A Walk to Remember

A Walk to Remember
Keshav Suri, Executive Director at The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group. With Cyril Feuillebois. Photos: The Lalit Hotels

Being a promoter of inclusivity and equality, I seek a world where basic human rights are not flouted

I can look back at my life, and be proud. It has never been about the accolades or recognition, but about making a difference. Because I have seen the bad, I appreciate the good, and work towards making it better every day.

Contrary to popular opinion, kids don’t have it easy. I wouldn’t say being a gay child made it harder, but for me, childhood was a trying period. The experiences through childhood and coming into adulthood made me an aware and conscious individual. I learnt the art of overcoming challenges, and growing a thick skin. But that didn’t stop the insecurities from creeping in when I plunged headfirst into my family business.

The Lalit being a known brand in the industry, I not only faced the challenge of taking the company to greater heights, but I was also worried about the Group accepting me for who I am. The love and understanding of my parents and siblings came through a blood connection. But, I was lucky to get a second family at The Lalit that was equally accepting and encouraging.

My family was proud of me and I was growing in my career. I could have just decided to live my life without getting into the ‘mud.’ But, something happened in 2014 that crashed my peaceful bubble. The Supreme Court of India overturned the High Court’s order and sent us back into the shadows. It wasn’t just the verdict, but the way in which it was delivered that hurt my conscience. The judges considered the LGBTQIA+ community so minuscule that they didn’t want to take cognizance of the matter. I realised if I don’t stand up for my rights, then the people will continue to walk all over us.

As they say lead by example, I kick-started my work with the “No Hate Campaign”. We plastered the words all over the walls and coasters at the restaurants. Next came the “Straight but not Narrow campaign. I was trying to get the word out. We are here, we exist, and should to be noticed.

A huge part of my journey corresponds to my personal relationship with Cyril (Feuillebois). In 2014, we were still getting to know each other. As time passed, our relationship goals advanced and we started discussing marriage. This discussion worked as another trigger in my fight for the LGBTQIA+ rights in India.

I would also like to mention the 2016 Orlando Shooting here. The brutal killing of 49 people and wounding another 50 shook my soul. I was astonished at the kind of hatred, something as pure as love could generate. I was pleasantly surprised at the way the event unified people to raise their voices as one. Hundreds took to the streets in the form of parades, there were artists who supported the cause with their creations, others who used social media to mobilise troops. They weren’t all gay or related to the victims. Everyone just came together for a cause. Kitty Su (the nightclub at Lalit) launched #PureLove nights for the community, to provide a safe space for them to rejoice.

Eventually, all my ideas and thoughts finally took shape in the form of Kitty Su. It wasn’t just about building a nightclub that became a sensation. It was about putting myself in front of the world. The club became a free spirit, safe haven for the marginalised communities. It taught the country the meaning of inclusiveness, and held the front seat to the drag revolution in India. Every time the crowds went crazy witnessing the likes of Violet Chachki, Alaska Thunderfuck, Derrick Barry, and Hungry, I considered it a personal achievement.

My thoughts evolved, I wondered, isn’t love the purest of acts? And, thus the social #PureLove campaign was born in September 2017. It is one of my proudest moments as an entrepreneur. I didn’t expect it to become a rage and turn into a movement. But, that’s exactly what The Lalit has been able to achieve through this landmark initiative. We have organised several all-inclusive events, like brunches, fashion shows, and night parties, that have received tremendous success.

The Lalit turned into a torchbearer for inclusivity. We welcomed people with open arms and flaunted our diverse staff. Though, I would like to point out here, my definition of diversity didn’t only include the LGBTQIA+. We proudly organised a power walk with the NGO, Make Love not Scars. During the event, we opened doors to acid attack victims and invited them to stay. Interacting with them, and learning of their struggles revealed their plight. I wanted to do something more, and it gave me immense satisfaction to sponsor the surgeries for an acid attack victim.

While all these drives and exercises were good to start a conversation, we were still missing a crucial point. Financial independence was one of the biggest roadblocks for the community. The marginalised groups in this country find it extremely difficult to locate and retain jobs. I wanted to help these people stand on their own feet. In May 2017, we hired India’s first and only DJ on a wheel chair, Varun Khullar. Though, it was never the aim, the initiatives helped us bag the National Tourism Award on several occasions for the most disability friendly hotel. It proved I was on the right path. We weren’t just talking. We were taking actions, implementing policies, be it a revolutionary Mediclaim initiative for the LGBTQIA+ community or encouraging the idea of inclusivity.

Everything put together pushed me towards filing the writ in April, 2018. The Supreme Court verdict vindicated me. It made the struggles worth it. But it also taught me a lesson. Till then, I hadn’t truly grasped the meaning of the phrase, “impossible is nothing.” But through this verdict I lived it, and it gave me the strength to push forward.
I met exceptional people from varied walks of life that helped me charter my course. Their powerful stories inspired me to take the next step in my rehabilitation work for the marginalised sections of society. I launched the non-profit, Keshav Suri Foundation, with the hope to build confidence and belief. The foundation works tirelessly to raise awareness about the plight of the marginalised LGBTQIA+ community. Raising awareness though, is only the first step. The foundation also works closely with members of the community to empower and aid their quest of being incorporated in mainstream society. It maybe minuscule, but we are offering scholarships to trans students at our hospitality school.

I am now willing to fight the battle of acceptance with an added zeal and enthusiasm. Let us face it, the only thing the verdict has done is saved us from judicial prosecution. A law or government ruling can’t force the society into acceptance. I am not a pessimist. I have witnessed change, but its impact is extremely limited. A lot needs to be done with regard to health care, family care, adoption, and inheritance. The most important and trickiest of all though is the right to walk down the aisle with the person you love. Marriage equality is critical when one mentions choice.

I am waiting for the day understanding turns to respect. The day when merit and not sexual orientation becomes the criteria for employment. When we don’t have to seek, but expect appreciation for diversity. Being a promoter of inclusivity and equality, I seek a world where basic human rights are not flouted. I wish for a society where inclusivity is ingrained in our existence. A world where we are empowered by the richness of background and diversity.

Editor‘s Note: This is a part of a set of pieces to mark the first anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality by the Supreme Court in India. Read an in-depth interview
with Keshav Suri from our archives here 

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