The gay nightclub scene in India is a sitting duck for anyone who wants to target us – right from the homophobes to the state.

From Chennai with love Visiting the Orlando gay club after the shooting massacre
Blog Blog Monday, October 17, 2016 - 11:20

It was around noon on June 12 in India when I first came across the news of shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Later that day, my social media feeds were filled with updates, and it was probably then I noticed that the shooting happened in a gay nightclub. I started following the news closely. Soon I learnt that it was one of the deadliest attack on the LGBT community in the United States.

We had solidarity gatherings at many cities and towns in India. I went through the comments on news articles about Pulse shooting in Indian news websites. Many comments where in the line “but it was a gay nightclub” or “they were gays” which for me sounded like LGBT individuals deserved on what happened.

When I heard about the Pulse shooting, one of the many initial thoughts was if my travel plan to Orlando in October will be affected - it did not. I extended my stay to attend Orlando pride parade - Come Out with Pride - which was scheduled to happen on the October 8, but was postponed due to hurricane Matthew.

When I arrived at my Airbnb host house in downtown Orlando, the first thing that caught my attention was the Pulse victim memorial on the chain-link fence around Pulse opposite my host’s house. I had planned to visit Pulse victim memorial during my stay in Orlando and I knew it was close to where I planned to stay. The last thing I expected was to be staying right next to it. It was surreal.

For the next two days I hung out at the memorial whenever I had a chance. I got into conversation with people who visited the memorial. Few of them I spoke to weren't regular to Pulse but they were there to show their solidarity and respect. I noticed that the business establishments around Pulse and elsewhere in downtown had signs in solidarity with the victims and survivors, something that I cannot imagine happen in India anytime soon. In fact, I witnessed insensitive and homophobic mockery of the Pulse nightclub shooting by two popular YouTube channels based out of Chennai.

The Pulse victim memorial did not look like how it was in the photos I saw. It was empty and there were no flowers, posters or candles. There were solidarity messages written on the memorial and on the pebbles on the ground.

On October 8, I was returning to my accommodation after dinner when I saw a man in the parking-lot near the Pulse victim memorial place flowers and candles. I greeted him and asked if he needed any help. I sat down with him and watched him arrange the flowers and candles. I enquired if he frequented Pulse. He said that the last time he visited Pulse was roughly ten years ago. Further, he said that he lived down the road and the flowers, posters and the candles were taken away by the authorities two days earlier as a precaution due to hurricane Matthew and hence he came down with flowers and candles. Later I met two other men write on the memorial. One of them from Trinidad - a survivor from that night.

Pulse was an upscale nightclub for gay men and it was started fourteen years ago by Barbara Poma, a straight woman, in memory of her brother John who died from complications from HIV. But Pulse was not restricted to gay men, it was welcoming to anyone from the LGBT community and allies as well. Pulse was also one of the three main LGBT nightclubs in Orlando.

Brock, my host, and his friends decided to end their night at Pulse on June 12. Brock was at Parliament House, a gay nightclub and lodging, five kilometres away from Pulse that night when he received a call from one of his friends Chevelle who worked at Pulse.  She called him and said that there’s been a shooting at Pulse and she needed to hide in his house. At first Brock thought it was a drunk bar fight. Brock gave her the lock code to enter his house and returned home around 2.10 am with two other friends. Initially they were not allowed as the area was barricaded; they had to plead their way in. Chevelle, two other Pulse employees and a customer took shelter in his house. The seven of them spent the night listening to gun shots. Brock later created a memorial website - 1heart1pulse.com - for the victims and to support the survivors.

As a visitor who lives on the other side of the globe, I felt a lump whenever I crossed the memorial or when I saw it through the window of the room I stayed in. Before leaving I wrote on the memorial on behalf of my partner and I, as a group of people gathered at the memorial with placards offering free hugs. The chances of me visiting this place again are very slim. But I am still touched by the collective solidarity from all over and how the people of Orlando united to overcome the grief. Currently, the city wants to buy Pulse. The owner of Pulse and the city authorities are in talks.

In India, we do not have nightclubs dedicated to LGBT individuals. We have private parties at bars and farmhouses on the pretext of someone’s birthday. These parties are primarily gay-men-friendly. Highly unwelcoming of trans and genderqueer people, these are not accessible to everyone. These aren’t safe spaces for gay men as well. There is always a threat of the establishment calling the police if by chance they found out that it is a party for homosexuals.

The gay nightclub scene in India is a sitting duck for anyone who wants to target us – right from the homophobes to the state.

Even when our Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his condolences, he erased the queer identity of the victims. He did not acknowledge that the victims and survivors were LGBT individuals. That sums up what it is to be LGBT in India. Our existence is ignored and not acknowledged, even at worst times. Initially I wasn’t emotionally affected by the shooting but at the same time I realised we would never get such solidarity and compassion from within India if something so horrific happened to the LGBT community. The life of Indian LGBT individuals is not easy. Some of us live in deplorable conditions and are harassed by family and by our law enforcement every day. As a society we have learnt to live in peace with the abuse and exploitation of the oppressed and marginalised communities.

Barbara named the nightclub Pulse because she wanted to keep John’s pulse alive. Today, Pulse memorial stands as a place that remembers not just her brother, but all the 49 victims, the survivors from the deadly night and the many uncounted victims and survivors of hatred and oppression for who we are.

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