Our five cover stars sat down for a live session to talk about the LGBTQ+ community, growing up queer and the courage it takes to be yourself on a public platform
When I sat down to write this story, I thought long and hard about what the LGBTQ+ community means to me. A ‘safe haven’ and ‘place of acceptance’ come to mind of course, but so do the words ‘family,’ ‘friendship’ and ‘togetherness.’ It’s cheesy, but it’s the best way to describe the unconditional support that envelopes you once you dive in.
Whether it was coming to terms with the idea of being queer, needing a shoulder to cry on when life didn’t work out or just dancing the night away at LGBT parties like Salvation Star, my memories with many incredible members of the community have stood as pillars of support throughout my adult life. They’ve carved a major chunk of my identity. I learned that I wasn’t alone and judgment, descrimination, fear and hardship are battles we all fight together no matter where on the rainbow spectrum we fall. It’s that shared experience which creates a community-wide understanding that we need to protect not just ourselves, but also one another.
For Rolling Stone India’s Pride campaign in 2020, we chose to lend our platform to the LGBTQ+ community to celebrate their stories, battles, victories, contributions to Indian history and pop culture. There are many shades beyond the seven in the rainbow of LGBTQIA+, and it was a learning experience for everyone involved, a way to better understand not only this diverse and incredible group of humans but also delete any lasting misconceptions and ignorance that lingered in our own minds.
Whether it’s the more personal incidents in day-to- day life or the gargantuan see-saw display from 2009 to 2018 regarding the infamous Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminlized homosexuality, we’re all in this for the long haul–and perhaps our five cover stars for June embody this idea better than anyone else in the country.
Activist and author Harish Iyer (he/him) has been in the forefront when it comes to the legal battles of human rights for the LGBTQ+ community in India, standing on the frontlines of bureaucracy to grant everyone under the umbrella the equality that is so very much deserved. He was one of the first few individuals to officially move the Indian Supreme Court to decriminalize homosexuality in 2009 and in June 2018, he was the one to file an Impleadment Application in the 377 case which would eventually help win the battle to decriminalize homosexuality in the nation. His personal experiences and victories gave him the strength to be a backbone to thousands of others, his involvement in media advocacy raising the voice of the community to new heights right from the early 2000s. “I must have listened to around seven, eight lakh survivors of child sex abuse and people who are in conflict with their sexuality,” he says about living, learning and surviving so that he may help others do the same. “Now I am a professor in the same college, I’m a visiting faculty in the same college that bullied me and pushed me to suicide. So I think for me, my whole life has been about revisiting and re- conquering everything that I’ve lost.”
While Iyer jumped into activism, actor, model, singer and drag artist Sushant Divgikr (he/him) braved the tide of another kind–creating a space for the community in the world of entertainment and pop culture. “Gay people are portrayed as lecherous and used as comic relief in in movies and stuff like that,” Divgikr says. “We are one of the most lucrative film industries in the world. So you can’t have just one or less than one movie a year which normalizes LGBTQI+ characters and say we are doing something [to represent]–we’re not.” From winning the mantle of Mr. Gay India in 2014 to participating in the massively popular Indian reality show Bigg Boss, Divgikr was determined to show Indian audiences there’s more to the LGBTQ+ community than outdated stereotypes. His performances as his drag persona Rani Ko-HE- Nur paired with his celebrity from reality TV helped open the doors to conversations around drag–still a highly misunderstood form of performance art in India, but on a fiery rise.
Nepali model and activist Anjali Lama walked a similar path, taking the world by storm in 2017 when she became the first transgender woman to walk on an Indian fashion runway. It was a massive victory for representation and an achievement that Lama still considers her most memorable even today. “That was like my life’s very ‘wow’ moment,” she says. “After that people got to know me, after that I got to meet [her fellow cover stars.] Everything just took off. I got to do so many big campaigns and walk for many big designers, so absolutely Lakme Fashion Week 2017 was the best moment for me.” We’d talked about her landmark walk back in 2017, and she’d explained that she wanted to be booked for more than just ‘being a transexual model.’ It’s a goal she seems to have achieved, today walking the ramp for several notable brands, booked solely on the basis of her walk and stunning bone structure.
