In early 2022 the Parliamentary Panel on Public Undertakings in New Delhi objected to the code GAY allotted to Gaya Airport in Bihar. The International Air Transport Association rarely changes codes, and doesn’t seem likely to do so now, but that didn’t stop the panel protesting – and getting derided for obvious homophobia.

The Panel could have learned from Goans who blithely drive cars with license plates that read GA Y. (After the GA state code, X is for State Transport buses, G for government vehicles and T, U, W, Y and Z for commercial vehicles). The license plates raise a smile from LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people. It seems a sign of how Goa, without much fanfare, has become one of the most queer-friendly places in India.

Bollywood certainly thinks so. Badhaai Do, one of the first big releases for 2022, broke new ground in its depiction of a gay man and lesbian woman trying to make a marriage of convenience work. But it
does have one cliché of the Big Bollywood Marriage genre – a honeymoon in Goa. The twist is that it involves a trio. The gay husband (Rajkummar Rao) is joined by his boyfriend (Deepak Arora), leaving his wife (Bhumi Pednekar) to trail awkwardly along.

It’s an early sign that this arrangement isn’t likely to be as convenient as they are hoping. But it all happens against a backdrop of regular Goa tourist cliches: beach shacks, resort pools, flea markets, rides down Coconut Road in Parra, Anjuna hilltop, and the Viceroy’s Arch. The one slightly different scene is on the Divar ferry with a quick same-sex kiss thrown in.

This fits a pattern of Goa being used to project fantasies of freedom and open expression of desires that must be kept firmly bottled in other parts of India (Dehradun in this case). It’s a useful image
for Goa, driving tourists here reliably and resorts must already be creating Rainbow Packages for vacationing same-sex couples. Just as Dil Chahta Hai brought straight couples to north Goa, gay couples might now follow the Badhaai Do trail (they might want to note that there are more romantic places than the Divar ferry for a kiss).

It isn’t just tourists. For some time now there’s been a major influx of people relocating to the state – and this was before Covid accelerated the trend. While some want to start businesses related to tourism, others simply want to benefit from the quality of life available in the state, especially as life in large metros gets increasingly polluted, constrained and expensive. Goa offers a balance between
access to urban infrastructure with the possibility of relatively affordable homes in quiet and beautiful villages.

This has been a particular draw for samesex couples. Living together in metros is not always easy because of nosy and disapproving neighbours in apartment blocks or landlords reluctant to rent to anyone other than straight married couples. Buying apartments together is also tough because of soaring prices and the impossibility of getting house loans as a couple when same-sex marriage still
isn’t recognised.

Inherited flats pose a particular problem because, even if the inheritor explicitly wants to leave it to a same-sex partner, family members can always contest that. This was the reason why, some years back, a man in his 80s, one of the few who remembers what it was like being able to live in India from the 1950s as a discreet, yet assured gay man, decided to sell his Mumbai apartment. He used the considerable amount he got to build a house in Goa with his partner, who will now clearly inherit it when he is gone.

At the other end of the age spectrum are young queer people like Fay Barretto, who identifies as a trans man. He’s a Mumbai trained bartender who now consults with restaurants in Goa to design their bar programmes and also runs an academy to train women and LGBTQ people in bartending.

Historically, young LGBTQ+ people have always found safety in the anonymity of large cities, and the support of the communities that come up there. But Goa now seems to offer a safe, unjudging environment in which to work and live, and networks of supportive friends who
may be more spread out, but are still never more than a scooter ride away.

Credit: Mrinalini Deshhprabhu.

This is quite a change from 2011 when a session on LGBTQ tourism scheduled for the Goa International Tourism Mart came up against protests from both fundamentalist Hindu and Catholic sides. Dattaram Sawant of the Divya Jagruthi Pratisthan was quoted, in the Times of India dated October 21, 2011 saying that Goa tourism was already tarnished by drug culture, and LGBT tourism would make it worse.

Father Maverick Fernandes of the Church backed Centre for Social Justice and Peace suggested the panel was just short of promoting paedophilia “since child sex is also a preference of a few… By proposing to cater to tourists based on their sexual preferences, it appears that the government is reducing Goa to a destination for sex tourism.” Such a wilful equation of consenting relations between adults with paedophilia, and the further link to drugs, did its work, and the session was cancelled.

As that episode showed, homosexuality has been easily equated with the “bad influences” forever threatening the purity of Goan culture. It might have seemed impossible for queer people to live in such a hostile culture, or for a young queer person to come out in communities where everyone knew everything and little privacy seemed possible. Yet, these same personal connections could also
lead to surprisingly different outcomes, as the designer Wendell Rodricks discovered when he settled in Goa with his French partner Jerome Marrell.

In his memoir The Green Room, Rodricks writes about the furore that erupted when, in 2002, he entered into a Pacte de Civil Solidarité, the civil union offered by the French government as a way of dealing with practical problems faced by same sex couples. Pacte de Civil Solidarité is a primarily bureaucratic procedure, to help deal with situations where one partner might need to be admitted to hospital, or cases of inheritance.

