From Mumbai to Chicago: Being Non-Binary and Doing Drag

You are valid if you’re still in the closet, you’re valid irrespective of when you come out, you’re valid if you decide to never come out.

Photo: Colectivo Multipolar

We first noticed Abhijeet’s many fabulous photographs on Instagram and could not take our eyes off their breathtakingly gorgeous drag persona. We had a little chat and realised that they are exploring their identity in a very unique way. We were interested in their experience and while on the journey – learnt some of the differences in non-binary identity in Chicago.

 

Q. You identify as Non-Binary Femme. Could you please explain what that means?

By non-binary femme I am someone who is trans, doesn’t identify with fitting into the social gender binary of male vs female, but leans to primarily femme ways of presentation.

Photo: Miss Meadows, Fashion: Tanner Bowman

Q. How long have you known this about yourself?

I feel like I’ve always known I was queer and not really interested in gender roles without really having a word for it. For as long as I can remember, I was always more drawn to dressing and behaving outside of the expectations of “boy” and really doing whatever I wanted. I distinctly remember that I wasn’t “allowed” to wear dresses and so I only wore oversized XL t-shirts for many years as a way to get around that. I only learned these words and involved myself in queer/trans culture about 3/4 years ago, but nothing has felt more real or more authentic than the expression of these identities.

Q. What is it like to be Non-Binary in Chicago? Do you feel safe or accepted as Non-Binary there?

My non-binary gender identity really developed in the Chicago drag and nightlife scene. It started as a way to explore my queerness and artistic expression and turned into a very real way to live my life. I’ve found a really strong community where I feel safe and accepted, but on a larger scale, it is still unsafe for gender variant people. I fully understand how much easier it is to be non-binary in the United States, especially considering that I also often “pass” as male. But safety exists only around members of the queer community, in small bubbles.

Q. You often visit Mumbai. Is it home? Do you feel safe or accepted as Non-Binary here?

I’ve visited Mumbai 3 times since I moved to Chicago about 5 years ago. And it’s always very complicated coming (going) back home. Mumbai will always be a very special place for me, and it will always be home, but it’s not where I fully get to be me. Every time I am back in India I know I have to “tone it down”, not because I have a particularly conservative family but because I don’t really want to be harassed in public. Even simple, barely femme expressions have led to altercations and denied me entry to places. But I have to add which of all is most uncomfortable; I know I am afforded a certain amount of distance from it because of my class and caste privileges.

Photo: Shawn Renee Lent

Q. We know that there are different ways that queer and transgender Non-Binary people of colour have to navigate the world to be safe, take risks, and things of that nature. In your experiences, how do you find support as a non-binary brown person in a foreign land?

One of my biggest support systems has been other queer and trans people, especially those of colour. There is a very safe and heightened solidarity and sisterhood between trans people. I’ve also found nightlife to be a space where I can experiment with almost every part of my identity. Being around other people that do drag, DJ and dance has been such a healthy way to understand the relationship between my body and my gender. Of course, it took a very long time as a person of colour to get noticed by the scene, get booked and create a community. But once I got a foot in the door, and a platform of visibility, I made sure I was doing everything I could to create a space for other gender non-conforming people of colour.

Q. You perform and work in Drag. How did that happen?

When I first moved to Chicago, I got super into watching RuPaul’s Drag Race (which is honestly the best-televised sporting event in the world). I was very drawn into it as an art form, a way of expression and of course the drama. I think I spent that whole winter break watching every season of Drag Race and any movie/documentary featuring drag that I could. Around the same time, I met my now best friend JForPayDotCom, and we started sneaking out to nightclubs to see the Drag Race girls who were in town, and eventually got super interested in the Chicago drag scene. The more we interacted with the local drag performers, the more we felt the desire to be part of the community (considered that most people we interacted within art school were kinda elitist and boring). And so we did- it was very rough looks and very rough performances but we entered an amateur drag contest and it was one of my favoirite things I’ve ever done. Nothing felt more natural than being on stage. That was about 2.5 years ago, and since then Drag has just been about self-exploration, creating a bigger platform and taking over the world. Every aspect of drag and nightlife has been an enriching one, and while it was a long and often frustrating journey, I wouldn’t trade any of the experiences I’ve had in that time.

