Radio Station for Gay Indians Faces Uphill Battle to Draw Listeners

Bangalore – Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that the Indian law against homosexuality cannot be overturned except by Parliament, gay sex is illegal once again, making it that much harder for young gay, lesbian and transgender Indians to identify themselves as such.

This makes the staff of Q Radio, the only Internet radio channel in India for the L.G.B.T. community, take their mission all the more seriously, even as the fledgling station risks the possibility of prosecution as talk show hosts and guests discuss topics like coming out of the closet. On the day the Supreme Court ruled that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the measure that bans homosexuality, was constitutional, Q Radio had a series of discussions on whether the state has the right to pry into the sex lives of its individual citizens.

Though he has not consulted with a lawyer, Anil Srivatsa, who founded Radiowalla, a network based in Bangalore that hosts Q Radio, said the station’s 15 staff members have no intention of censoring themselves. “We are well within our rights to talk about the L.G.B.T. community,” he said. “And we will continue doing so, despite the Supreme Court ruling.”

The idea behind Q Radio is to cater to the global Indian L.G.B.T. community by discussing issues specific to them and providing a voice to anyone who finds it difficult to speak up in traditional media, said Mr. Srivatsa.

He started the station after realizing the enormous potential of an untapped market. Q radio is the latest business venture that openly caters to gay consumers in India, following gay-friendly magazines, travel companies, hotels and an online bookstore in India. “The corporates are seeing the L.G.B.T. community as a potential market,” said Anjali Gopalan, coordinator at the Naz Foundation, which petitioned the Delhi High Court to overturn Section 377.

Q Radio is trying its best to build bridges to the community it serves, said Mr. Srivatsa, but the station, which is based in Bangalore, has had a tough time drawing listeners since it began operating in September. Despite a 2009 Delhi High Court ruling that decriminalized homosexuality, a major milestone in the gay rights movement, the social stigma attached to homosexuality is still firmly entrenched in Indian society.

Vaishali Chandra, channel manager at Q Radio, in Bangalore, Karnataka.

“We are allies in trying to fight the social discrimination,” said Vaishali Chandra, channel manager at Q Radio. But she said that she realized that a lack of legal support will make the station’s battles tougher.

Mr. Srivatsa said that his radio station is open to all who want to participate, even to gay rights opponents, who occasionally call in. “We even give a space to the homophobes,” he said. “After all, it is they that we need to change. How do we change them without hearing what they have to say?”

Q Radio is also looking to hire people from the L.G.B.T. community. When a listener called last month and articulated his views eloquently, Mr. Srivatsa immediately offered him a job as a radio jockey, at twice the salary of the man’s job at the time. The caller accepted.

The talk shows at Q Radio, which runs fresh programming in the evening, currently include discussions about life as a homosexual and coming-out stories from people all over the country. The station is also looking at a new show focusing on transgendered people.

Though Q Radio’s audience may find the station’s programs useful, many listeners are likely to hide their support. One such listener, Sheetal, has Q Radio streaming on her iPhone when she drives home from work at 7 p.m. every day. As a closeted lesbian, she said she found it liberating to listen to Q Radio.

“I enjoy the fact that issues of the L.G.B.T. community can be discussed openly,” said Ms. Sheetal, who asked that her full name not be used.

“I want to call in and talk about myself on the radio. Have thought about it several times but haven’t mustered the courage,” said Ms. Sheetal. Now, she said, she might never call, for the fear of law.

Currently, the radio station has no sponsors or advertisers. For the next six months, Q Radio has funding from the United Nations Development Program, as well as Mr. Srivatsa’s own money, after which Mr. Srivatsa is hoping the station can run on its own. He declined to reveal the station’s operating costs.

According to Radiowalla’s market research, about 20 million to 30 million people in India are part of the L.G.B.T. community. “Even if I get about 20,000 listeners, I will go to the sponsors,” said Mr. Srivatsa, who declined to disclose audience numbers.

While Q Radio’s existence might be in danger, some activists see it as an exciting platform that one can use to lobby for repealing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. “We plan to discuss alternate sexuality on several of their shows,” said a coordinator of a nonprofit based in Mumbai that helps gays come out of the closet. He asked that his name and his organization not be identified because he feared prosecution.

For many in the L.G.B.T. community, it is still not easy to talk about themselves, despite the promise of anonymity on radio, said Ms. Gopalan of the Naz Foundation.

Ms. Gopalan pointed out one major difficulty in running an Internet radio station, let alone one for gays. “Not many people in the community have access to the Internet,” she said.

Mr. Srivatsa, however, said he believed that will change soon. Q Radio is already catering to the tier-two cities, those that are one step below the biggest metropolitan areas like Mumbai and Delhi in terms of population.

On her show, “HqO,” Ms. Chandra discusses the issues of coming out as a gay person. When a listener called from Bellary, a small town in Karnataka state, and wanted to narrate his experiences as a secretly gay man, she invited him to the studios.

“He ended up coming to the studio and doing an entire show,” she said. That particular show added a class angle to the debate, she recalled, and it also made her more mindful of the issues of the L.G.B.T. community in non-metropolitan areas.

Developments like these are what keep Mr. Srivatsa’s hopes of success alive, he said.

And for Ms. Sheetal, the very existence of a radio station for gays and lesbians is enough to keep alive her dream of publicly identifying herself as a lesbian one day. “It gives me hope and strength to come out to my people,” she said. “I hope to do that soon.”

Raksha Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore.

by Raksha Kumar
Source – The New York Times