He launched the Keshav Suri Foundation to embrace, empower, and mainstream the LGBTQIA+ community
A conversation about the queer community and the movement in India is incomplete without bringing in Keshav Suri. Suri’s brainchild, Kitty Su, a nightclub known to be a safe space for LGBTQIA+ individuals came about when very few places could claim to be so. An LGBTQIA+ icon and the youngest executive director at The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, Suri has accomplished a lot in his 36 years so far.
As one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court for revoking Section 377, a law that criminalised homosexual activity, Suri recalls his reaction when the archaic law was read down on September 6, 2018, and adds that his “belief in the constitution of India was reinstated.”
The landmark judgment gave the LGBTQIA+ community in India the chance to live with dignity. However, he feels that the work has just started. “The knowledge that the road to equality is a long one, that’s what led me to launching my foundation and continuing the work for the community beyond The Lalit,” he says.
Having taken on the cause of building an inclusive nation, he launched the Keshav Suri Foundation with a mission to embrace, empower, and mainstream the LGBTQIA+ community. Kitty Su is another perfect example of such effort. The club has supported acid attack survivors, hired India’s only differently abled DJ, and created a safe space for people of the LGBTQIA+ community. Who could have thought that it could do so much in its 10 short years of existence? Not only that, the club also reintroduced and mainstreamed drag in India.
The idea behind Kitty Su came from a very personal place, shares Suri. “I got back to India after completing my education, and realised my community was still in the closet. I felt things had not progressed the way they should have.” Through Kitty Su, he wanted to open minds and break norms. The club is proud to say that they do things differently. “We had shower boys, expressive graffiti, murals inspired by Kamasutra and an unmatched, unique environment that was inclusive,” he adds. Kitty Su also has gender-neutral toilets, and four rooms playing different kinds of music. The goal, for Suri, was to create a space where everyone was welcomed, and talking about taboo topics is no big deal.
Kitty Su, already a favourite of the community, saw an even greater rise in popularity after they invited international drag artist Violet Chachki in 2017, which ended up being one of the most successful nights of the club. After this, many Indian drag performers were able to gather the courage to come out and embrace the art form. Suri believes that drag is an evolved art form, different from the way society expects an art form to be. It pushes boundaries, encourages people to try things out of their comfort zone, and unleashes their inner strength. “We are a country of more than one billion, with diverse cultures, art forms and ideologies, we were also one of the most sexually forward countries, where the Kamasutra was ideated, and yet we shy away from the topic of sex,” he says.
Suri’s own big fat Indian wedding created ripples in the media. He found a way to incorporate drag in his wedding, and performed in drag with his mother. “It continues to be one of the best moments from our wedding,” he shares. The celebration took place in Goa, soon after the striking down of Section 377, and Keshav Suri proclaimed to the world, for the second time, his love for Cyril Feuillebois. The official marriage took place in Paris, where it is legal for two men to be married, and they decided to celebrate with friends and family in India.
He feels that it may have been one of the first few wedding celebrations between two men in India, but the community needs such role models. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, earth didn’t shatter when I married the man I love,” he says, and adds that he was thoroughly supported by friends and family, and “it was a blast for everyone.”
It has, however, not been all fun and games, and acceptance has not always come easy for Keshav Suri. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, when the conversation on LGBTQIA+ communities was an alien subject, he often felt confused, and lack of knowledge led to loneliness. Sexuality was, and in some ways continues to be, a taboo in Indian society. The journey of growing up as a member of the community was “like an unsupervised experiment” for him. “I remember people dodging the topic, or passing disrespectful comments towards the community just because we chose to love differently,” he shares.
Studying in an all-boys Catholic school only made matters worse. He was often ridiculed for his mannerisms. “Sometimes it would just be boys being silly with their pranks, but other times it would leave a scar.”
But during his journey, his family has been his rock.
While he was nervous about coming out, his apprehensions melted away when his mother and sisters supported him from the start. It was this support that encouraged him to come out to the world, and feel comfortable in his skin. However, he acknowledges that not all children from the LGBTQIA+ communities have it easy, “We crave love, acceptance, and understanding from our parents and families, but seldom receive it. Therefore, many of us have chosen families, which is the beauty of my community.” This is also one of the reasons Suri is so committed to making India more safe and friendly for LGBTQ+ people.
Suri hopes to see an equitable society sans judgement and discrimination. “To begin with, we should educate the masses to ensure parental acceptance, no-bullying in schools and colleges, equal opportunities to work, especially for the trans communities.”
Further, he emphasises that we need jobs and to see representation from various industries to ensure equity. “We need an anti- discrimination law,” he states.