When Navin Noronha first hit a comedy stage in 2014, there were only two queer comedians in the entire Indian comedy scene (or at least only two who were publicly ‘out’): Vasu Primlani and Nick Pillow. LGBTQ+ perspectives were practically non-existent on the stage. Noronha remembers the pressure he felt to not focus too much on his experiences as a gay man in his material. The vibe was definitely straight, and often homophobic. “When I started off in 2014-15, there was not much scope to talk about your feelings, sexuality, gender identity,” said Noronha. “When I’ve been on a lineup with 5 other heterosexual comedians, I’ve felt like I’m being judged for being ‘devious’ by the audience.”
Almost a decade later, things have changed dramatically. Noronha has been joined on the comedy stage by a new generation of queer comics, such as Rutishree Panigrahi, Madhvendra Singh, Ankur Tangade and Aayushi Jagad. His recent debut special The Good Child, was a critically acclaimed special about being a gay, atheist stoner. When Swati Sachdeva came out as bisexual in her debut standup clip Love Is Love (released during Pride Month last year) she was met with applause and support, with the video hitting 18 million views on YouTube. And Queer-Rated Comedy, the event series Noronha started to showcase LGBTQ+ voices in comedy, now sells out shows, including a recent one at queer-run Delhi venue Depot 48.
“In the beginning, when I started watching standup comedy, there were no female comedians to look up to, let alone queer comedians,” says comedian Ankur Tangade, whose Dalit and queer identity strongly informs her work. “Now, we have all-queer lineups, we have Blue Material which is an all-Dalit lineup. So the scene is evolving and everyone is carving out their own space. Everyone has a platform now and that’s amazing.”
This growing representation—of queer comics and queer subjects—is the result of a slow and steady evolution, within the scene as well as Indian society in general, that has lowered some of the major barriers to entry. The first one of which, of course, was the threat of criminal charges or police harassment. Until 2018, any comedian who was openly out about their sexuality risked being the target of authorities, thanks to section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised intercourse “against the order of nature”. That barrier fell when the Supreme Court struck down the clause, opening the door for more people to come out and start a much-needed dialogue about sexuality and gender identity.
The second major barrier, social stigma, is more resilient. According to Paris-based firm Out Now Consulting, India is home to roughly 56 million LGBTQ+ adults, but they are scared to come out because of the discrimination they might face at home or in the workplace. Ritushree Panigrahi, a trans-woman comedian and queer rights activist, counted herself amongst that 56 million till a couple of years ago. “I was always afraid of how people would react to a transgender standup comedian in our country,” Panigrahi told DeadAnt. “That fear kept me in hiding for a long time and stopped me from coming out. Even though I started in 2017, I only came out to the circuit in 2021.”
Even if you defied the stigma and were open about your sexuality, it wasn’t easy to perform jokes about those experiences. Queer comedians often felt like they had to tone their content down, to make it palatable for audiences that have been bred on engineering and family-related humour (both of which often include punchlines laced with misogyny and homophobia). “For example, most people on the queer spectrum understand what open relationships and polyamory are,” says Noronha, who also hosted the popular Keeping It Queer podcast from 2017 to 2019. “At a regular lineup show, most people look at everything from a monogamous lens.”
“So far we have only heard the people with privilege speak. Now, it’s time for us to speak for ourselves.” – Ritushree Panigrahi
To help with that, Noronha started Queer-Rated Comedy, which provided a safe space for LGBTQ+ comedy to be both performed and enjoyed. He feels that the audience and performer both are more at ease in spaces where the crowd isn’t overwhelmingly heterosexual. Noronha argues that watching comedians make art out of their experiences as a gay man or a lesbian woman can empower people to come to terms with their own sexual identity, make them feel heard and seen. It’s no surprise that people find solace in these spaces.
“It feels very safe for us to say things and for them to hear things about all of us together and with the world we live in,” said Aayushi Jagad, who is a regular on the show’s lineup. “These shows are truly special. It feels like everyone is in on the joke.”
When Noronha first started putting together the Queer-Rated Comedy shows in 2019, he struggled to find comedians to put on the bill. The first few shows, produced by Jeeya Sethi’s Comedy Ladder, had to be conducted on Zoom, because he wasn’t sure there were enough comedians—or paying fans—to justify a live show. “There was nobody really. Except for a couple of us who were out,” said Noronha. “It took a while to get people to register, come out and talk about their experiences. In fact, a comic came and wanted to do the mic once but when I asked him if he’s gay, he was visibly offended.”
But Noronha’s persistence paid off. He says the events are starting to feel like a successful endeavour now, with younger comedians such as Gilheri and Joshua Trott reaching out to him for slots on the lineup, and even well-known allies like Comicstaan’s Gurleen Pannu coming and addressing queer issues at the shows.
Noronha is careful to point out that Queer-Rated Comedy is just as welcoming of straight people as it is to the LGTBTQ+. He’s noticed that, while still in the minority, there are more and more straight people coming to these shows. “Maybe they’re just curious to see what it’s like,” said Noronha. “It’s a worldview that a lot of them haven’t been privy to.”
Though grateful for the progress that’s been made, everyone knows that there’s still a long way to go for queer representation in Indian comedy. Jagad is fully aware that these shows can’t banish the deep-seated prejudice against LGBTQ+ people all by themselves. “I’m not very confident in saying we’re destroying any stigma,” said Jagad. “But we’re giving the community a space to come and laugh. That will hopefully result in its own butterfly effect.”
Homophobic prejudice plays out in many ways, most visibly in the comments on the social media profiles of ‘out’ queer performers. Hate and threats are commonplace. When Ritushree Panigrahi dropped her first YouTube video, the standup community and her audience cheered her on from the sidelines, but the trolls were also lurking around the corner. She had to deal with a barrage of transphobic messages in her Instagram DMs. However, any seasoned comedian knows how to turn a traumatic experience into comedy gold and that’s what Panigrahi did. Nor is sexuality the only identity that opens up these comedians to vicious online attacks.
“As a queer Dalit woman, there are like three layers of minority you’re going through,” said Tangade. “People keep sexualising you. As a pan-sexual person, I’ve got many inappropriate offers. And after turning them down I’ve received a lot of hate, rape threats and stalkers.”
Despite these concerns, the comedians we spoke to are extremely hopeful about the future of queer comedy. With new voices coming out and a supportive audience, they really believe that the scene can thrive in the country. “The future of queer comedy is just more of us, right?” Jagad said excitedly. “It’s very similar to how people viewed female comedians in the country. Now there are so many, even though not nearly enough. Any kind of inclusion is always a win for me.”
Noronha is a lot more ambitious. He wishes to set up a space in Mumbai where people can come and be themselves. “One day when I’m financially well-to-do, I’ll do it,” he said. “Because Mumbai is the Mecca of Indian comedy and all things queer. Yet, somehow Bengaluru and Delhi have left us behind in the acceptance of queer arts.”
Panigrahi also sees a positive change in the acceptance of LGBTQ+ comedy in the Indian circuit. “We had no representation in the scene but slowly the world is changing,” she said. “It is very important that voices from all the diverse less-represented communities should be heard and given a platform. Because so far we have only heard the people with privilege speak. Now, it’s time for us to speak for ourselves.”