It isn’t the same as same-sex marriage, which France didn’t recognise at that time. But when news of Rodricks and Marrell’s Pacte de Civil Solidarité broke, the media treated it as the first same-sex marriage in India and Rodricks instantly became one of the first openly gay Indian celebrities. He was apprehensive about problems from the government, especially since a right-wing one had recently taken office in Goa.

So, when, the evening of the signing of the Pacte de Civil Solidarité eight “scruffy-looking men” came to their house in Colvale, Rodricks anticipated trouble: “But when they came forward, I saw in the light of the streetlamp that they were the village drunks. They said, ‘Bhatkar, kazar zata ani amkam cop dina?’ Landlord, you are getting married and not buying us a round of drinks? I cleared the bar bills in Colvale with relief…”

Straight marriage or gay marriage, some Goan rituals are evidently too sacred to be ignored! Rodricks’ life had other examples of how his sexuality was quietly accepted in Goa. Perhaps the most poignant happened after his untimely death in early 2020, when the same Father Maverick Fernandes
who denounced the Goa International Tourism Mart event, was one of the priests present at his funeral service.

It was a testimony to how personal connections, and a proven history of being part of and contributing to Goa, could overcome a basic prejudice. All these factors – homophobia, fears of corruption of Goa, and surprising outcomes stemming from personal connections and sympathy – were seen in two cases that took place in Goa, but which were also important in the larger struggle to decriminalise homosexuality in India.

HIV, the ‘gay plague’

The first took place in 1989 when Dominic D’Souza, a young Goan man tested positive for human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. This was at the height of global panic over HIV, and D’Souza was one of the first to be diagnosed with it in India. Instead of being given medical help, he was taken to an abandoned TB sanatorium and placed in forcible, possibly indefinite, quarantine under the Goa Public Health Act. He was effectively jailed without trial for being HIV positive. D’Souza was circumspect about his sexuality, which is hardly surprising given the time and his situation, yet was stigmatised for bringing the “gay plague” to Goa.

But with the support of his mother, and friends from theatre circles, like the playwright and director Isabel de Santa Rita Vas, he fought back. His supporters found a human rights lawyer in Bombay named Anand Grover to challenge the law under which he was isolated. After 64 days of isolation D’Souza was released to house arrest.

In December 1989 he lost his case when the Bombay High Court ruled that Goa’s legislature had the discretion to makes laws like the one used to isolate him. But he avoided going back to jail, and became an activist for people living with HIV. He passed away in 1992, but his case kick-started the movement for better treatment of HIV+ people.

D’Souza’s case also convinced LGBT rights activists that the most effective strategy to change Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised same-sex relations, was to use the HIV argument. Men who had sex with men were one of the most at risk groups for HIV, but because the law treated them as criminals, any health services reaching out to them could be considered to be abetting a crime.

Hope and Anwar, and Section 377

In 2001 Naz India, a NGO dealing with HIV, filed a petition in the Delhi High Court to decriminalise same-sex relations between consenting adults. The lawyer for the case was Grover, who had promised D’Souza to keep up the fight to get him the justice he was denied in his life. It would take 18
years, and see many small gains, but also setbacks, before the Supreme Court finally ruled, in the Navtej Johar case in 2018, that Section 377 could not apply to consenting adults.

It was a long journey that took a vital early step with D’Souza in Goa. D’Souza’s case inspired My Brother… Nikhil, one of the first mainstream gay films in India. It is set along the rivers and seashores of Goa and has helped give D’Souza’s story some lasting fame. The second case from Goa is far less known. It started with Desmond Hope, a 32-year-old British man, of half Guyanese Indian, half Irish ancestry, visiting Goa along with his partner Frank Lacey.

On the night of February 18, 2007, Hope met a young man named Anwar and was talking to him on the church steps in Colva when the police came up and started questioning them. Hope said the police first accused them of attempting to break into the church, and demanded a fine of Rs 1800, which they rapidly raised to Rs 10,000 when they learned he was from the UK.

Meanwhile the police were aggressively interrogating Anwar, and learned that there might be a gay angle to the case. They were taken to Colva police station and interrogated in a menacing way. Hope was harassed, called a “homo” and wasn’t allowed to use the toilet, forcing him to soil himself. Anwar was abused even more and forced to give a false statement. But as yet no police complaint had been registered.

There is a detailed account of the case in Law Like Love: Queer Perspectives on the Law, a collection of essays edited by activists Arvind Narrain and Alok Gupta, who were part of the team that went to
Goa to help Hope. They write that when Lacey finally traced Hope to the police station: “Frank immediately informed the British Consulate in Goa, who called the police station and spoke to the notorious Inspector Uday Parab in charge of the case. This made Parab angrier. Within two hours
of the phone call a false and fabricated case against Desmond under Section 377 was registered… Desmond was charged with non-consensual sodomy, performing oral sex on Anwar, regularly, under a false promise of a job abroad.”