Of course when it comes to making history, there’s no one who did it quite like Dutee Chand (she/her.) In addition to being a professional sprinter and current national champion in the women’s 100 metres event in the Olympics and becoming the the third Indian woman to ever qualify for the Women’s 100 metres event at the Summer Olympic Games, Chand is also the country’s first openly-gay professional athlete. Despite the backlash from her hometown Jajpur, Chand stood firm in her decision to live her truth. “Whether it’s falling in love with a man or a woman or anything in between, no matter who your love is for, it is valid,” Chand says. “People in society always believe that love and family looks a certain way, that marriage only between a man and a woman and then they have children and that is life. But I think that is wrong.”
In the conversation below, artist, sculptor and gender fluid non-binary rainbow warrior Durga Gawde (they/them) touches upon the subject of the heteronormative boxes society is determined to shove us into the moment we are born (sometimes even before.) They outline an experience that’s perhaps familiar to so many of us who identify as female or are born in ‘feminine’ bodies–there’s a loss of agency once puberty hits and having a female body brings with it a whole storm of societal expectations and control that male bodies aren’t subjected to.
A piece they wrote when they were 18 (which they were kind enough to share with us during the conference) hit particularly hard: ‘Being a woman feels like a curse. I am handicapped without a man. Why should it be this way? I feel like a complete useless being. Why can’t I go anywhere alone? Why can’t I just be free?’ Their words reminded me of the fake ‘wedding ring’ I wear whenever I travel alone, pushing away the men and societies of every nation I set foot in who try their luck for a hookup. It’s hard to grasp that a non-existent husband who only rises as a safety shield when I walk to my business meetings will be respected more than my own choices–”No thank you, I’m married” will keep me safer than “No thank you, I’m not interested” and it’s still not a guarantee I’ll get home safe. Gawde’s art, voice and belief in the freedom that we all equally have a right to, add steel to my spine and that of many others. Perhaps that’s true of all of our cover stars, who have bared their identities and their souls, worked tirelessly with courage to make the world a better place for our community.
Earlier this month, our five cover stars sat down for a live session over Zoom, calling in from across India to talk about the LGBTQ+ community, the experience of growing up queer and the courage it takes to be yourself on a public platform. Below are some excerpts from their powerful and moving conversation.
MISCONCEPTIONS, MYTHS AND MEANINGS OF #PRIDE
Durga: Sexuality, gender, identity… I mean, even if you’re totally conforming to everything and your life is perfect in the eyes of society, I think everyone has a hard time taking pride in one thing or the other. You know, sometimes there are things we don’t take pride in about ourselves. And by the time I leave this planet, I want to be able to say there’s not one thing left in my life that I don’t take pride in. That’s my Pride.
Anjali: I think for me Pride means that we don’t have to be afraid to express ourselves. If I have to like, give some examples, there’s you [Sushant], Harish, Dutee, Durga… We are like, you know, the example of pride. So yeah, this is pride for me… to be yourself.
Dutee: Pride means going on a path that no one else has before. When I run and win medals for my country, they call me ‘India’s Pride’… it gives me a lot of happiness.
Sushant: You know, there are so many myths in our family, there’s so much misinformation. There’s so many myths about the community that are out there. What is this one myth that you want to bust on this platform like, you know, what is this one myth that you think and then I’ll go last but why don’t we just share our things. Durga you go first.
Durga: The myths that I think people have in the world, at least with the identity that I embody, is that people think that I am confused about my identity when I say that it keeps changing and it’s fluid and it moves and it grows and it evolves. That used to bother me so much. And I think the myth here is… I’m not confused. My existence confuses the whole world and my role In this world is to make them make the whole world question the identity question their gender question their existence by just existing and making everybody feel like they’re all gay. [laughter]
Harish: I think one myth that I want to bust is people assume that yoga can cure homosexuality. But I really feel everyone should do yoga because it makes your body flexible. And then your partner will never leave you! [laughter]
Anjali: I think there isn’t just ONE thing. People have a lot of misconceptions about the LGBT community as a whole, especially those of us who are trans. When they think of a transgender person they have just one idea of what is trans, what we look like and what we do–that we beg on the streets or engage in prostitution. But this is not true. If trans people get the same opportunities as everyone else, we’ll reach the same places, hit the same heights and achieve so much more. But people don’t understand this and assume we can’t do anything.
