Recently when I visited my Telugu friends in Texas, they cooked so much and fed me, and after a couple of days, they started commenting on my body, saying, oh you need to concentrate on your body, you're getting fat. You spend so much money on your mental health, keep an eye on your body also. I did not react right away, but I responded later, saying, I used to feel like I have to look very lean or that I have to have all these muscles to attract guys. It took a lot of time to unlearn and love my body.
I'M 28 YEARS old now, and until I was 23 years old, I was in India, born and brought up. I’d never even been outside of Andhra Pradesh. Growing up, I was taught that your only friends are from your family. You're not supposed to have any other friends. I never knew any Western culture, I never really had any access to it. I moved to Washington, D.C. when I was 23 years old and these past five years, I have unlearned a lot, especially with toxic relationships I’ve had with my friends and parents, and even with myself.
We're taught from our parents and their parents that you bond with each other by making comments about other. They don’t ask, how do you feel? They would just tell you how to feel.
> It's an intergenerational love language that our parents are taught to use with us.
And I'm like -
I still want to be with with men, but my gender identity is different than my sexuality. It’s a lot to unlearn for them. Eventually, some people dropped out from my circle.
I HAD TO COME OUT three times to my parents - as gay, as genderqueer, and as a drag artist. Coming out as a gay man was the easiest process that I've ever done in my life. Nobody was bothered by it because I was presenting as cis male.
Whoever I came out to – my schools friends or any other friend who was in my circle – they were really supportive, like, oh, my God, we love you regardless, you do you, whatever you’re doing in your room, that doesn't matter.
Once I started exploring my gender, wearing nail polish or earrings or whatever, that's when they’d just freak out.
Like I said, I was very masc, I was going to the gym, I had my muscles, taking shirtless pictures for Instagram. At that point all these gay men wanted to be with me. But there's a lot of femmephobia, even amongst gay men. And so when I started exploring my gender, eventually these gay men stopped wanting to hang out with me. Interestingly, these same people came back when I started doing drag, because they wanted to be associated with a drag queen.
> And the thing is, I have unlearned a lot.
I was like, it's really fascinating that my grandpa is doing women characters and it's considered an art form. I think there's an accessibility for a cis man to do women characters, because he is married and has kids. He has gained that heterosexual card. He could be with guys, maybe not, but he has that card, so it’s okay. So that’s also what my mom tells me now: she says, first get married, have kids…Then do whatever you want, I don't care. It’s that don’t ask, don’t tell situation.
I HAVE SEEN DRAG representations since I was like 10 or 12 years old. We didn't know it was drag, because drag is a western term, but there's a lot of drag that's enrooted in South Asian culture. They have been doing it for ages and we don't call it as drag, we just call it an art form: Kuchipudi, Bharatanatyam, Odissi. Where men have been dressing up as women, women are doing male characters. And I personally had the privilege to see my grandfather doing Bhama Kalapam. I've seen him doing his makeup, he had jewelry.
BECAUSE I'M AWAY from my parents, I have individual freedom and I can own up to my identity, even though my parents are saying, no, don't do that. If I was in India and with my parents, I would probably not be able to, because the fear that comes with being around with them is a lot. I definitely am two different persons. When I talk to my parents, I take off my nose ring and earrings and everything. I try to talk about what's going on in my life and in my community, but they don't like to listen.
So I wonder, do I really need to talk about it? Because they're happy with me just being like this, without my earrings and everything. So I don't try to portray my feelings and my opinions about my community to them and make them understand, although low-key I try sometimes with my sister, but not with my mom, because I don't want her to be sad and upset and worried at this age. I just want to make her happy.
I'm lucky that I've been surrounded by people who accept me the way I am and support me.
> They would always ask me what I want, instead of giving suggestions, like this is what you have to do.
These people made me feel safe when I was on my journey. Even with my drag, I started off without makeup, without any wigs. I just put on a lehenga and blouse, and my friends never pushed me to do anything more, they waited for me to be ready. Now it’s evolved a lot and I just want to see more Brown men doing drag and I want to see more drag kings.
KAMANI SUTRA (all pronouns with respect) is a bearded genderqueer drag artist, progressive aunty, and the founder of the TeluGAY Queer Project. You can follow them here to learn about their latest performances and you can support their work here.