons including legal discrimination in making punishment for sexual abuse against transgender people less severe than for similar crimes against cisgender women. This is vital because trans people continue to face transphobic violence and stigma both from their families and the society. In September, for instance, a 17-year-old trans girl in Tamil Nadu was allegedly murdered by her brother as he thought that her identity brought shame to the family.

According to a 2017 survey by Bangalore-based Swasti Health Resource Centre that encapsulated violence against trans people, 44.7% respondents reported experiencing emotional, physical, and sexual violence. “Many queer individuals continue to live in a state of continuous anxiety because of the way that their lives divide into an outwardly ‘straight’ persona and a privately queer existence. Being outed in a public space or one’s workspace could invite harassment, discrimination and even abuse,” writes sexuality rights researcher Ajita Banerjee in a paper on understanding queer citizenship published in the NUJS Law Review in 2019. This is especially the case for those who are visibly queer, like trans people and so-called ‘effeminate’ gay men, says Delhi-based queer rights activist and assistant professor Priyam Ghosh.

Urooz Hussain at an outdoor table at Cafe Street Temptations. 
Urooz Hussain at an outdoor table at Cafe Street Temptations.  (Courtesy Urooz Hussain)

It is in the face of such reality, that November is marked as Trans Awareness Month, and November 20 is observed as Trans Day of Remembrance, in honour of the lives of those systematically murdered because of transphobia. The community also celebrates trans and queer resilience and hope this month.

In this context, a spotlight on cafes that have come up as safe spaces for transgender and queer people, across urban locales in recent times:

In Noida

Around 2012, Urooz Hussain, now 28, realised that she would not survive in the hotel industry. She had faced transphobia from managers while interning at a hotel in the National Capital Region, as a hospitality student. That was when she first dreamed of having her own café.

A few years later, in 2019, Hussain launched Café Street Temptations for herself and her community in a shopping complex in Noida. “I wanted people to stop looking at us with an ugly perspective. I wanted us to have jobs,” she says.

Hussain decided to make her café inviting by appealing to Indians’ love for street food. She went for a rustic approach—the colourful tables are designed like the fronts of lorries that ply across India’s highways. They are painted in the unmissable primary hues of red, green, and blue; the incandescent bulbs overhead and on the tables resemble their beams.

Also Read: How campus support groups are helping queer students

It wasn’t smooth sailing, however. Hussain found it difficult initially, to find a place to rent for her café. When she finally managed to start it, she says that others in the shopping complex initially mocked her. Some customers also showed disdain when they realised that she was a trans woman.

“When I would walk to the café from my home, people would sometimes try to accost me, saying that they would give me a lift. From afar, they would think vile things about me,” says Hussain.

Now however, Hussain hosts parties for queer folks, events in which they can “feel free”. She also caters to a few women’s clubs by hosting kitty parties. She fondly remembers how a patron presented her with a poem on her beauty, struggles, and achievements.

“My aim was also to have trans staff members and [also employ] others from the wider LGBTQ community so that they don't have to face discrimination [in their workplaces], and they can work freely here,” she says. When she first started, Hussain had hired a trans man and a trans woman. Soon however, the COVID-19 pandemic and India’s stringent lockdowns led her to closing down the space many times. Now, she is back to looking for recruits, and to open her café to the public again.

In Mumbai

Like with Hussain’s cafe in Noida, employing community members is one of the main ideas that inform the existence of Café Guftagu (meaning ‘dialogue’) in the Mira Road suburb of Mumbai. Launched in February 2020, this café aims to provide a safe space and create awareness about queer issues, says Sumit Pawar, who is one of the founders.

The cafe’s interiors are inspired by an unabashed queer pride and rainbow theme. They have ‘Love is Love’ posters, rainbow heart hangings, and a whole stack of books by queer authors like Parmesh Shahani. “The vibe initiates dialogue... the space is for people to have discussions [on gender and sexuality],” says Pawar.

A literary event at Cafe Guftagu, with Parmesh Shahani (centre) with his book Queeristan, and Paromita Vohra of Agents of Ishq (seated)
A literary event at Cafe Guftagu, with Parmesh Shahani (centre) with his book Queeristan, and Paromita Vohra of Agents of Ishq (seated) (Courtesy Cafe Guftagu)

The café has been organising book discussions and open mic evenings, where people can share their stories through poems and songs.

“Youngsters are especially talking about it [queer issues]. They are looking for such spaces where they feel comfortable, where they feel welcomed,” adds Pawar.

As they could not function regularly during the pandemic, the café has also become a space to cook meals and provide them to people and communities in need. They still maintain a fundraiser to continue their relief operations.

In Kolkata

Located in a two-storied house in a residential area in Kolkata, the Amra Odbhuth community space cum pop-up café takes its name from the lyrics of a song by Rabindranath Tagore.

“We wanted to have a literal sense—Odbhuth as something that is queer in a way that made sense to us, evoking the feeling of wonder and diversity,” says Upasana Agarwal, who is a co-founder of the space.

Agarwal maintains it with their partner and friends, seeing it as both a political and social space where friendship and community are political acts. It has multiple sitting areas, a library, and a film screening room, along with a community room which doubles up as a shelter for members during any emergencies.

Also Read: Is Indian publishing becoming more queer-friendly?

However, despite the space’s relief work during the pandemic, some neighbours had been objecting to their work, even calling the police. The police, however, supported their space, giving them some sense of relief and legitimacy.

While Agarwal says their five-year-old space is one where queer folks do not have to negotiate their presence, or have an external body capitalise on it, they do not think any space can entirely be a safe space. “We don't all come from the same spaces of privilege. It is a constant act of learning. I would say that it is an open space — a space that is open to feedback, open to learning how to be inclusive.”

While these cafes try to create that safe space, they are not accessible to all. They are far fewer in number and present only in urban locales. There also exists discrimination and disparity within the wider queer community. Ghosh shared the example of a queer cafe in South Delhi that openly excludes trans people and queer women. The queer movement in India needs to consider such internal divides and the intersection of queerness with caste, class, and gender, among other forms of marginalisation.

Anmol Arora is an independent journalist and writer. They report on gender and sexuality, wellness, food, and culture, among other things.

    19.11.2021 | 10:30 AM IST

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