mid-day's 39th anniversary: Life is a drag

By Phorum Dalal | Mumbai

From discussing the future of LGBTQIA with the PM, filing a writ petition challenging Section 377 to endorsing UN's LGBTQ standards at his company, he is a one-man army against homophobia

Keshav Suri says he had the option of moving to London where they opened a branch of the hotel chain, but returned to India to do his bit for the queer community. Pic/Nishad Alam

Keshav Suri, 33
Executive Director, The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group

"I was very nervous," Keshav Suri says, recalling the night before he decided to come out to his family. "I spoke to my mother, and sister Devika. My father overheard our conversation when he walked in," says Suri, who spearheads the Operations, Food & Beverage, Quality Management, and Marketing divisions of The Lalit Suri Group.

The reaction, he says, was a mixed bag; some fear, some drama. "Are you sure? they asked me. They wondered how I would stand up to the pressures of society, say, when I found a partner. But they extended their full support."

Thirteen years since the day he came out, Suri is considered a trailblazer of sorts. His most recent contribution includes signing up with the United Nations to endorse LGBTQAI (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Asexual and Intersex) standards at his hospitality group.

Suri's journey in the group began a year after his father, Lalit Suri, passed away. At the time, he was pursuing an LLM degree from the School of African & Oriental Studies in London. "It pretty much broke all of us. But he continues to influence my life," says Suri, adding, "I finished the course, took some work experience in London and Mumbai, and then joined my mother."

The launch of Kitty Su, a rocking queer-friendly nightclub at Delhi's Lalit in 2011, proclaimed loud and clear that he was in support of the queer, and even ready to hire them. "The club, which hired its first wheelchair-bound DJ, Varun Khullar, was the result of wanting to be a comfortable place to party. It was a defining moment for me, and an acknowledgment from the team, that was now accepting of my ideas," he says.

Mumbai had to wait four years to get its first taste of drag performances when Kitty Su launched here in 2015. "I love Mumbai. This city has supported me without question or judgment," says Suri, who also sponsors the city's top queer film festival, Kashish.

In 2017, he found himself at a meeting with Narendra Modi organised by Niti Aayog. Recent Global Events: Opportunities for India saw leaders from the public and private sector converge to discuss the future. "I asked the Prime Minister on what industry leaders and the government could do to make the LGBTQAI [Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Asexual and Intersex] community comfortable? And, then I asked myself, what can I do?"

Suri spent the next few months drawing up his company's vision towards the queer as customer. They were ready, he says, to cater to a community no one wanted to touch. That same year, he brought down Ru Paul's All Star Drag Season 7 winner, Violet Chachki for Kitty Su's sixth anniversary celebrations. The night saw close to 2000 revellers turn up. "It proved to the company that not only was this community important, it was also good for the business."

Last year, during a conference at Godrej Culture Lab in November, Suri signed up with the United Nations, promising to endorse its LGBTQAI standards at his workplace, joining a list of 100 global firms. "This involves redefining norms and contributing to the society. This means we have a strict policy against discrimination. Our HR forms acknowledge three genders. I am currently pushing insurance companies to cover sex reconstruction surgery, too," says Suri, who drafted the Lalit equality pledge that all his company's employees have to sign on joining.

This year, for Kitty Su Mumbai's third anniversary, Suri planned the country's most inclusive fashion walk, with Lady Bunny, New York's oldest drag queen, as the showstopper. Bunny was joined by Lalit's three transgender employees, and drag queens on the ramp.

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