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The love story of Winnie, Gurleen and their Gay Gaze

Winnie Chopra and Gurleen Arora — the co-founders of The Gay Gaze Bombay open up about their inclusive venture, that’s taking over the city.
Founders of The Gay Gaze Bombay

In a world yearning for LGBTQIA+ representation and acceptance, safe spaces for queer individuals hold importance. However, the question remains – how many of these havens have we created as a society? While pride marches and their lively after-parties provide glimpses of queer joy, it is vital to go beyond these singular events.

Platforms like The Gay Gaze Bombay aim to change this.

Gurleen Arora, co-founder of The Gay Gaze Bombay, beautifully encapsulates their vision, stating “There are many spaces that centre around the realities of queer lives, and often those realities can be filled with challenges and sadness. What we aimed to do with The Gay Gaze was to shine a spotlight on the other side of queer lives—the Queer joy, the sense of community, and the moments of celebration.”

We met up with Arora and co-founder Winnie Chopra. Amid conversation, they broke into laughter over shared jokes, playfully bickered over who would have more speaking time, and shared genuine palpable warmth. An hour-long interaction with them made it easy to understand that it is this sense of safety, joy, and comfort that they look to spread through their platform and events.

The birth of The Gay Gaze Bombay

The inception of The Gay Gaze Bombay is a captivating tale that could rival a queer film from Dharma Productions. (If ever!)

Two assigned female at birth (AFAB) individuals meet, fall in love, and during their first trip together, the COVID-19 pandemic breaks. Instead of returning to their home in Dharamshala, Arora gets locked down at Chopra’s Andheri house for three months.

It was during the lockdown that the couple delved into conversations about Chopra’s 30-year-long experience as an out and proud lesbian. They consequently realised the scarcity of available information about queerness from an Indian perspective, especially from a female gaze or a butch-presenting woman. To address this gap, they leveraged social media, sharing reels like a satirical piece, Ek Gay or Lesbian Dost Nahi Ho Sakte and To Really Love a Woman, which garnered popularity. People began seeking their insights about the LGBTQIA+ community and dispelling myths.

From reel to real—taking The Gay Gaze offline

The Gay Gaze queer party

Photos: The Gay Gaze Bombay

In December 2020, a theatre piece featuring original writings marked their transition to offline engagement.

Amidst setbacks during the second wave of COVID, they achieved remarkable milestones, including a month-long pride celebration in collaboration with Queer Art Exchange, Canada.

Connections flourished, bridging borders and fostering a sense of community. This culminated in their first on-ground party, Retrograde, at Khar Social with 50 people in attendance. “It was for just a few hours, owing to post-COVID restrictions. But the queers had gotten together after one and a half years of lockdown, and we were all obviously hammered!” Arora laughs.

The 50 in July soon became a whopping 500 during Halloween. Slowly, events were organised beyond Mumbai, like a Satrangi Mela in Pune. And about 50-60 events later, we have The Gay Gaze Bombay, as we know it.

Mixing business with beliefs

“Winnie and I. The two of us. Yes, you are talking to the core team of The Gay Gaze.”

So far it’s this team of two’s savings from their previous jobs that helps Chopra handle the logistics and Arora the creatives. Some volunteers help them on the day of the event.

They have a clear ethos for their brand — joy, safety, inclusivity, amongst others.

Chopra says that they both wanted to create something all-inclusive, not just for a particular group of people, but also for cis-het folks. “We have so many friends who have supported us, seen our journey with us. We don’t want to exclude them. Just be respectful towards each other, is what we say”

Their priority is creating a safe space where everyone feels secure, even if it means having one less problematic friend in attendance. Their ethos reflects in their business decisions as well. One of the many venues they love is, The Den, an independent and cosy bar, in Khar, Mumbai. “I’ve been going to Den for the past 10 years because they were among the first places I saw that had added the LGBTQIA+ friendly tag to their Zomato page. It was a big thing for me back then.” Chopra shares.

However, being two AFAB-presenting lesbian individuals, the team has encountered diverse challenges in their business dealings. “Even today, while striking business deals, a man’s word has more weight. However, when dealing with two individuals who are perceived or identified as feminine or women, the language and dynamics often undergo a significant shift.”

They also face the hurdle of many venues hesitating to allocate them weekend slots. “People assume that we cannot generate enough bar sales,” Arora explains. However, the truth, as they go on to elaborate, is that different segments within the LGBTQIA+ community have varying spending capacities. Many individuals within the community still face difficulties in securing stable employment due to prejudice. Just like in society at large, certain segments have greater spending power compared to others.

In their pursuit of inclusivity, the team recognises the importance of extending it within the LGBTQIA+ community itself. One often overlooked group within the community is drag kings.

Both Arora and Chopra actively take part in drag. Chopra, known as Inqalaab Singh, embraces the persona of a drag king, while Arora, known as Melancholia, explores the realm of drag artistry.

“We wanted to pave the way for more drag kings to step into the spotlight. Siaan, who was living in Madhya Pradesh, ‌joined us in exploring drag online, and later came to Mumbai. Now, Mx. Stallion has become one of the most fantastic kings in the scene!”

One of Chopra’s most cherished events was the ‘Kingdom of Anarchy’ — a kings’ night hosted by Durga Gawde or Shakti, one of the most renowned drag kings in India, where Inqalaab Singh and five other kings showcased their talent. “It was a captivating experience witnessing so many kings coming together, dressing up and commanding the stage — an absolute blast!”

Marching into Pride Month

As June’s Pride Month, the couple has a very clear idea of what it means for The Gay Gaze.

Chopra swiftly and cleverly quips, “Monies!”

“No really, this is when brands want to invest in the LGBTQIA+ community.” Arora continues. “For us, Pride Month is about making queer artists visible and providing them with as many job opportunities as possible,” adds Arora.

Expanding horizons, beyond the rainbow

When discussing the future trajectory of Gay Gaze, Chopra and Arora express their desire to expand their brand beyond the realm of parties. They envision a broader scope that includes organising treks, heritage walks, casting queer actors in films, conducting sensitisation workshops, and more.

“We aspire to be in a space where we are not just organising events for queer folks, but where they invite us to curate their special moments. Our goal is to reach that level of trust and recognition within the community” Chopra shares.

As our interview nears its conclusion, the discussion turns towards the future of The Gay Gaze. Ira Mepani, their friend who was present as a witness, playfully takes on the role of their adopted child, symbolically accepting the baton. Curious about her perspective, they ask if she has anything to contribute. Ira responds, “Just this—find community, be kind to yourself, and extend that kindness to others.”