Sushant: Absolutely. And Anjali is such a shining example of the fact that she doesn’t get booked because she’s a transgender model or she’s a straight model or whatever. [She gets booked ] because she’s a stunning model.
One misconception is that you know whenever you see a character — and I will cite pop culture references because I am an artist myself –gay people are portrayed as lecherous and used as comic relief in movies and stuff like that. We are one of the most lucrative film industries in the world so for us to say, ‘But we have made new movies we have made, LGBT content’ you can’t have one or less than one movie a year which normalises LGBTQI+ characters and say we are doing something–we’re not. So let’s start the conversation. For example, if Anjali gets a role in a movie–and I know she has been called for a couple of auditions to act as well. But you know, tomorrow, even if she’s not the main character, she’s not the pivotal protagonist, even if she is just part of the cast and is normalized as she said, most of the time transgender people are just made to take on roles of beggars or sex workers. These stereotypes need to be broken and that has to be done as soon as possible because film as a form of medium to speak to the audiences is huge in this country. Now with the OTT platforms, I think we have the opportunity to change the game and change the dialogue and change the entire narrative. Now look at us, we are all on the cover of Rolling Stone India and we are representing each and every nearly each and every denomination of the LGBTQIA+. I’m so happy that this is happening.
Durga: I just want you to remind all of us all four of us who are here right now, when Section 377 [of the Indian Penal Code] was decriminalized, we all were together in Bombay, for that shoot for Bombay Times. Remember and nowallofusareonthe cover of Rolling Stone, all four of us. When we say family, when we say our work brings us closer to our chosen family, this is what it is. When we all work hard. We all do our own thing but we all help each other. We all mentor each other. A few days ago I called Anjali and I was just like, ‘Anjali, there’s a whole bunch of things I’m going through,’ and all Anjali did was say, ‘Durgee, Durgee… everything will be alright.’ And like even Harish, a few days ago, we had a conversation on a platform, so even there we talked… There are so many times we keep meeting each other and every time we see each other, we give so much energy. I found a picture yesterday of Rani Ko-HE-Nur performing with [American drag queen] Alaska in Kitty Su, that’s the first time I met Rani in December 2017. And I had one photo of me with a five o’clock shadow, which I did with black eyeshadow and Rani was just like, ‘You are a drag king! You are going to be India’s first performing drag king! I want to book you, give me your number, give me your Instagram!’ We all support each other in whatever ways that we can.
A MOMENT THAT DEFINED THE REST OF YOUR LIFE
Sushant: I think Anjali is so used to you know, being on covers and you know, breaking all these stereotypes so I wanted to ask, Anjali what is that one moment where you felt, ‘This is one of the best moments in my career as a model.’?
Anjali: I think I really have to say when I was selected to walk in Lakme Fashion Week in 2017. That was like my life’s very ‘wow’ moment. After that people got to know me, after that I got to meet you all… Everything just took off. I got to do so many big campaigns and walk for many big designers, so absolutely Lakme 2017 was the best moment for me.
Sushant: Durga, you have done so well. You started so early in your life and you’ve really gone out and proved yourself at a very young age. You have been an artist, a sculptor, performer, so vocal for the community–especially gender fluid people and gender neutral. You kind of introduce non binary, the sub community of the LGBTQ+ to the larger community and society. What is your biggest accomplishment as an artist you would say?
