My journey of self-exploration began in 2012, when I was 14 years old. It was a time just after I’d experienced extreme discrimination in school for being gay. I was beginning to understand and dive deeper into my queerness in India, a country where LGBTQ people do not have the same rights as straight people. As I looked for safe spaces to explore my identity, I stumbled upon one I found surprising back then: a neighbourhood public park.
A friend who I’d met through PlanetRomeo – one of the earliest queer dating platforms – told me about a park in my city in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, which doubled up as a gay hotspot. Out of curiosity, I found my way to the said park, which was just an enclosed patch of unkempt grass next to a noisy road. I first watched from a distance how around sundown, a group of a dozen or so men I’d later call “queens,” would gather. As I gathered confidence to approach them over the next few days, I realised that this is where they’d meet to offload their daily stress, talk about their lives, or just hook up.
For a teenager who’d recently thought that no one would ever understand him, this is where I first sought solace. I made friends from all walks of life and formed connections that are still going strong – even though I’ve moved cities since.
This is where I first came to terms with myself.
“It was only when I grew up that I realised that some of the parks in my neighbourhood were cruising spots for gay men in the late evening, and also had queer history,” said Parmesh Shahani, author of Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace and Gay Bombay. “My favorite park is the Mumbai Port Trust Garden in Colaba not so much for cruising as for romance. I have often come up here with lovers and watched the sunset over Mumbai. There are so many queer couples around at any given time.”
The idea of public parks has always been that all people – no matter the colour of their skin, age, income level, ability, sexual orientation or gender identity – have access to and feel safe here. But for many communities that experience discrimination, including the LGTBQ community, that has not always been the case – and still isn’t everywhere.
These parks were essential in the gathering momentum for the queer movement in the 90s and 2000s because they were open to the public. While India’s bus stands, local trains and movie theatres have been spoken of as cruising hotspots, parks were revolutionary because of the visibility they offered. Some were seedy, dimly lit and made you a bit nervous going in whereas some had better amenities and were relatively safer.
Queer people sought safety in numbers here as they hung out with each other. The added protection of twilight would allow for quick hook-ups with the hope that no one would spot them. They were also essential for people from marginalised communities and less privileged backgrounds who would not have access to queer underground parties or events. These parks were also spaces where both, married gay men and “straight” men who led dual lives coexisted together.
“Public spaces are the birthplace of the human rights movement,” affirmed equal rights activist Harish Iyer. “Queer parks contributed largely to the queer movement as many were also LGBTQ protest sights for queer resistance in the struggle against Section 377.”
Section 377 was a colonial-era law that made gay sex illegal and was read down only in 2018.
“People need to have spaces where they can be themselves without the fear of prejudice or attacks. These parks got christened as ‘queer parks,’ simply because of the fact that there was strength in numbers,” Iyer said.
But that’s not to say they were always safe.
Cops would regularly patrol these parks. Back in my teens, I’ve seen cops interrogate people just because they suspected they were gay. On occasion, someone would be beaten up or even arrested under the garb of obscenity or by threatening to use Section 377 against them. Someone I know was given a forced anal examination. Someone else was threatened by a cop with imprisonment unless they coughed up a huge sum of money as a bribe. In fact, the first known protest for gay rights in India was sparked by the police picking up men from Central Park in Connaught Place, Delhi, on suspicion of homosexuality.
But the fear of being outed and the lack of legal recourse meant that most gay men who were harassed by the cops would keep quiet about it.
“In 2008, I went to a park that was a cruising place at night,” said 35-year-old health worker Lara Negi. “Here, I hooked up with a man who himself went to the cops and told them I was gay. The cops held me captive, bullied me for hours, and even made me dance at the cop station. It was demeaning and humiliating.”
But Lara continued frequenting these parks. “I felt like I could be my most authentic self only there. It was kind of like I was hardwired to go there every day. However, it became dangerous over time and later, I stopped.”
Over time, the park regulars developed a language of their own to warn others of danger. This language was derived from “Hijra-Farsi,” the secret language of South Asia’s transgender community. The language has no written script or textbook and the learning process is generally an informal one, helped along by each other or leaders of their communities. There were commonly known phrases that when shouted by someone in the park, would signal danger, a cop lurking around, or that people should pack up and leave. Everyone was genuinely there to meet other queer people and most had each other’s backs.
There were other dangers too. There’d be gangs waiting to prey on queer men and extort money from them. Often, people would hook up with strangers here and end up with horror stories to tell their friends. Also, it had little to no representation of queer women or transgender people.
“I didn’t even know that one such park existed in the centre of my city for years,” said Tina, a 23-year-old student who preferred to only go by her first name to prevent her family from discovering her sexual orientation. “I navigate through an online community of lesbians and sapphic people, which in some way provides comfort to me. It would've been life-changing to have that kind of support in real life as well. It would’ve helped me build my own queer-friendly universe around me. Although I’ve heard that the park in my town is welcoming, it mostly comprises gay men. So naturally, I don't have many seasoned sapphic people around to enlighten me.”
Over the years, most of these parks have deteriorated, even disappeared. As technology changed the dating or hooking up game, people don’t even need to go to a park to hook up with someone. Additionally, with open spaces shrinking in general, many of these parks have gone extinct – with a road, flyover or a skyscraper standing where they once stood. Some of them have turned into parks frequented by children, which queer people would avoid. The pandemic also shut parks around the country, and it’s unclear how many people will go back to them when things go back to normal.
However, some parks continue to survive even today, in some form or the other. Like the one in my city where I go frequently even now to meet friends. It gives me comfort.
I doubt the glory of these parks would ever be restored. But for now, they continue to be a safe-ish haven for many queer people across the country. Like me.