Photo: Jacob Bjorge, Fashion: Eda Yorulmazoglu

Q. We want to know a little bit about how understanding your gender helped you understand other aspects of who you are.

Something that really helped put things into perspective for me was understanding how fluid gender is. I’m not talking just in terms of fluidity within and outside of the gender binary, but the idea that gender identity and expression is constantly changing based on time, place, class, economy, the people around you- and that’s ok. The validity of one’s gender is in no way tied to any of these circumstances, especially time spent identifying as a gender. You are valid if you’re still in the closet, you’re valid irrespective of when you come out, you’re valid if you decide to never come out.

Q. Many of your Insta posts are tagged #FemmesRoom? What is Femme’s Room?

Femme’s Room is a monthly dance party in Chicago that focuses on making a space for all kinds of femininity. The night is put together by Men’s Room Chicago DJ Harry Cross, resident hosts Lucy Stoole, Scott Cramer and myself. It is honestly one of my favourite parties in Chicago because of this incredible flow of energy between the crowd, the hosts, music; all climaxing in a performance by a featured artist.

Past hosts of Femme’s Room have included drag queens, drag kings, burlesque performers, fashion designers, models, activists – most of whom are femmes of colour and trans people. The most recent one I’m performing at features a guest DJ set by Gavin Russom of LCD Soundsystem, who just came out as a trans woman and Femme’s Room will be her first appearance since coming out! Femme’s Room has been a particularly important night for me to play around with more masculine sides of presentation since no matter how I dress I will always be perceived and respected as femme in that space.

Photo: Erik Michael Kommer

Q. You think Mumbai has a space for drag?

I think Mumbai has a space for drag, and it surely has an audience that’s interested in drag. The tricky part is making a space for drag while still keeping the community safe. There have already been shows put on by drag kings, there is a small community of Indian drag queens (the most notable being Maya The Drag Queen) and the trans band 6 Pack Band has been gaining a lot of popularity online.

I think personally for me, Drag has always been a part of nightlife and there’s something about a club that really activates it. I want to be able to take my drag to new channels via videos, but it’s really important to be rooted in nightlife. Queer nightlife in general in India is very very underground and often a lot of spaces are listed as “No trans, no drag, no sissies” (which are all great words to describe me). While I kinda understand some reasoning behind not wanting to draw even more attention to an already marginalised community, it is so important for femmes to MAKE SPACE.

There’s also a thing about class though – drag is expensive and not as readily available in India. It is something that only people with a certain amount of money and resources can have access to–even something as travelling from one place to another is tied to class. I think the trick to this would be for an Indian drag queen to gain enough national and international notoriety to be able to draw a crowd and adequate attention to really hang the scene. And fine, since you asked so much I’ll be the queen that does that.

Photo: Falyn Huang, Fashion: Eda Yorulmazoglu, Assit: Alexander Montgomery

Q. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?

Honestly, I just want to be 8 ft tall in drag all the time (without my stilts, lol). There’s something about looking like an exaggerated glamazonian fashion illustration that’s so attractive to me. Because if people are gonna look at me funny anyway, I might as well give them something to really LOOK at. But also, I wish I could turn invisible. I have a lot of social anxiety and pretty often use my drag as a way to compensate for it, so it would be nice to just be able to disappear for a sec and then come back feeling a full 100.

Q. What other projects are you working on, and what’s next for you?

The next step for me is world domination in a 6″ heel and 22″ green weave. There are gonna be photo shoots, video and music projects, fashion collaborations and really bad puns coming your way. Also keep your eyes for Femme’s Room every month, pop up parties with nightlife collective IT Presents. Some new parties I’m working on with JForPayDotCom, Bambi Banks and Scott Cramer, and of course the next Bad Beti’s party!

Check out my Instagram for all the stunts, shows and shenanigans.

 

About the author

priya

The Gaysi Zine Editor