Monday, December 31, 2012

The pink rupee

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece on the potential of the "LGBT market" for an insight report on the "pink economy" that was published by MSL Group India and produced by their head of content (and my friend and former colleague from my days at Mid-Day), +Ashraf Engineer. The report was recently launched.

The full report can be read here but below is a draft of the piece I wrote. Would appreciate your comments:

It is not our case that LGBT people will buy a product or service solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI). However, there are some potential benefits from promoting your brand as a queer-friendly one. It is important to consider these while also setting realistic expectations from this emerging niche market.

It is safe to assume that LGBT people are no different from society at large in terms of their dispersion on metrics such as age, education, economic background, income, religion and so on. What sets them apart is not just SOGI, but also their spending (and saving) behaviour. That, and to some extent, their ‘look West’ policy for attitudes (towards society and the individual’s place in it; relationships; human rights, etc.) and popular culture (for example, TV shows). (Instead of labelling it ‘Westernisation’, it may be more apt to term it the evolution of a global identity, a process which is clearly not limited to the LGBT community. However, that is a different debate.) An crude comparison for our purposes may be the perceived Western outlook of the Parsi community.              

Money, money, money: One of the chief reasons to be upbeat is, of course, money. It is not that this ‘community’ comprises individuals with higher-than-average incomes, but more disposable income. And they are good spenders. Especially on clothes, gadgets, travel, grooming, alcohol, entertainment and so on (in random order).  

Growing numbers: No, homosexuality is not infectious. What is spreading though is confidence. More people than ever are ‘out’ and choosing to lead a gay lifestyle -- they prefer to remain single rather than cave into societal pressures to get married; stay independent of their parents and siblings, or possibly migrate to a metro; and be more bold in their career and other economic choices. This confidence comes from a mix of factors such as decriminalisation of homosexuality, globalisation, the spread of the Internet and social media and a younger demographic profile of the community. This sense of confidence and the spread of social media is starting to coalesce LGBT people into a group that often thinks and acts alike. Note the popularity of Blackberry phones (because of BBM), at least among the more avid networking and sexually active set. This sense of confidence and community can only increase with legal and social reform that we feel is inevitable.

Leaders, not followers: Not every LGBT person is a style diva. However, the LGBT community creates trends rather than following them. Quite a few LGBT people are early adopters, be it technology, fashion or music. More importantly, they are excellent at networking and influencing. This should make them a good audience to test new products and services for one.  

Brand loyalty: Perceptions highly matter in the LGBT community. If your brand is seen as ‘LGBT friendly’ (e.g., supportive of equal opportunity at the workplace, Gay Pride), then you are on the gaydar. How much love you receive depends on the friendliness ranking. But if you are perceived negatively, be ready to face some music. The community can lobby, and how. Examples of this abound in the developed world but closer home TV9 had to face heat for a particularly homophobic story by its Hyderabad bureau and even had to cough up a fine of one lakh rupees to the National Broadcasters’ Association besides running an apology for three days. Another example, the makers of ‘Dostana’, a film that was praised, but mostly panned, for its gay quotient, have already started clarifying via the media that the sequel will be more positive. And they are busy trying to push the stars of their new releases as ‘gay icons’, a term much abused in Indian journalism, incidentally. The stronger sense of allegiance probably comes from the stigma and marginalisation faced by the LGBT community. So generally speaking, if you are starting a queer-run business, then you should receive at least an initial wave of support to help you take off.

Having said all this, look before you leap. Profit is a legitimate pursuit if the means and the intent are legit too. It is better to to have no pretenses of being LGBT friendly, nor venture into this market half-heatedly, if one does not have the appetite to defend one's conviction. There is yet value judgement around issues of SOGI, there will always be. It is difficult to imagine a time when there will an Utopian embracing of human diversity by hundred per cent of the world's population. Even countries which have made progress in bringing laws that demand equal treatment for every citizen see cases of homophobia, often violent. Human beings judge each other, and brands, according to their personal understanding of what is moral. Some of that good and bad halo will be attached to your brand as well. Gutsy brands wouldn't care though not just because boldness expands the market (and money has no colour) but because they believe they are doing the right thing.

