Commodified Queer Spaces and What They Mean

A diverse range of establishments, organisations, and spaces could come under the umbrella term ‘queer spaces’. The two main categories one could divide ‘queer spaces’ into are: community-driven and commercial. The former are community-based spaces — support groups, discussion groups, clubs, and societies — that emerge from a need for solidarity or mobilisation. The latter are commercial, profit-based establishments. Henceforth, when the article mentions ‘queer spaces’, these commercial spaces are being referred to. However, queer spaces as a whole are in no way limited to or defined by these spaces. Furthermore, due to the nature of the demographics of the people that frequent such establishments, in this article the term ‘queer’ will disproportionately refer to cisgender gay men from an upper class and caste. This does not necessarily mean the LGBTQ+ community as a whole reflects these characteristics. 

Delhi hosts a variety of queer establishments, the most well-known being Kitty Su, The Lalit’s nightclub with its iconic drag nights. Gay saunas such as Mykonos and Kalph Kaya and queer cafes such as Q Cafe are well-frequented spots. The city is home to a number of resto-bars that host regular queer events. Depot48, hosts ‘Pink Tuesday’ and PDA holds ‘Rainbow Thursday’. Be it Kitty Su, PDA, or Depot48, the price tags associated with each ensure that the spaces are only accessible to those from a specific financial background. PDA and Depot48 cost an average of ₹1,000 per person, while Kitty Su costs ₹1,500. These establishments exist as a result of the ‘pink rupee’ — the purchasing power of the queer community.

The queer-friendly locations are also a popular tourist attraction as they allow for the city to seem more accepting and liberal. A number of pink tourism ventures have sprung up in Delhi since the repeal of Section 377 in 2009 by the Supreme Court. There are also a number of guest houses specifically catering to a queer clientele, such as The Mister and Art House; ‘India’s first boutique guest house and art gallery for men only,’. The city has a number of gay-only travel operators whose revenues have been rising steadily. In 2011, the Capital hosted the first Asian Symposium on Gay and Lesbian Tourism. For tour operators Out Journeys and Pink Vibgyor, revenues have been rising by almost 100% a year. 

It is profitable for companies to cater to the queer community, specifically in the economic atmosphere of Delhi which is characterised by an extremely competitive revolving door of experimental ventures looking to find the next popular trend. According to a 2009 study by Forbes and OutNow Consulting, there are about 30 million LGBT adults in India, a major proportion of which have a double income and no kids. As a result, they have a higher disposable income and would willingly spend for the safe spaces they have an otherwise hard time finding. “Entrepreneurs always look at opportunities that generate revenue and contribute to profitability. Their orientation adds value as a by-product of being affirmative and inclusive of a progressive community,” says Keshav Suri, the Executive Director of Lalit Suri Hospitality Group which runs Kitty Su. It is important to note that both these sources analyse the benefits of these enterprises/spaces solely in terms of financial profits and not in terms of social or political gains. Their aim isn’t to be inclusive or progressive, it is to extract money.

The queer community is a convenient and profitable target for said extraction of money for two reasons. The first reason being that queer people don’t have as easy an access to other queer individuals. Being queer is not an inherited trait. Queer people are not born into queer families. Some might not be able to interact with any other queer individuals if they don’t actively seek out queer spaces. This makes them more susceptible to being persuaded to pay an additional amount, in order to access these safe spaces. 

Most marginalised communities face discrimination based on hereditary factors such as caste, race, and religion. Institutional mechanisms prevent people from certain castes, religions, and races, from having equal access to education, jobs, and housing. Thus, a disproportionate amount of these communities remain in lower income groups as a result of the systemic oppression they have faced. In contrast, it is not as easy to pick out and segregate someone who is queer and cisgender. While certain surnames make you less likely to get into a private school and certain skin colours make you less likely to get a job, it isn’t as easy to identify a member of the queer community. This makes it harder to exclude them from these educational and vocational opportunities

A significant factor defining wealth is inherited or accumulated wealth that has been passed down in your family for generations. Queer people could be born into families that faced no marginalisation or exclusion. They could, thus, inherit larger amounts of wealth than people from other oppressed communities. While people from other marginalised groups might also appreciate an establishment offering them a safe space, a smaller proportion of their members will have a high enough disposable income that makes them desirable to businesses. This makes the queer community the perfect group for business ventures to target. They desperately want a safe space, and there exists large groups of them that can afford to pay a lot of money for it.

What does the existence of these profit-driven, capitalistic spaces mean?  These establishments aren’t soldiers marching by the community in their struggle towards inclusivity and acceptance, but rather the spoils of the war. Profit-driven corporations do not show support to be part of the movement or work towards positive change. These gestures are always a calculated decision, an attempt at maximising financial gains. This means that the organisation believes that more people support the movement than are against it. It is a visible depiction of the successes of the movement, that more people are accepting of and participating in these establishments.

However, like all spoils of war, these commodified spaces come with significant drawbacks. Supporting these spaces does not in any way support the queer community, it only supports the company making the money. The primary purpose of these establishments is financial, they will cease to exist if there is no more profit to be made. As a result, the space formed is temporary and provisional. It is hard to find solace or refuge in a space you cannot trust will exist the next time you might need it. These spaces cannot act as safe spaces due to their impermanence. 

Corporatised spaces reproduce existing heteronormative class, caste and patriarchal structures. They survive by charging high fees and cannot be inclusive to those who cannot afford them. As a result, the attendees are largely homogeneous, sharing cultural, economic and social backgrounds. This creates the notion of the ‘appropriate’ queer — one who is educated, well-dressed and well-spoken. The experiences of those who do not fit these criteria are disregarded, which only furthers existing class and caste divides.

As capitalism is heavily intertwined with the patriarchy, any space it influences will also follow patriarchal norms. As a result, when a queer space is commercialised, the queer people in the space must adhere to said patriarchal ideals. Capitalism requires a patriarchal structure. At its basics, in order for one partner to go to the factory, the other needs to stay home to clean, cook and raise the children. In a more contemporary society, one partner pays, pulls out the chair, and opens the door. That is, one partner holds more of the power. In queer spaces, this heteronormative narrative presents as “Which partner wears the pants?”, “Which partner is sexually dominant?”, etc. This results in norms such as one partner buying the other drinks and makeup being necessary to present as feminine. 

The business dictates the protocol for how you express your sexuality/gender in these spaces. This prevents the community from defining their own ways to mediate and interact. As a result, they further existing stereotypes of the queer community. An illustration being how hypersexualised most of these spaces are. The company also has complete control over how they market the event and those attending. The advertising, which capitalizes on the event being ‘exotic’ or ‘different’, only serves to further position the queer community as the other. A cool other that might give you ‘liberal points’ but that still remains the other. 

The availability of private queer spaces in Delhi is not a result of liberal people or the public growing averse to social discrimination. It is because the community can be profited off of. As long as the movement can be commodified, it is valid. This is not to say that these places should not continue to be frequented. They might still be enjoyable for the occasional day or night out. However, it is important to be critical of their nature and the purpose of their creation. Your gratefulness for their existence shouldn’t lie with the corporations that built them, but with the activists that made them possible.

Wynnona Fernandes is a third year Political Science major at Ashoka University. 

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