The Pink Rupee

Entrepreneur Inder Vhatwar was studying in London when he was struck by a business idea. The city, he saw, was full of fashion stores that catered to the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) community. But back home in India, he thought to himself, stores catered solely to straight people.

So in 2010, two years after he returned to India, he opened D’Kloset, the country’s first apparel store for LGBTs, in Mumbai. “We put a rainbow flag outside the store and there were tags inside which said ‘Queer’. The colours and cuts made it obvious too,” says Vhatwar, 30.

The shop was opened a year after a Delhi High Court order decriminalising homosexuality. A 2011 study by the Hamsafar Trust, a group dealing with gay rights, says that since the verdict, harassment of the LGBT people has decreased and they are more comfortable expressing their sexuality. “The verdict forced the subject out of the closet,’’ asserts Harrish Iyer, an equal rights advocate.

Not surprisingly, business catering to the community in the metros is on the rise. In the last few years, restaurants, tourism, stores and books are celebrating all that is gay. Among them are the first LGBT online store Azaad Bazaar in Mumbai and gay tour packages.

Perhaps the most visible impact over the years has been on the gay party business, which was earlier largely underground. At least five gay parties were held this New Year’s Eve in Mumbai. Even mainstream clubs and cafes in the city have opened their doors to the community, hosting events such as the Pink Rupee Fridays, which are advertised openly.

“We host LGBT parties once a month,” says Kaviraj Thadani, director, Cool Chef Cafe, Mumbai. “The response has been great.”

Sibi, co-founder of Gossip, a company that has been organising such events in Mumbai for over five years, says his group now holds two gay parties a month. “Earlier it was twice a year at the most. Last year when cops tried to stop a party, we went viral on Facebook and a lot of people spoke out openly, forcing them to back down.”

The growing openness finds expression in sectors like publishing as well. Fiji-Indian Shobhna S. Kumar who started Queer Ink, India’s first online queer literature store in 2009, says most of the enquiries she gets are from small towns. “People still want to remain anonymous but the number of callers has virtually exploded.”

Many believe the growing visibility, even if largely confined to the metros, underlines the potential clout of the “pink rupee”. Worldwide, pink money — the worth of the industry catering to the community — is valued in billions of dollars. Consulting firm Deloitte estimates that the purchasing power of the US LGBT community will be $835 billion in 2014.

It is time India cashed in, says a recent report by MSL, the strategic communications unit of Publicis, among the world’s top advertising and marketing agencies. Titled Out of the Closet and into the Marketplace: The birth of India’s ‘pink economy’, the report looks at the economic potential of the community.

The National AIDS Control Organisation believes that the LGBT community is 2.5 million-strong, though other studies hold that 2-13 per cent of the India population — or 20-130 million people — are gay. “As of now, there is no formal estimate of the size of this market,” says Harsh Bijoor, marketing and brand strategy consultant. “But it does exist and the potential for marketing is reasonably big.”

Ashraf Engineer, content head, MSL India, says that globally, the pink economy is worth $200-$600 billion. “Even if India were to account for a fraction of this pie, the pink economy would amount to thousands of crores of rupees.”

For many business concerns, it makes financial sense to zero in on the community. “This community comprises individuals with more disposable incomes,” says equity research editor and gay rights advocate Nitin Karani. For instance, most don’t have expenses incurred on raising children. “They are good spenders too,” Karani adds, “especially on clothes, gadgets, travel, grooming, alcohol and entertainment.”

Dynamic big businesses in the West, such as Ikea and Benetton, have been quick to make the most of the emerging market. Financial services firms including Merrill Lynch even have services tailor-made for the community. India lags light years behind.

Take advertising, where references to LGBTs are mostly mocking. Bijoor refers to a Quikr ad which has a man speaking in a so-called gay and effeminate manner. “This is a classic example of how the LGBTs have been used to cater to the non-LGBT community which is unfair.”

R. Balki, chairman, Lowe Lintas ad agency, agrees. “It’s stereotypical because marketers think the audience is not mature enough,” he says. But adman Prahlad Kakkar is not surprised. “The gay community is the butt end of jokes. Why would anyone address them at the cost of alienating a larger section of the society,” he asks.

However, some businesses are now seriously looking at the gay community as a viable market. The MSL report says the sunshine sectors are travel firms targeted at a gay clientele, such as “Indjapink” and “La Passage to India”.

A businessman, who does not want himself or his company to be identified, is not so sure. The 42-year-old Mumbai resident started a gay tours company in 2010 but soon found that he had to expand his business because there were not enough gay takers. “Barely 5 per cent of my earnings are from the LGBT community,” he says. “Travel companies are frankly not doing much business.”

Clearly, the scale of India’s pink economy as of now is hard to gauge. That is because of the scattered nature of these businesses. The report also points out that the boom is restricted to affluent, urban sections in the metros, leaving out a sizeable chunk of the gay community.

There are also questions about what makes a business pink. Is it one that caters only to gay people? “I never meant to exclude non-queer people. But I want to create a space where our crowd can walk in and feel free to be themselves,” says Vhatwar, adding that his sales have risen by 40 per cent over the years with many customers coming from the straight community.

Kumar too stresses that her business is open to everybody. “The pink economy is hard to define in India. We will have to wait a few years as there are many who do not openly say they are LGBT. But they are part of the mainstream and living successful lives as gay people.”

Karani says he would define the pink economy as the potential consumption power of the LGBT people plus others they can influence. “Certain products can be tailored to their needs alone (like gay-friendly travel companies). However, it includes products or services that anyone needs and would pick among the options available, if the associated brand is perceived to be more supportive of equal rights.”

Everybody agrees that for businesses catering to the LGBT community to grow, mindsets have to change. “We have to come out of our own prejudices. Any economy goes in sync with the contemporary mindset of the country and there is a lot of change needed there,” says Sylvester Merchant, director of the Gujarat-based Lakshya Trust which works with sexual minorities. “We still have a long way to go.”

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