The question of the size of the LGBT market is the most contentious one. How many LGBT people are there, even the Supreme Court, which is hearing appeals against decriminalizing of homosexuality, wondered recently (as if that should be a deciding factor, with all due respect to the honorable judges). The hair-splitting over statistics is tied deeply to the question of identity. Sexual behavior and identity is not set in stone though; sexual orientation at least is a continuum. Some days you might be towards one end of the scale and on other days towards the opposite end (the two ends being exclusive attraction to the same sex and exclusive attraction to the opposite sex, with a range of bisexuality in between). If there are no neat boxes to put people in, how do you count them? Then, some people dislike the various terms that are current, some dislike being labelled per se, and many, many more are scared to identify with any label because of the stigma and discrimination. Any surprise then that there is no reliable estimate of the LGBT population? What has emerged so far, though, is that the percentage of exclusively gay men and women who are sexually active could be 2-10%. However, the percentage of sexually active bisexuals is believed to be much higher at 35-45%. Also, while estimating the market size, one needs to include the wider set that is not sexually active. How much these numbers translate into money terms is anyone's guess but OutNow Consulting, which is not based in India, recently estimated it at US$200 billion annually, based on 6% of the country's GDP, assuming that percentage of the population are LGBT adults.

This percentage probably represents the potential, an opportunity that can be exploited in the best conditions, not the current conditions. If there was already as huge a market as OutNow estimates, then queer-run businesses that are targeting this market mainly should have been able to ride out the poor conditions of rising rentals and inflation, and high interest rates that afflict the economy in general. A US$200 billion market will be up for grabs but with greater legal reform and change in society's attitudes, further penetration of the Internet, and, of course, the first movers in the market.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

In the name of God

A version of this piece appeared in Bombay Dost magazine in August 2011. The Supreme Court of India is currently hearing arguments against the Delhi High Court's decision to read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.  

 Ardhanarishvara sculpture, Khajuraho. From Wikipedia, subject to this Creative Commons license

Public discussion about those opposing the Delhi High Court's reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code has centred around the several self-proclaimed religious groups, astrologers and babas. None of these pious souls have, however, based their arguments on Hindu scriptures or philosophy (but mainly on 'morality'). There's been a lot of foaming at the mouth with arguments against gay sex that are laughable. We haven't heard a single one of these gentlemen (why are the god-women silent?) quote from the Vedas or the Smritis, nor do they cite any Indian philosopher or saint in their support. Net-net, they argue that the High Court judgement offends Indian values and threatens Indian culture.
The sad truth is that like most Indians, we don't know our own religion and culture well enough to be able to make such claims. How many of us are aware about the various schools of Hindu philosophy? Do we even know what is Hinduism, or who is a Hindu? Even the courts have tied themselves into knots over this question. If the pundits who oppose the Delhi High Court ruling were asked to sit for an MA level exam on Indian Philosophy, would any of them secure even pass-grade marks?
On the other hand, there is enough scholarly work produced within the gay community itself by Giti Thadani, Ruth Vanitha, Saleem Kidwai and Ashok Row Kavi, individually, and sometimes in collaboration, to counter the Indian culture argument. Where does one even start to cite examples from our mythology, literature and history. It is a past far richer than Western traditions of homosexuality.
Hindu society's outlook towards gay sex has been at best benign and at worst neutral. The point that in Hindu traditions the atman or soul is free of the common dualities of biological sex and gender needs reiteration. Just as God is neither a 'he' nor a 'she'. Not this, not that. He is beyond concepts and so is the atman. The dualities of gender roles are man-made. What stands between man and God is the sense of self, or ego, which leads to the five vikaars of vanity, anger, greed, attachment and, of course, lust. Tell me where in our scriptures is lust defined as gay lust alone, not heterosexual lust? Much paper and ink has been spared recently to speculate about what India's 'modern' sanyaasi-politician (no, not Ramdev) must have thought about gay sex. Gandhi quite likely would have seen it on a par with heterosexuality, regardless of whether he was himself gay, bisexual or hetero. His ideal was complete celibacy, of body and mind (As the Bible says, even looking upon a woman lustfully is adultery.)
The fact is that in Hinduism there is no compulsion for anything. Gandhi would have certainly opposed the attempt by the self-styled moral brigade to impose their beliefs on the entire country. As we know, he was a great proponent of ahimsa—one of the fundamental principles of ashtanga yoga. Ahimsa is commonly understood as simply meaning non-violence and perhaps vegetarianism, but it stands for much more: love for all creatures; renunciation of not just physical violence but also mental violence; and not imposing your beliefs on anyone. It therefore behoves the 'pundits' that they desist from doing so in the case of gay sex as well.
They lack any moral or religious grounds to oppose the High Court verdict and LGBT people. The less said the better about the morality of the Catholic Church. (Just to remind readers, it is not opposing the Delhi High Court verdict but that hasn't stopped it from bleating about it in the media.) Its turpitude stands exposed—years of sexual abuse of scores of children and women who tried to take refuge in its fold. Judge not lest ye be judged, O Church! You need to set your own house in order before reminding others about Leviticus. Who knows, maybe the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah awaits you. Until then every Catholic ought to bear the cross for the sins of the Church, which they have funded.
The religious opponents of the Delhi High Court decision would have earned our respect for at least being true to themselves had they admitted their antagonism was because of their personal fears and biases, rather than being based on Indian religion and culture. They stand exposed before us as hypocrites and bigots who only know how to hate. They forget the teaching of their own traditions. God is not hate but Truth and Love.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Film: Memories in March

