Being LGBTQ+ In India, Fashion Can Be A Glamorous Way To Save Your Life
The hyper-inclusive queer world of fashion challenges the view that gayness is a "curable" tendency.
KOLKATA — “Beauty gives me hope,” says Luna.
When Suruj Pankaj Rajkhowa, popularly known as Glorious Luna (They/He/She), presented as a boy with visible effeminate tendencies, they were picked on by peers and relatives for their mannerisms and for the single blue shirt they used to wear almost all of the time. Without many options, Luna would borrow a chunni, or scarf, from a cousin and pair it with their favorite blue shirt. When the tongues still wagged, they would fire back, “There’s no satisfying you lot!”
For Luna and others like them, fashion is much more than an assemblage of clothes and accessories: “As a queer person, fashion is more than a profession – it is a survival skill. My language of rebellion is not asking people for acceptance, but about showing them that I am queer, and so is my fashion.”
In India, the world of fashion seems to be one of the most welcoming professional options for the LGBTQ+ community. Though bias and prejudice often make trans and non-binary models merely token characters in an entourage, it also affords them the freedom of expression that is stigmatized in day-to-day life while giving them employment.
Many in the community express gratitude for the flourishing of social media and support the rise of fashion influencers like Uorfi Javed, who continues to make headlines for her unconventional clothing fashioned out of garbage bags, bicycle tires and bamboo baskets, among other materials.
Rebellion, survival and solidarity
This support stems from queer solidarity Uorfi's disruption of the status quo. As Luna says, Uorfi is not treating fashion like "a middle-aged lady living in a 3BHK apartment in South Bombay who has a lot of Gucci bags."
For Luna, Uorfi illustrates the perils of the patriarchal, capitalist sexualization of women in India, through her work which creates art out of the absurd and gives men a taste of their obsession with controlling women’s bodies and choices.
At different points in queer history, the rainbow flag has influenced the use of loud colors, garish make-up and kinky attire that has been used as means to stand out, challenge and resist the enforcement of sexuality and gendered codes of fashion.
Any minority community that is rebelling tends to go to the extreme.
Rayyan, a Muslim transfemme pansexual content creator and model from Mumbai, who goes by she/her and they/them pronouns, said that only a tiny portion of the queer population is flamboyant, while most try their best to be invisible, often going to the extreme of entering heterosexual marriages and having children. =
“The portion that is loud in their fashion choices is the section of the population who have taken control of their bodies and want to stand out,” they sy.
If you are one of those people who think queer fashion is a little “extra,” Rayyan said it is only natural. “Any minority community that is rebelling tends to go to the extreme," they say, noting the social movement to support marginalized members of the Dalit caste. "The Dalit movement has young people leaving their families, living by themselves and making new social structures. Even the Dalit drag movement or Dalit comedians and rappers use words that you will be scandalized by,” Rayyan says.
January 8, 2023, New Delhi, India: One of the participants dresses up like a Queen during the Delhi Queer Pride 2022-23.
As fashion becomes, basically, a life skill for the queer community, subcultures, such as drag and kink, are now thriving. Drag espouses the creation of fantastic, theatrical figures using bold make-up, extravagant wigs, gowns, fishnets and feathers. Kink gives way to a leather-laden look of androgynous style that hinges on a ‘no-bounds,’ sexually indulgent world that has led to alternative sexual practices such as sadomasochism, domination and submission, erotic roleplaying, fetishism, and other erotic forms of discipline.
Drag is a beautiful world – where you can create your own reality.
“Drag is a beautiful world – where you can create your own reality. Even straight people can do drag. It is a genderless world of fantasies,” says Luna, who enjoys drag as an extension of their self-expression.
“While these worlds may seem transgressive and alienating to the cishet society, the fact is, both erotic practices and loud fashion have seeped into the mainstream sexual and fashion repertoire,” says gay designer Navonil Das of the brand Dev R Nil.
Das celebrates the country’s drag scene and has been organizing ‘Pink Parties’ across the country for more than a decade. Pink Parties, which are safe spaces for queer people to meet and hang out, originally began as a protest against a university in Delhi that did not allow a trans person to enter due to their sexuality and choice of clothing.
“Fashion for the queer society means wearing their identity, literally,” said Das, who has organized over 120 Pink Parties, which include activities like drag races, kink explorations, go-go boys and performances.
“The queer look is all about being visible. It is about rebellion, a form of shock therapy for the society that has ignored and invisibilized us,” he adds.
The hyper-inclusive world of queer fashion challenges the view that gayness is a curable tendency in an abnormal society.
“There is no particular definition for drag. I have known a very timid woman who suddenly turned into a bold, abuse-slinging personality when in drag," says Rayyan, adding that they also know of a person who identified as a cisgender man but realized they were trans while exploring and falling in love with their feminine side in drag.“It is common for people to be straight in real life and queer in drag,” says Rayyan.
Despite the limitations and biases inherent in the fashion industry, the queer community celebrates every opportunity to gain visibility in this highly competitive world. Can fashion bring lasting social change? Mx Siaan, a non-binary drag king, answers, “As a powerful form of self-expression, fashion has the potential to bring up deep-seated questions about patriarchy and prejudices. I hope fashion continues to encourage people to evolve, do more, and be more.”
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