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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 June 2003, 06:24 GMT 07:24 UK
Gay Bombay comes out

By Zubair Ahmed
BBC correspondent in Bombay

A new book celebrating forbidden love between homosexual men in India has raised hopes within the country's largely invisible gay community of the chances of coming out of the closet.

Two men dance together in nightclub in Bombay
Gay men in India are slowly becoming more confident in public
The Boyfriend deals with love between an openly gay man and a young boy who feels unable to pursue his gay instincts, just like millions of other Indian men.

It is an unusual storyline with an unusual theme in a country where homosexuality remains a punishable offence. A 141-year-old law prohibits "unnatural" sexual acts.

The book is being seen as a symbol of the growing confidence of Indian gay men, best exemplified by their public behaviour in the western Indian city of Bombay (Mumbai).

R Raj Rao, the book's author, says the gay community wants the law to be repealed, but is still not vocal enough to demand its rights.

"There's a need to politicise the issues," he says.

"Unless that happens there's little hope for the gay community."

Here in Mumbai I can hold hands with my boyfriend and walk around, which is not possible even on the streets of New York and London
Mohammad Yunus

There are no official estimates for India's gay community, but some gay organisations say it may be as large as 50 million people.

"Here in Mumbai I can hold hands with my boyfriend and walk around, which is not possible even on the streets of New York and London," says Mohammad Yunus, a gay man who lives in Mumbai.

He believes one in 10 Bombay residents in a city of 15 million is gay.

"What's changed is that our profile has been raised," says Vikram Doctor of Gay Bombay, an organisation that says it creates safe spaces for gays.

Thriving scene

Indeed, Bombay's gay scene is thriving by any standards.

Vikram Doctor
Vikram works for Gay Bombay, a group that helps create "safe space" for gays

There are regular gay parties in bars and pubs.

Voodoos, a night club in South Mumbai, has a gay night every Saturday.

There are other clubs like it in cities such as Delhi and Bangalore.

But in tradition-bound India, where homosexuality is either ignored, covered up, or treated as a disease, the openness of the Bombay gay night is unusual.

Gay Bombay organises a gay party every month.

It is considered an advertisement for the gay community's growing boldness.

The last one, on Friday, was attended by more than 350 people, roughly a third more than expected.

"We are just a bunch of ordinary guys having a night out," said the party's organiser.

Slice of normality

Middle class gay men danced with people from various social backgrounds.

Several European tourists also joined in the fun.

An Israeli from Tel Aviv said it was his third time at a Bombay gay night.

"It's better than the bars of Tel Aviv," he said.

It was the slice of normality that Indian gay couples crave.

And in a rare attempt to break the taboo of invisibility, many gay men at the party agreed to be photographed.

The party's organisers had initially refused to allow photography.

Courage to come out

Bombay's monthly gay night comes just eight years after the city played host to India's first gay conference.

Mohammad Yunus [left] and Nitin Karani
Nitin [right] say all Indian gays want is acceptance

Now, says R Raj Rao, Indian society needs to grow up and gay men need to have the courage to come out.

Rao describes himself as one of less than 100 Indian gay men to openly live as he chooses.

"Many people are still not willing to come out of the closet, " he says.

"The number of openly declared gays may not be more than 100."

But he says it is a good sign that Bombay has become the place to go for gay parties and discos.

Creating awareness

It is when the music stops that Indian gays are reminded that they still do not enjoy the freedom to declare their identity.

"All we want is the acceptance that we exist and that we are not different from heterosexual people, except for our sexual and emotional attractions to men," says Nitin Karani, who contributes articles to a gay website.

Gay Bombay and Hum Safar, one of India's first gay organisations, are working to create an awareness of gay rights through workshops, film screenings and parties.

Their websites are used as a community forum to talk openly about their various problems.

Mr Rao, who believes that Bombay has more gays than New York and London put together, says most of them do not come out for the obvious reason that society has not accepted them.

"Gays still have a long way to go in India", he says.

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