On Saturday, Rasika Gopalakrishnan and her girlfriend Shivangi Singh, were at The Slate Hotels on Khader Nawaz Khan Road, Chennai, when they were asked to leave the premises by the staff. Accusing the hotel of homophobia, the couple told TNM that they were doing nothing inappropriate for a public space, and yet were targeted – perhaps because Rasika calls herself "visibly queer", in that her clothes and hairstyle do not conform to conventional gender norms.
Speaking to TNM, Rasika described the night which turned out to be traumatic for the two of them: “Four to five men were standing at the bar and were lecherously staring at us while we were dancing, making us very uncomfortable. As far as we knew, we weren’t doing anything different from how other heterosexual couples were dancing – occasionally holding hands, hugging, etc. We were very well aware that we were in a public space, and made calculated efforts to remain as decent as possible.”
The two women then moved to the centre of the dance floor but the stares from the men did not stop, and they found themselves in a hostile environment that they describe as clearly homophobic. Following this, Rasika said that the two of them went to the washroom.
“In less than five seconds, we heard frantic knocks at the door, accompanied by both male and female voices demanding that we immediately step out. It frightened me to hear this, and I felt safer inside the cubicle than outside it. We stepped out, scared, trembling. One woman and two male bouncers were standing right outside the stall, with two other male bouncers lining the way out of the washroom. One of the male bouncers shouted at us, and said, ‘What were you doing in there?’ I replied, ‘I was helping my friend out, she was feeling sick.’ He never stopped to listen to us, and his immediate response was, ‘Were you helping your friend or were you doing something else?’” Rasika said.
The two women felt unsafe and scared, looking at the heavy-set bouncers who were questioning them in the closed space.
Shivangi said, “When the bouncers descended upon us in the club’s bathroom, there was no requirement of all five of them. Rasika and I are 5’1”, weighing about 50-55 kilograms each. There was absolutely no need for an unnecessary display of brute force to outnumber us. They could have spoken to us kindly. They didn’t bother asking us any questions. We were simply given their verdict – leave the club, you’re being a nuisance.”
It was five minutes past midnight when they were thrown out of the club without any of the staff accompanying them or ensuring that they would be safe, Shivangi added. None of the customers at the hotel intervened.
The Slate Hotels’ response
After this, Rasika wrote about the experience on her Facebook page and tagged The Slate Hotels in the post. The hotel's FB page responded and apologised for the incident, asking for their contact number to get back to them. Meanwhile, Shivangi also wrote an article for Youth Ki Awaaz about the incident.
Following this, Rasika and Shivangi got on a con-call with Varun Ganeshan, working partner with The Slate Hotels, to resolve the issue. However, though the call reportedly began with an apology from Varun, they allege that he was being elusive throughout the call and that his stance was that the staff had received “multiple complaints from multiple people” that the two women were behaving “inappropriately” on the dance floor. He even allegedly issued a veiled threat about putting out their ‘video’ online.
When the two women denied that they had done anything to upset the decorum of the place, Varun reportedly responded that he had their behaviour taped on the CCTV cameras and that they could look at the footage if they so wished. However, when TNM asked him about the same, he claimed he hadn’t even watched the CCTV footage as he was traveling.
Both the women were convinced that there would be nothing incriminating in the footage and were willing to watch the tapes. Varun also allegedly said that the bouncers had repeatedly warned the women about the complaints – a claim that Rasika and Shivangi deny.
“First of all, there is nothing inherently wrong about making out, but here’s the thing – we didn’t. We did not allow ourselves that kind of a straight-privilege; as a same-sex couple, our display of affection towards each other is socially outlawed. Varun went on to claim that he had us on footage, making out. He also said at some point that since we made our story public on social media, he could have also released the videos. This is a very benign threat. But the best part is this: when we insisted that we want to come down and watch the footage for ourselves, he didn’t pick our calls for hours, and finally called back saying that there is no need to watch any footage, they will issue a public apology,” Shivangi said.
Shivangi adds that Varun went on defending the staff’s behaviour, stating that the incident could not have been homophobic since The Slate hosts several events for the LGBTQIA+ community. But the couple asks why they were targeted if the hotel was indeed queer-friendly.
Denials and counter-accusations
Speaking to TNM, Varun claimed that the bouncers had not gone inside the women’s washroom and that they had only gone to the corridor outside it which is common to men and women.
Blaming the couple, he said, “They were initially drinking at the bar, and they started making out at the bar. They got a little over extra – I don’t know if they don’t remember because they were too drunk. It went out of the way. There were at least 4-5 complaints because we do get a lot of these newly married and family people at the bar as well. I’m not saying this to cover up for myself.”
While Rasika and Shivangi denied to TNM that they "made out" at the bar, Varun further claimed that he got messages from other regular customers at the hotel who said that the version put out by Rasika and Shivangi on social media is not true.
Varun alleged that the two women had locked themselves up in the toilet “for a while” and that other customers had told them to check on them. He claimed that when they were asked to come out, only one of them was willing to do so and that this is why the bouncers had to intervene.
Varun also claimed that the two women played snooker for a "long time" after they were asked to leave, implying that they were not upset. However, Rasika and Shivangi categorically denied to TNM that they played snooker after being asked to leave and said that they were so traumatised by what had happened, they left immediately.
But what about the CCTV footage that Varun had supposedly told Rasika and Shivangi would prove the allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” and multiple warnings issued to them? Why hasn't he shown them the footage yet?
“To be very honest, I haven’t gone back and seen the CCTV so far. I have to check on it what’s there,” he said, claiming that he’s been travelling.
Denying that the incident was homophobic, Varun said that it was only about intervening when other guests were “made to feel uncomfortable.” He also said he had never promised to apologise to the two women.
“I told them that we cannot do it because there’s a mistake from their side which they are not ready to admit,” he says.
Rasika and Shivangi are determined to talk about what happened to them because it is evidence of the kind of intolerance that queer people face on an everyday basis. Even though Section 377 was decriminalised in September 2018 by the Supreme Court, homophobia is still widely prevalent across all classes of society.
“Such incidents do not have the luxury of being “one-off” incidents, at least not in today’s world. We see multiple political movements on the rise, and such incidents are only testament to a city’s intolerant attitudes towards certain groups. I myself am visibly queer in that my dressing sense does not follow conventional gender norms of society. In such cases, it is even more important to put aside one’s prejudices and to treat a customer as a customer and nothing else. Queer rights are about human rights, not about anything else. We do not demand special service, we never take up more space than necessary. All we ask is to give us space to be ourselves without being judged and made to feel unsafe,” said Rasika.