Gay sex ruling brings India's 'pink economy' out of the closet

Thursday, 24 January 2019 13:51 GMT

Rani Ko-He-Nur, one of India's most famous drag queens, performs at LGBT-friendly nightclub Kitty Su in New Delhi, India on December 24, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Annie Banerji

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India is home to nearly 56 million LGBT+ adults earning about $113 billion a year, according to one estimate.

By Annie Banerji

NEW DELHI, Jan 24 (Openly) - Fancy an LGBT-friendly resort, a drag night at a top New Delhi hotel or a spa for gay men? These are only some of the businesses increasingly vying for India's powerful "pink rupee" just months after the country decriminalised same-sex relations.

The Supreme Court scrapped a colonial-era ban on gay sex last September, not only allowing a nascent gay culture to come into the open but also laying the groundwork for the country's "pink economy".

Experts forecast more businesses will start openly courting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community - one of the biggest LGBT+ markets in the world - to sell their products and employ people in Asia's third-largest economy.

"The Indian LGBT+ market is one that is clearly substantial and which we expect to grow fairly rapidly in coming months and years as a direct result of the Supreme Court decision," said Ian Johnson, chief executive of Paris-based firm Out Now Consulting.

According to the marketing company, which helps businesses target gay clients, India is home to nearly 56 million LGBT+ adults who earn about $113 billion a year.

Johnson predicted alcohol and travel brands to be the first ones to tap the sizeable market followed by banking, insurance, healthcare, fashion, car and tech industries.

"A significant legal change... creates a new visibility and comfort factor for many more companies, who then feel that a barrier is removed, allowing them to comfortably include LGBT+ people as part of their overall marketing efforts," he said.

Sushant Divgikar, one of India's most famous drag queens, however, warned businesses against "pinkwashing" - a marketing tactic to show a company is LGBT-friendly for quick profits.

He criticised firms that used gimmicks such as changing their logos in rainbow pride colours on the day of the top court ruling for capitalising on a historic win for gay people.

"That's terrible because you should have been an ally anyway because aren't we using your cabs? Aren't we watching movies in your theatres? We're doing everything that a straight person does," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"If anything, you should be more accepting towards everybody. That's when you're truly a good business," he said after transforming into his drag alter-ego Rani Ko-He-Nur for a performance at New Delhi's five-star The Lalit hotel.

"Otherwise you're just losing out on so much 'fabulosity'."


Those in the business say a key reason why LGBT+ people are attractive prospects is because of a concept called "DINK" - double income, no kids.

Gay, childless couples with higher disposable incomes can spend more on the finer things in life, said Robindro Saikhom, founder of Delhi-based travel company Serene Journeys which organises luxury vacation packages for LGBT+ travellers.

"I think everyone will start looking at the 'pink direction' because these are the people with money," said Saikhom.

Saikhom arranges gay-friendly hotels, drivers and guides for his foreign guests visiting India.

"We just advise our clients not to show any public display of affection like kissing. Holding hands is fine," the 34-year-old said.

"As long as we respect the Indian culture, local ground support are quite happy and don't really care who the traveller is or what their sexuality is," he said.

The September judgement, he said, has helped market India as a LGBT-friendly destination for tourists around the world.

"Pink business in India is finally coming out of the closet," he said.

Keshav Suri, whose family owns The Lalit hotel chain - touted as one of the most gay-friendly and inclusive in India - said India's "pink economy" has already started taking flight.

"It's too big and too hard to ignore," said the gay hotelier, who was one of the petitioners to challenge the 158-year-old law, called Section 377, which criminalised gay relationships in the world's largest democracy.

Suri predicted more activity after general elections this year, saying he will keep a close eye on political parties' manifestos for their LGBT-inclusive vows, if any, that could help create conducive conditions for the community to thrive.

"There are so many other things that need to happen, decriminalisation is just the first step," he said, speaking of equal rights like same-sex marriage, adoption and employment.

"Give it time. Things just started to happen."

Robindro Saikhom, founder of Serene Journeys, an Indian travel company that organises vacation packages for gay travelers, poses in front of a taxi in Jaipur, India in September, 2018. Photo credit: Robindro Saikhom


The Lalit boasts one of India's most popular gay nightclubs, Kitty Su - which Suri says is named after his drag alter-ego - hosting drag nights and music events to showcase LGBT+ talents.

The group has long opened its doors to not only gay and trans customers but also employees, offering them benefits such as insurance for same-sex couples and workplace support that most companies in India have yet to catch up to.

The Supreme Court verdict has motivated more people to come out and stay, host events, party and also seek jobs at the Lalit, said Kiara Iyer, a transgender woman and marketing executive at Kitty Su.

"After this (Section) 377 going down, yes, from the community there have been a lot of people who have come up. Those who thought (they) had no hopes... have now got that confidence to come up and say 'yes, I can work'," she said.

While many businesses around the world are starting to recognise the benefits of including LGBT+ people, most countries, including India, do not provide any legal protection against workplace discrimination.

In a 2016 survey of 100 Indian LGBT+ employees, the Mission for Indian Gay and Lesbian Empowerment (MINGLE), an advocacy group, found that 40 percent had been harassed at work and the majority were not covered by LGBT+ workplace protection policies.

The World Bank estimates that homophobia costs India $31 billion a year due to lower educational achievements, loss of productivity and the added costs of providing healthcare to LGBT+ people who are poor, stressed, suicidal or HIV positive.

Inclusive policies make better business sense as they result in benefits like greater national GDP, talent retention, more productivity and better reputation that could lead to direct investments, a 2018 report found.

As for businesses, Iyer expects more to make a beeline for the LGBT+ community.

"If they are not serving (us) then it is their loss, not ours," she said.

"Pink economy is one most important thing which is going to boom in the next coming years." (Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Jason Fields; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit to see more stories)

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