Who Are India's Queer Icons, Anyway? - Homegrown

Who Are India's Queer Icons, Anyway?

“Everybody knows what my sexual orientation is. I don’t need to scream it out. And if I need to spell it out, I won’t, only because I live in a country where I could possibly be jailed for saying this.” – Karan Johar, ‘An Unsuitable Boy’.

A single statement from Karan Johar’s autobiography was sensationalised one year ago, hailed as him ‘almost’ coming out to the public after years of speculation and rumours. Though he’s right when he says it’s been pretty damn clear to most people for a long time now, those few words have become referential in pretty much any public discussion around homosexuality since. Though the LGBTQ community and many of its allies were far from satisfied or proud of his ‘candour’, just as many people congratulated him for his bravery. Whichever side of the fence you fell off on, there’s no denying the power of icons when you think about the impact a few words from the right person (at the right time) can have.

It appears Johar has flirted with the idea of idolisation himself. He writes, “They say, ‘Why don’t you speak about your sexuality? You could be iconic in this country.’ But I don’t want to become iconic anywhere. I want to live my life.”

The problem with such an admission (or lack thereof) is difficult to pin down as a single thing. On one hand, Johar is right. He does not owe anyone anything and asking someone to come out in terms that are publicly acceptable is unfair. On the other, his position of privilege and power can be easily wielded for the betterment of thousands across the country. Not necessarily at an immediate level, but a public acceptance of being gay, yet flourishing is the kind of message millions of young LGBTQ Indians can only dream of. Being gay and identifying as such is not a crime and not something he can be jailed for – the archaic Section 377 criminalises gay sex, so he’d have to be physically ‘caught in the act’ to put it bluntly. Can you imagine a world where someone of this stature, influence and respect reclaimed the narrative and admitted their alternate sexuality - gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, gender-nonconforming or anything else that doesn’t fit the cisgender heteronormative societal standard – what an impact that could have? How liberating it could be for countless people, of all ages, to see someone speak about it so openly in front of the media and change the way that the LGBTQ community is perceived – what better way to show that the community is not a “minuscule fraction” of Indian society as the Supreme Court stated when reinstating Section 377.

This article isn’t meant to point fingers or malign Johar, but he is one of the very, very few people that could be called a famous gay icon (however much it may displease him). And herein lies the problem. Who are India’s queer icons, anyway? Are there more than enough candidates who aren’t receiving their due, with people finding solace in the icons of the West? And if that’s not the case, we must consider the ramifications of a community who just doesn’t have any role models.

I posed the same question to those I know in the queer community, first positioning it with a global outlook. “Gay icons for me would be George Michael and Ellen DeGeneres,” 27-year-old Sharan Kumar says without skipping a beat. A lawyer based in Delhi who identifies as homosexual, he continues, “Freddie Mercury too, but it is so sad that it was posthumously. When he passed away the world was left shaken, there was like this veil that had been lifted regarding the lack of awareness about alternative sexualities.” Kumar also talks about the difficulties that DeGeneres faced when she came out, and the amount of respect he has for her for taking this immensely difficult step especially as a woman, facing society’s judgements while being in the limelight, yet continuing to steer the conversation forward.

Representational image; artwork by Esqueer/Mili Sethia
Representational image; artwork by Esqueer/Mili Sethia

“These are life-changing decisions they took at the height of their career knowing the risk. There was no going back. Michael was at the top of the pop music charts, and regardless of the scandals that took place (all those bushes), he let thousands and thousands of people around the world know that they don’t need to hide anymore either.” Meena Kumari*, a student of Delhi University echoed Kumar’s sentiments, adding Lady Gaga to the list of icons. “I don’t think I can summarise just how much she has done for me. It may be a cliche now but she really had helped me embrace who I am, and that’s all that matters at the end of the day I think.”

The same names were brought up in my other conversations with community members – Elton John, Cher, Anderson Cooper, Lady Gaga, Madonna, David Bowie, Harvey Milk, Sir Ian McKellen and Alice Walker, one even cited Dr Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I ended each of my conversations with the same question, “What about Indians? Who are India’s homegrown LGBTQ icons?” leaving some of my interviewees momentarily stumped.

All of the aforementioned celebrities and personalities have in their own way, through music, literature, film and activism, altered the perception of the queer community and also used their platform and public status to start a dialogue, even if it’s just by being their unapologetic selves. Such vocal and headstrong popular figures in our country are few and far between, this was the general consensus of my conversations. “I guess it’s pretty telling that there is only one person I can think of right now as a true icon and role model and that is Manvendra Singh Gohil. He’s doing some amazing work at the moment, and I can’t imagine the pressure and difficulty he must have faced because of his family lineage. The media has hailed him as the ‘gay Prince of India’ and he’s been so vocal about the community’s struggles even internationally, but can you imagine how hard it really would have been for him when he came out, being a ‘gay prince’ to his family?” asks 25-year-old Vikram Sharma. “It’s incredible.”