Durga: So I was 18 years old– trigger warnings, I’m going to talk about molestation. I was 18 years old and I had gone out for a project and I had to source something. I was working on this project at that time for a synthetic biology competition, the world’s biggest synthetic biology competition hosted by MIT. There were 188 universities taking part from all over the world. We had this terrible professor who just really didn’t care. So there were 13 of us and I went to source some balloons, because before Google Maps was a thing, I was mapping sites that we were soil sampling. So we used to attach cameras to helium balloons and fly them and then use that to make composite images from the sky, which we owned, so that we didn’t have to buy images and stuff like that. It was very exciting. I went out to source these balloons, and that day, I was molested. I came back and told my teacher that you know what, I was molested, I don’t want to go back there, send someone with me, and he told me, ‘You’re going to be an artist. You think there’s going to be a man next to you all the time? Figure it out, go back and get it.’ That was really insensitive.
I left and a lot of other really messed up things happened after that, but this is what I wrote back then. I wrote, ‘Being a woman feels like a curse. I am handicapped without a man. Why should it be this way? I feel like a complete useless being. Why can’t I go anywhere alone? Why can’t I just be free? Freedom is an illusion for women. There has to be that extra struggle with women. Every woman doesn’t want to fight. Doesn’t have to fight. But what the hell do I do? I don’t want this life. Is it fair? I wish I have many daughters when I’m older who can fight this, who are strong. I love freedom is what I thought, but do I even know what freedom is? I have never known. Do’s and don’ts surround me, suffocate me, strangle me. How do I gain the respect I deserve? How do I get the respect we deserve? I am lost. I am confused, I am stressed. Why do we get treated like this? How do I fight it? This life of constant dependency is making me sweat making me weep from within. And my tears have dried up.’
I was 18 years old when I wrote that and these things that I did as an artist, these ways of expressing [that pain] are what brought me to this point. It is after this when I was at the lowest point that I actually figured out I had to speak my truth and I went on this confession spree with my entire family and with all these people that were a part of my life. Because in my existence, I felt wrong. So I did the opposite of what I felt. So ages seven till the age of 19, I was basically a compulsive liar. You know, I was living the opposite of what I felt. So I took one week and I said everything I needed to say and confess to everyone and said, ‘Now I’m going to take control of my life.’ I wrote my personal statement, and I got into the best art school in the world. So there were things that have happened in my life which are unexpected. And the thing about all of this, what I want people to understand is that there are so many things that are so many barriers, so many boxes, people want to push you in, but you can stay in touch with yourself in whatever ways that you know you want to.
Harish: There was a time when I was in college and I was bullied. I was bullied so badly, I was not even sure about my sexuality. This was some 22 years ago, I was in college and people just knew that I was abused by a man. They assumed that just because I was raped by a man, I would be gay. There were college graffiti walls, which said, ‘For gay sex contact Harish.’ I took an attempt of my life around three times and I survived. And then I survived because of the love that I got from my dog. No human being ever helped me. I didn’t believe in psychology. Because back in those days, people used to think that, ‘Paagal hai toh psychologist ke paas jayega.’ (Only crazy people go to a psychologist). So now I stand for mental health. I ask people to go and to see a psychologist. But there was a time when I also harbored the same feelings because I was feeling very ashamed to go to a psychologist. At that time I used to put my head between my dog’s paws and start crying, and every time I cried, he accepted me and used to lick my tears. That acceptance from my dog gave me the courage to accept myself. When my dog died, the only thing that I had to tell my dog when he was dying is that, ‘Once you go away, I’m going to be you for other people.’ So I listen to a lot of people. I must have listened to around seven, eight lakh survivors of child sex abuse and people who are in conflict with their sexuality. Now I am a professor in the same college, I’m a visiting faculty in the same college that bullied me and pushed me to suicide. So I think for me, my whole life has been about revisiting and re- conquering everything that I’ve lost.
Sushant: And you have served as such an exemplary inspirational figure to so many young people. I have attended one of your classes and I have seen how much your students respect you. You had called me for a guest lecture and was just like, honey, this is just next level.
Before we welcome Dutee here, I’ll just share one of my monumental moments and Harish has a very big role to play in that. Before, I was doing a lot of TV and you know, I used to get cyber bullied like anything they used to send me death threats and stuff, because back then there was only YouTube, there was no Instagram. There was TV, there was the newspapers, the radio and the Internet was YouTube–we didn’t have Instagram and all these other apps that you have now, and people used to just say the nastiest things to me. They used to abuse me, they used to abuse my family, they said the nasty things and I was very young, I was 20. And then eventually I kind of got hardened, I was immune to it.
