Ever since LGBTQI issues have begun to make masses, as well as classes, think, activists have been part of critical commentaries on the enactment of ‘gender’ and its varied interpretations.
This has also led to the assertion of identities outside the socially acceptable norms of the gender binary, as well as their increasing acceptance. The Six Pack Band, India’s first transgender musical group found champions in Cannes and in Bollywood. Playboy magazine recently launched its first transgender playmate.
The drag queen phenomenon is finding increasing acceptance in present-day India (despite its popularity in mythology and folk performing arts). Championing the cultural movement in India is Mr Keshav Suri, scion of The Lalit Group, who recently got Violet Chachki, an American drag queen, TV personality, and model is best known for winning RuPaul’s Drag Race in its seventh season. He is all set to introduce Mx Rovin Sharma, a.k.a Roveena Tampon, to Chandigarh next week at Kitty Su at The Lalit Chandigarh on the 31 October 2017, which will be the region’s first drag show performance. Rovin is a genderqueer activist, writer and TED speaker who works towards the visibility of gender non-binary and non-conforming individuals, HIV prevention and for the basic rights of the LGBTIQ individuals in India. Rovin addresses issues related to HIV, health and human rights through capacity building and advocacy. Rovin holds workshops on Gender and Sexuality at workplaces to make sure that the workplaces are safe and healthy for LGBTIQ+ individuals.
Here’s a freewheeling chat with Rovin/ Roveena…
THN: What has the journey from Rovin to Roveena been like?
Rovin Sharma: Definitely not easy, but a lot of fun. Growing up in a conservative family in Haryana my effeminacy was always discouraged. Gender was just a confusing concept. I had a very difficult childhood because I constantly found myself trapped between the two opposing options – never masculine enough for boys and never feminine enough for girls. I ran away from home at 17 because I wanted to discover myself – who I was. In my zeal to stand on my own two feet and earn my living, one day I found myself appearing for an interview at IBM where I worked as an accent trainer for some time before I started being discriminated against for being gender queer. I was called ‘unprofessional’ because I sat cross-legged or ran my hands through my hair! It was the same at several places where I worked – Seimens, AMEX – I have worked with a lot of Fortune 500 companies – that were, unfortunately, very very discriminating. “Professionalism” has been my enemy, because it requires that my gender identity is constantly and unrepentantly erased. If you dare to step out of line, you risk being mistreated by co-workers, losing promotions or even losing your job. That is when I moved to writing – as a dialogue with myself to discover who I was. Just like Cinderella transforms into a beautiful princess, Genderella does that every day with the help of their vision for gender. This book that I am writing aims to kill patriarchy. Soon I was speaking, talking to people and met Mr Keshav Suri who is like this mother hen and wanted me to be on stage, lip syncing. So he is my godmother who has given me these drag wings.
THN: Is Raveena Tandon an inspiration?
RS: Not an ‘inspiration’ as such, but I do love her sass and her style. She is naughty and yet classy, bold and yet coy. I love her attitude!
THN: So what exactly is a drag?
RS: Drag is not just about clothes and makeup! There are many reasons people do drag including self-expression, comfort, transvestic fetishism, and on a basic level, for performing and entertaining. Drag has a rich cultural history, spanning cross-dressing performances and deliberate parodies of fixed roles of gender and sexuality. Men have been performing on stage as women since the Ancient Greek tragedies, Shakespeare famously cast men as women. This art form has actually been in India in Kathakali, Theyyam and also Nautanki. Drag can be a creative outlet, a means of self-exploration, and a way to make cultural statements. Drag is also part of regular life and street culture for many gender-nonconforming or gender-variant people, who may or may not consider what they do, “drag.” A woman wearing pants is appreciated but a man wearing skirts is bashed and abused. Why? I have now realised that the problem is not with me, it is with the people around and I am absolutely fabulous. Non-conforming gender identity means that the person doesn’t follow the gender norms created by the patriarchy and drag is part of that rebellion too. It’s a revolution that has started already and will only grow with time. The concept behind this is the visibility of people who bash gender stereotypes, giving more power to the gender non conforming, non-binary and trans folks.
THN: And what is the ‘third gender’?
RS: We may have recognised the third gender but has no clue what the third gender is. People still think that third gender are only hijras but “third gender” or “transgender” is a blanket term for all the identities that sit both within and outside the binary of male and female. People often use the term gender and sex interchangeably. “Sex” means the biological sex which depends upon your anatomy, chromosomes and hormones whereas “Gender” is your psychological sense of self (what you think you are). Biologically my chromosomes decided if I will be assigned male or female at birth, but my gender is something that only I have the right to decide and how I express it is solely on me; state or society doesn’t have anything to do with it. Now the way I understand my gender is that I am both man and a woman and neither a man and a woman. I am outside these entire categories. I am Rovin and Rovin exists outside of society’s heteronormative gender binary. I wasn’t born in the wrong body, I was born in the wrong world.
THN: Has your choice of the way you dress got you into trouble?
RS: Fashion is actually one of the most political things I do on a daily basis. The same dress that makes me feel fantastic and free is the dress that makes me feel terrified, alone, and at risk. The same garment that will get me attention on a red carpet will get me murdered in the street. And I have faced that, I had to run that night in my heels, hide behind the cars parked in the streets, bang strangers’ doors for help. And I say that with no exaggeration Transgender and genderqueer people are murdered pretty much every single day for having the audacity to express ourselves and our gender identity publicly.
THN: A writer, motivational speaker, activist and now drag queen. Which of these roles do you enjoy the most?
RS: I didn’t choose to be all of these, things just happened you know. And I am so blessed they happened to me. I am master of none of these but enjoy every single one – they are all part of my experiences, my constantly evolving identity.
THN: Finally, what can Chandigarh expect from Roveena Tampon?
RS: Roveena Tampon is going to rock Chandigarh for the first time ever in the history of the city! Roveena loves Chandigarh! It is way more accepting to individual identities than Delhi is. Chandigarh has a transgender welfare board, transgender toilets, and transgender students studying at Panjab University. I have really high expectations from Chandigarh.
(Currently, Rovin is working closely with The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group and is educating employees on Inclusivity and Diversity. Rovin uses singular they pronouns. Rovin is also a book titled “Genderella” with the Human Library (Delhi Chapter). Rovin also visits universities and colleges to talk to the students on the real concepts of gender that the mainstream society has always been unaware about. He is slated to speak at TedEx at Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University in New Delhi on November 10.)
Text by Aarti Kapur Singh