September, 2012: I had just become one of the 3 toppers of World Pulse's Voice of Our Future Correspondent program (VoF) and had been invited on a speaking tour of the US.
As a part of our preparation for the tour, I - along with my two other winner- sisters Neema Namadamu (DRC Congo) and Nissan Ahmodo (Syria/Dubai) received a mail from Scott Beck - the then Online Community Manager at World Pulse. Scott asked us to list 3 things that we would like to see or do during the tour.
I wrote my 3 wishes :
1) Eat Voodoo Donuts (special of Portland - World Pulse's home city. This was fulfilled in a grand way as Ankur Naik - the Chief Technical Architect of World Pulse surprised me with a large box of voodoo donuts).
2. See/Meet an Amish person (a religious community that has a very unique life style. I soon learnt that they were in Pennsylvania - a state not in our itinerary. But I did see a store that sold Amish furniture. Close enough!)
3. Visit a Gay bar
Looking back, I can feel my 3rd wish shocking the team of World Pulse. Gay bars are common across the US and especially in Portland - a city of the progressive people, its not a big deal at all. But who on earth OFFICIALLY asks for a visit to a gay bar? However, being the awesome people that they are, nobody really commented on this although, privately, a few curious ones did ask why I wanted to do this.
My answer was simple: as a journalist who reports Gender issues, I have been meeting, interviewing LGBT community members and every time I see the same picture : people being harassed, discriminated against, insulted, denied rights and basic dignity and tortured. For once in my life, I wanted to see them in a happy space.
Our tour started from New York and it was so hectic, we didn't have any time.
We went to Washington DC and spoke at different prestigious forums, met wonderful people. But no gay bar visits.
We came to Portland. Across the street from the hotel we stayed in, I saw a gay bar. It was a Saturday and people were filing in and out. I heard some sing, some were laughing laud. I still remember standing near the window and looking at them, but too hesitant to walk across and go in there.
The tour was coming to an end as we went to Atlanta for our last few speaking engagements. There, one day before we were to say goodbye, I finally had my wish fulfilled, as I walked into a gay bar with Ellie Angelova - the then Partnership Director of World Pulse and a dear friend. And I saw what I wanted to see - a room full of LGBT people who were smiling, laughing, dancing, drinking and just in a "happy space".
And then something else happened.
I realised, in a room packed with LGBT folks, there were me and Ellie - two straight people. We were the sexual minority here.
But nobody came over to us and said 'what are you doing here?' or 'you don't belong here'. Or anything that would smell of discrimination or bias or make us feel bad. Instead, we got the same smiles, same courtesy, same service and the tiny pouch of gifts that had a wristband in rainbow colors and some stickers that everyone else got. For the entire time that we spent there, we were what we were : two people who were visiting a bar, enjoying a drink - like everyone else there. Nothing else like our sexuality or our choice of partners mattered.
Last week, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code -a colonial, obsolete (it was written in the year 1861) and inhuman law that said homosexuality was illegal and punishable, will no longer be valid. The court said, all citizens of India - straight and LGBT - were equal. And the court said, the LGBT Indians should be accepted exactly as they are ("take my as I am") - people with a different sexual orientation (which is anyway nobody's but their individual business).
I know there is a distance between legal recognition and social acceptance. For example, the law had earlier recognised the transgender people as legal citizens with equal rights, but across the country, transgender people continue to be ill-treated. But, having the law with you is the biggest thing because now you can drag the person who ill-treats you to the court, isn't it?
So, it will still take some time for straight Indians to stop hating or frowning upon the fellow Indians who are gay or lesbian or bisexual or queer. But at least we can expect the open, crude attacks and torture and insults to end now. And I hope nobody has to fly to the US or another country to see the LGBT people in a happy space. India has just laid the foundation for this space right here.