The story was then released to the media with the entirely incorrect information that Anwar was a minor, which fed into the fears of paedophiles operating in Goa. Lacey was then called by Parab with a new offer – for Rs 10 lakh the whole case could be closed.

Credit: Mrinalini Deshhprabhu.

Lacey wrote that he was told that this happened routinely with Russians, and everything could be arranged: “He told us firstly that if we gave him Rs 50,000 he would fix the Doctor’s report to show no signs of oral sex. He then went on to say that he would need to pay the Judge, Public Prosecutor, provide his own Advocate for us, pay off the police that arrested Desmond and also pay off Anwar
to change his statement.”

He estimated it would take around six months to clear up. Lacey was unable to pay this amount, even if he wanted to. The police then proceeded to act with complete prejudice in the matter – with Parab regularly calling to see if they were ready to pay now.

On February 26 the Additional Sessions Magistrate rejected Hope’s bail application, and appeared to
have accepted the police’s contention that Anwar was a minor. A local newspaper also carried a long story on the case replete with worries about paedophilia in Goa. It was all playing out in a way that has become sadly common in the state, with fears about corruption of Goa’s culture being used to cover rather more real issues of corruption in the police force and organised rackets targeting tourists.

Hope’s situation didn’t look good. But by now he had the help of activists and got good legal counsel with which he approached the High Court. And on 15th March the case came up before Justice NA Britto, who fairly clearly recognised what had been going on. Almost immediately he disposed
of the paedophile accusation: “Basically, it appears that both parties were adults and were consenting parties under Section 377 IPC, and if that is so, the punishment provided for the said offence could not be severe.”

Justice Britto also ridiculed the police’s contention that setting Hope free would allow him to keep harassing Anwar: “Here it may be stated that Anwar, in case he is not willing, he is always free not to
attend the calls of the applicant…” And while Section 377 was still on the statute books, the judge specifically noted that it was being challenged: “it cannot be said that the offence committed is grave and punishment provided for it would be severe, so as to deny bail to the applicant.”

After almost a month in jail, Hope was allowed to leave and soon was able to get his passport and return to the UK. This was an unexpectedly successful outcome, and one which mattered to
LGBTQ activists beyond just their concerns for Hope. One of the problems with fighting Section 377 was finding examples of people charged and convicted under it. Most of those who had been charged
were lacking in the means, or will to appeal to High Courts, so their cases did not become public knowledge.

Even more just succumbed to the threat of Section 377 – as the police in Hope’s case clearly hoped – and paid to settle their cases. This had clearly become a regular revenue stream
for some officials. But because these cases weren’t recorded, the evidence of use of Section 377 wasn’t
there. This had left activists open to the charge that they were fighting to change a law that was rarely used. Early in the course of the case a bench of the Delhi High Court had even dismissed the case
for lack of standing on the part of activists, and it was only on appeal to the Supreme Court, that the High Court was charged with hearing it again.

Hope’s case gives hope

Now Hope’s case gave proof of both the use and misuse of the Law. Even more, the fact that a High Court judge like Justice Britto could see through the police’s tactics, and note that the law was currently being challenged (by Naz India, in the Delhi High Court), was a heartening sign that the
battle against Section 377 could be won some day. After the struggles of trying just to prove standing, the victory in Goa in 2007, with Justice Britto’s clear-eyed opinion, gave LGBTQ activists – the pun is
unavoidable here – real Hope.

The Colva police demonstrated homophobia, and tried to justify this by linking it to paedophilia, a particularly sensitive issue in Goa. The way the case was orchestrated, with regular demands for money, was depressing proof of how Section 377 allowed LGBTQ people to be harassed and blackmailed. And yet, the fact that a judge could see through this and sympathise with Hope’s plight was a sign that change was coming.

Hope would later say that his time in Goa jail was made easier thanks to his cell mates who, far from picking on him for his alleged crime, were friendly and sympathetic. It was a sign perhaps of how, for all the prejudices and petty persecutions that are an unfortunate part of life in Goa, there is a possible balance in the willingness of people to make personal connections that mitigate the problems.

And at a larger level, as both D’Souza’s case and Hope’s show, the larger institutional structures of Goa tend to work out well in the end. Perhaps it is these factors – the possibility of personal connections and the state’s wider commitment to tolerance and sensible decision making – that has helped make it LGBTQ friendly today.

This article was first published on The Peacock Quarterly.

The Peacock Quarterly is the flagship publication of the Entertainment Society of Goa, which hosts the annual International Film Festival of India in its heritage headquarters of the Old Goa Medical College precinct and the 18th century Maquinez Palace. This melange of original art, fiction, reportage and vintage photographs can be obtained here.