But what makes a gay icon? Do they have to be queer themselves? Is this someone that has dedicated themselves to furthering the LGBTQ cause and fought for equality? Do they sing about the struggles of self-acceptance, coming out and growing up queer? “For me, personally, an icon would be someone that’s been a fierce ally to the queer cause, like Lady Gaga. I’m not exactly sure what she identifies as, I think she is bisexual, but more than just her lyrics of shameless self-love and acceptance of all kinds of people, and regardless of orientation, she has used her platform to speak out. She’s not just inspirational, she’s helping. She has her own demons that she’s pretty open about struggling with, there’s an affinity to her people have I feel, at least I do, and she’s actively involved in the queer community,” Kumari* elaborates on her icon. Gaga setup the Born This Way Foundation, along with her mother, in 2011, and with a number of initiatives since its inception in 2011, has spread awareness and tried to bring an end to the bullying of LGBTQ kids.

Our role models and icons need not belong to the same community. Take Shashi Tharoor for example, a heterosexual Indian man, that too a politician, who has been pushing for the abolition of Section 377 on a parliamentary scale despite constant pushback as well as his Anti-Discrimination And Equality Bill. Manvendra Singh Gohil has been an exceptional ambassador of the LGBTQ community and now even opened his palace gates for the LGBTQ community and other Indians who are shamed or abused for their sexual orientation.

Harish Iyer photographed by Rashi Arora/Homegrown at the Mumbai Pride March 2018
Harish Iyer photographed by Rashi Arora/Homegrown at the Mumbai Pride March 2018

“It’s sad that we have to look to the West for our role models and guides. Here we have some very strong individuals as well, like Harish Iyer, Akkai Padmashali, Ashok Row Kavi and Sridhar Rangayan. Even Karan Johar, in his own little and strange way,” adds Nisha Mohnish. “I think what we really have missed and what we need to really talk about is the lack of women in this conversation. As a young lesbian, who do I have to look up to? Personally, the only person of my knowledge would be Suniti Namjoshi, and that’s only because I chanced upon her writing by accident. There is such a stigma when it comes to female sexuality in India, making it so much more difficult for queer women to speak out without condemnation. Not to take anything away from our male counterparts but the movement has been largely dominated by the more privileged male queer narrative and it’s understandable that women haven’t been able to rise up under our regressive patriarchal traditions. We need lesbians to come out. I need them to come out, and unfortunately, Bollywood is our greatest influencers and if even one of them spoke up it can make such a difference. Society needs to know that it’s not just a fetish for the male gaze, nor a ‘phase’.”

“It’s not easy, I know that. But we need trailblazers, like those in Western media and pop culture,” Nisha signs off.

There is a void in the conversation about LGBTQ rights and the movement in India with the absence of such figures in mainstream culture and industries–-such as Bollywood which is so beloved and considered ‘normal’. And that’s the end goal, isn’t it? Normalisation, acceptance, recognition as equal citizens that are everyday participants of society and its various facets.

“We have so many Indian icons that we just don’t talk about. Read about Harish Iyer and Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, watch the films of Sonali Gulati and Sridhar Rangayan. More than Vikram Seth I’d say read what his mother had to say, she should be the role model for queer parents,” says Akaash Raghupathy. “They’re all out there, we just don’t hear about them because we’ve become accustomed to looking at the West for guidance because our history has lacked such figures in the past, but times are changing. Where the older generation has largely been silent, for whatever reason, our youth has made it a point to become their own role models and that of their peers.”

He’s right in his observations as more and more people from different walks of life are stepping out of the shadows to show the way forward by sharing their own experiences. Young Indians are representing the queer community like never before. We have people like Aryan Pasha that are speaking up about India’s invisible transmen, Alex Mathew spearheading the conversation regarding drag performers, and the Gaysi Family who have created a safe space for sharing stories, opinions, creative content and so much more about queer life and culture. No conversation would be complete without recognising the Naz Foundation’s unparalleled fight for equality. We’ve constantly looked to the West for our icons but over the last few years that has started to change in spaces that they previously dominated, such as music. We now have musicians like Nucleya, Divine and Badshah that have become mass heroes of music and hip-hop of the likes we never had before. The media and entertainment industry, the world over, have always had the greatest say in determining and moulding pop culture. It’s Bollywood and its personalities that have for the longest time been looked to as demigods in our country.

While the work of activists and allies is not to be dismissed or undermined in any way, it’s just the nature of the world that they don’t have the ability to influence the minds and hearts of as many people with the kind of work that they do.
It’s unfortunate, but realistically speaking, we still need someone with the kind of power and influence of someone like a Karan Johar to really take this conversation to the next level. We need people like them, big actors, musicians, directors, and such, to publicly come out or publicly assert themselves as allies to have the kind of staggering impact that George Michael, Ellen DeGeneres and Freddie Mercury (while technically Indian himself) have had. It’s not an easy path to go down, but how much longer will we let other people take the lead?

If you liked this article we suggest you read:

A Malayali Film That Realistically Explores Gay Love Will Release Soon

The Prose & Pain Of Hoshang Merchant, India’s First Openly Queer Poet

LGBTQ Indians Tell Us What ‘Pride’ Means To Them

Related Articles