All the stones that were thrown at me, I started collecting them and I built this empire, and said that I’m gonna stand on top of it and I’m going to still preach what I believe in and practice it as hard as I did when I was younger. I get emotional when I say this, but a lot of people think that it’s been very easy because I’m from Mumbai, but I come from a middle class family where my family gave me the love and acceptance- -I didn’t believe I could get emotional about this- – You know, and back then they were not enough people who were representing us in a good good way on television. I made myself available to hate and criticism because I said, ‘Somebody has to do it.’ So I’ve been really proud of myself and thank you so much, all of you have been part of my journey- -Harish, Anjali, Durga, and Dutee have been inspirational.
Dutee, was there a moment in your career or while you were growing up where you experienced a moment that completely changed your life?
Dutee: There was a time in 2014 when I was dropped from the Indian contingent for the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games at the last minute. They said it was because I had hyperandrogenism. They were talking about me being intersex, there was confusion around my gender… a lot of the things that was said by people in the media really made me feel bad because neither I or anyone on my team understood it completely. I didn’t even know what it was so I didn’t know where I would go from there, but as time passed I learned about it and appealed the case and won. When I came back to the tracks after the case, my life slowly began to change. People had taken notice of me and soon when I began to win medals, the media took notice of that.
Harish: I remember that after you won the case and returned and you won several more medals, you made a statement that made such a difference. You had said the person you loved was a woman and it didn’t matter to you what gender your life partner was. The world took offence in that statement but you remained firm about it.
Sushant: What I found amazing about it was that you spoke about like a normal relationship. It wasn’t a big deal that your partner was a woman. It’s so strong of you and speaks highly of your courage. So Dutee we are very proud of you and you are truly the pride of the country.
Durga: This is something that I haven’t talked about much publicly but when I was a child, I used to be a national level speed skater and my first dream was to be an Olympian, which I haven’t achieved yet. It’s just a very special thing to me that you are here with us today, Dutee. I used to play shot put and chess at state level, I used to play kabaddi, kho kho and even run, which made me want to take part in the Olympics someday–maybe I’ll still do it [laughs]– but to be here and talk to you about this… I’m very emotional right now and I’m having a total fan moment.
WHAT THE WORLD CAN LEARN
Sushant: I think we are all so proud and emotional right now. Harish, do you have any parting message for everyone here?
Harish: All that I have to say is that I’m so proud of everyone over here. Every one of us who has achieved so much in our lives. It is important that you know, I’m 41 right now and whenever I’m with you all, I don’t feel that I’m older and sometimes I look for support from all of y’all. One beautiful thing in the LGBT community amongst us at least, is that we can look for each other’s shoulders for support. I think we are ageless in our thoughts and have a lot of respect for each other. We do fight and have our disagreements, but in the end we always come back together and I think that’s what’s beautiful.
Anjali: I think I always tell everyone that whatever happens, you have to be yourself. If you want to do something in your life, you have to keep trying and never give up. Don’t lose hope. Whether you are in the middle of success or when things aren’t going well, just keep trying. You’ll soon find your community and the answers to your questions. This is my message to everyone, whether in the community or otherwise.
Dutee: My message to everyone would be that love is love. Whether it’s falling in love with a man or a woman or anything in between, no matter who your love is for it is valid. People in society always believe that love and family looks a certain way, that marriage only between a man and a woman and then they have children and that is life. But I think that is wrong. I believe you should be able to spend your life with whoever you want to and no one should be able to stop that.
Sushant: Wow! I would agree with Dutee and expand on what she said–love is love and doesn’t have to be given any other names. I hope that on the other side of this pandemic people are more accepting–or rather respectful. ‘Accepting’ is a term I’m going to stop using, because I feel that’s already putting people on a pedestal by asking them to accept us. I think it’s about respect. I hope we can all respect each other.
Intro and transcribed by Riddhi Chakraborty.