Loving another man does not make me a criminal

Keshav Suri, hotelier and LGBTQ activist

46-keshav-suri Keshav Suri | Sanjay Ahlawat

Keshav Suri, 33, one of India’s top hoteliers, is driving a battle for the striking down of the controversial Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises homosexual relationships. On April 23, he filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the existing law. In an email interview Suri shares his dream about an inclusive Indian society where everybody lives with dignity.

Edited excerpts:

What made you personally petition the court for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and in support of gay rights?

Keshav Suri is the executive director of The Lalit Suri Hospitality group. Suri filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging IPC Section 377 that criminalises same sex marriage. He ran a social media campaign, #PureLove , in December 2017, to create a platform for talking inclusivity and diversity.

I am a gay man, and have never denied it. I have been fortunate enough to have the support of my family, my work family and my friends. However, there are so many out there who do not [have that support]. Some members of the LGBTQ community started reaching out to me after I brought an international drag artist to India. Something then pinched me, and I wanted to reach out and help.

It is as simple as this—each one of us has the right to live with and in respect. We cannot be termed criminals merely because we choose love regardless of gender.

What do you say to those who suggest that you should keep your sexual orientation private?

Honestly, that does happen and it is fine. I respect where people are coming from. I am a gay man and my sexual preferences are in my own space. When asked about my sexuality I have never denied it, and honestly, why should I? I was not brought up to live a lie.

An inclusive society is a mature and diverse one. I want to be the catalyst that sees that change in the workplace—corporate India—where people are accepted regardless of their disabilities, sexual preference and gender. I think inclusion has economic benefits as well, and people should see that instead of a homosexual man’s rant. By including members of the LGBTQ community in society, by giving them respect, we can enhance productivity, bring down mental health issues and see higher contribution to the GDP. This is exactly what my petition is about—the pink currency.

Heterosexuals are often insensitive to what those who are gay experience in India. Your petition talks of the stigmatisation and discrimination you have experienced. Can you share some instances? Where was it the toughest—in school and college or at the work space? What are the sort of terrible things you have had to experience?

Well, being gay does not always make life easy. I went to an all boys Catholic school in Delhi. I was sneered at for my mannerism at times. I have been called every name in the book, but I do not want to reiterate them here.

Inevitably, the female roles in school plays were given to me. I was fine with that. That did not bother me. I accepted the female roles happily. But, somewhere, it got me thinking and I realised that this was a perception of me being gay which had led to stigmatisation.

Though school was tough, it also helped me develop a thick skin and fight any phobia that existed. When I went for my master’s degree at SOAS University [London], it opened my mind and I was ready to take on the world.

In the end, decriminalisation is really about personal liberty, something the Supreme Court recognised in its recent judgment on right to privacy. Where does the gay community face the biggest hurdles—is it from religious leaders, friends and family, the political class or the society at large?

I think society at large. A lot of it stems due to the lack of education and awareness. Decriminalisation is only step one to acceptance. The biggest acceptance has to come from our homes, our friends, our teachers in school and college, and at the workplace. All this requires social awareness and change in social mindset.

One of the many petitions to strike down Section 377 in the Supreme Court is by parents of gay children. But, not all parents and families are that automatically understanding. Did you have to struggle with your family before you came out?

My family is my rock. There may have been social obligations expected of me. But, they have always stood by me. It is because of their unconditional love and undying support that I have been able to do all this.

As a prominent hotelier and businessman, was the decision to go public more risky for you? What has been the response of the industry?

Yes, I did have to consider and weigh what I was doing. I went ahead when my entire work team supported me. Hence, before filing the petition I started the #PureLove—inclusivity and diversity campaign within the group. The response from all quarters has been overwhelming and humbling.

Based on your notice, the Supreme Court has issued a notice to the Union government. But don’t you think successive governments have passed the buck to the court? Individual politicians like Arun Jaitley and Shashi Tharoor have attempted to take a different position. But, haven’t our lawmakers mostly let us down on this front leaving the courts as the last option?

I think the change should happen, and how it happens—from Parliament and/or court—is immaterial. I am thankful to the court for hearing my writ, and I am hopeful.

Isn’t it ironic that the government wants to police the bedroom when it comes to sexual orientation, but our lawmakers won’t penalise marital rape?

I think offences against the body should be re-looked. There are so many different facets to rape. Rape within a marriage is one such form. Rape of a man is also possible.

Your petition talks of your apprehension that you can be tagged as a criminal in your own country. In that sense doesn’t it boil down to the demand for equal rights as a citizen?

It is an apprehension that all members of the LGBTQ community live with. For that matter, even a heterosexual couple practising anything other than vaginal sex, live with [same apprehension]. I am a law abiding, responsible citizen who has the right to live with dignity and privacy. Merely because I choose to love another man does not make me a criminal, or anyone like me a criminal.

Equal rights will happen as and when the civil society is ready for it. I think the basic is the right to live with dignity, and not being discriminated on the basis of our choices.

Can you share something about your personal journey? How did you reach this point where you became a part of this battle?

I always knew I was gay. The only decision I had a thought about was, whether to live the life of truth or the one that society accepted. I came out to my family when I was about 20 years old. My parents have taught me to be courageous. Social responses did not worry me. I decided to answer my own question about when and how, and started my campaign of #PureLove. Gradually, I became part of this movement.

Are you hopeful of this law being struck down in the near future? And, will the demand for gay marriages be next as it has been in the west?

Of course, one lives in hope. And, I have full faith in the judiciary, and yes, equal rights should be next thing. Or maybe, we set an example for the world by revoking Section 377 and simultaneously giving equal civil rights.

What are the silliest misconceptions you encounter from random people on Section 377?

Lack of education and information has led to many misconceptions and phobias about the LGBTQ community. One of the silliest was someone confusing Section 377 with Article 370 [that gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir].