The living room of their one-bedroom apartment in Worli is redolent with the scent of blooming jasmines and glowy under a string of fairy lights. Jayesh, a tech consultant, pulls his knees up to his chest, plugs in his earphones, and sits on the wide window ledge gazing at sea. Next to him, Abhra, his roommate is hunched over a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book.
Jayesh and Abhra are gay but are not a couple. They are just like anyone in Mumbai looking for rental but whose quest for a physical shelter and a genial flatmate had routinely come up against biased landlords, roommates and prying neighbours until they found each other as well as the sanctity of a secure home.
Jayesh lost touch with his family after the 25-year-old came out as gay eight months ago. Though he has been living with his roommate Abhra for six months, he takes solace in their companionship and routines. “Our bond is not at all romantic but I look forward to coming home discussing each other’s day. He’s like a brother who is loving and supportive,” says Jayesh recalling the time he lived with straight flatmates. “I could never invite my friends over because they’re effeminate and dress flamboyantly. That made my flatmates very hostile.”
Jayesh and Abhra’s happy household where respectful strangers live like family owes itself to GHAR – short for Gay Housing Assistance Resource – a pan-India location-based, short and longterm accommodation resource bulletin board that has been helping people from the LGBT community find access to safe and friendly housing with each other since 1998. What started as an e-group initiated by Mumbai’s Sachin Jain during the early days of the Internet now operates as a closed group on Facebook with over 5800 members from 15 cities on its database.
Ghar also found mention in the Supreme Court judgment after petitioners argued that Section 377 impeded LGBTs right to shelter and drew attention of the court to LGBTs seeking Ghar’s assistance “to access safe and suitable shelter… an indication that the members of this community are in immediate need of care and protection of the State”.
Sachin, 42 first sensed the need for urgent and temporary housing crisis for members of the LGBT community especially after coming-out or due to violence or intimidation when he was 20. “My roomie went through my stuff, turned aggressive, made mocking remarks and complained to our landlord.” he recalled. On speaking with other gay friends Sachin figured that discrimination on this front was rife. “The late Nineties were an interesting time for gay people. Internet and satellite had just come in and we were interacting with the global gay community,” explains Sachin.
Following the momentous Supreme Court ruling this month that struck down Section 377 of the IPC that criminalised gay sex, the queer community has had a lot to celebrate. However, the struggle for equal rights still continues. Vicky had to leave his home in Kolkata after his adoptive mother – who he came out to, a week after the verdict – told her son that he would have to find another place to live in because “there was no place for such behaviour in our household”.
It doesn’t matter whether they pay their rent on time and take good care of the property. Failure to meet pointed questions likes ‘Why aren’t you married?’ or instructions to tone down the voice or appearance may invite insults and an eviction notice.
Divyaroop, 25 couldn’t believe it when his landlady ordered him to stop painting his nails, keep his red head hidden under a cap and crashed his party before calling him names and driving him out. “It’s especially difficult when you look visibly different. My style is androgynous and I prefer male company. That doesn’t mean we’re having orgies at home,” says Divyaroop, who moved to Delhi last month. His posting on Ghar underlines the need for a landlord to let him make his own lifestyle choices.
Sadly, Divyaroop’s case is far from unique. The motif of dislocation and discrimination is something Ghar frequently encounters and combats with what Sachin calls an “inclusive ecosystem” that offers real time care and information. “Interestingly, in the past three years we’ve seen a lot of single and divorced women willing to share their apartment with queer folks,” he adds.