If you are looking for a quick reco about this film, I'd say go watch it (it's out on discs now). You will definitely be touched by it and want to share it with your friends and loved ones.         

The writer of Memories in March, who is also one of its lead actors, Rituparno Ghosh, is openly queer. More importantly, he is also someone acclaimed globally for his work, especially his sensitive portrayal of a range of human relationships. The movie itself is about perhaps the most important relationship in a gay man’s life, his mother, and her coming to terms with her (dead) son’s gay orientation and the son’s lover (also his boss). The mother is being played by Deepti Naval, who herself has fine performances to her credit and who has recently made her directorial debut with Do Paise Ki Dhoop, Chaar Aane Ki Baarish, whose lead protagonist is supposed to be gay. Naturally, one expects a film that makes you question some long held beliefs about relationships, digs deep to uncover some untouched layers of the human psyche or at least punches you in the guts and turns on the tear faucets albeit without resorting to Bollywood garden-variety melodrama.

The Bollywood trappings are happily absent. Lacking also is the capacity to meet our other expectations fully. The best plus is that one of the main ingredients, which Indian cinema so often seems to care little about, is not missing. There is a story that’s mostly sensible, a plot that’s plausible. For that alone and for making a film that most producers will not even consider, the makers deserve kudos and a hug.

There’s nothing in the film that makes you cringe or angry as a gay man. No wrong or mixed messages about being queer, no resorting to either effeminacy or portrayal of out-of-control gay sex drives to arouse laughter, no lament on the ‘misfortune’ of being queer. Not that you expect such rubbish from Rituparno Ghosh.

From a queer-rights-advocacy perspective, the movie pushes the right buttons, even if not hard enough. The interactions between the mother and son’s lover and the mother and son’s girlfriend address some of the myths that strange straight people still entertain about us in connection with masculinity/femininity, gender roles, conversion, aesthetic abilities, fixation on the sex, and so on.

The performances by the cast may not be award-winning but do not disappoint either. Of the two leads though, Deepti’s is the more convincing act. Rituparno’s trouble with accent and his real life persona serve as a handicap to accept his portrayal of the bereaved lover-cum-creative director. It’s like he wasn’t acting much; just playing himself. Of course it’s quite possible that having been born of Rituparno’s imagination, the character has a mostly autobiographical anchor.

Like some advertising films which hold your attention momentarily, the movie has a sprinkling of sparkling moments, some of which tap the tear ducts, but in sum, the film turns out to be drab. Don’t expect any scintillating scenes between the two protagonists, including the argument that leads to Raima Sen's character outing her deceased friend to the mother. In fact the entire build-up in the plot to the outing has a false ring to it, coming across as an overreaction from the mother, especially from someone who seems to be dealing with the loss of her son so well from the start; although she does verbally express his death to be the worst event in her life. To underline, the sequence of events leading up to the outing seem forced.

As an aside, there are two strange and unnecessary elements in the story. Raima’s character could be interpreted as a gray one, as she uses her dead friend’s contact to land a new job. Maybe the writer or director was being quirky in giving the freaky touch to the watchman character.

For the Indian queer community, this movie is the next important feature film after Onir’s My Brother Nikhil. Sadly, it did not even get that much theatrical viewership on first release in April 2011. However, one hopes that it will find a bigger audience over the years.

The Indian queer community’s war may seem to be cut-and-dried about decriminalisation and winning equal legal rights, but at its core is winning the hearts of people that matter to us like mothers (in Memories in March) and siblings and parents (in My Brother Nikhil) and thus dispelling ignorance and the resulting homophobia of our society at large. The movie may not have as much emotional appeal and intellectual core as we had expected, but its heart is in the right place and beats for us.

Versions of this piece first appeared in Bombay Dost magazine in August 2011 and in Trikone magazine (Winter 2011 issue).