Essay | ‘Rhapsody on the F.M.’ by Tristan Marajh | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

Rhapsody on the F.M.

The first time I heard “We are the Champions” by British rock band Queen, I must have been a child. I had a sharper sensitivity to music as I grew older and into secondary school, where I knew that song by Queen as one of those timeless ones – ever universal, relevant and enjoyable. Indeed, it speaks about trials, tribulations and triumph and was and still is used as a motivational anthem for countless sport teams and individuals since it came out in 1977. It is almost impossible not to know the song; one would have heard of it or highly likely heard it before. Queen, indeed, were the musical champions of the 1970’s and 1980’s until Freddie Mercury, the band’s lead singer, passed away in 1991. Back in secondary school, I never knew his name or who he was, but was always rendered highly impressed by that vocal range whenever I heard “We are the Champions”, which Freddie wrote, sang and played piano for. The song was released eighteen years before I started secondary school and persisted in the decades to follow. Each time I heard it and “Another One Bites the Dust” on the FM radio, I remained privately impressed by the sheer classiness of the singer’s vocals. I still didn’t know who Queen’s lead singer was; nineties music was all the rage for my schoolmates and I at the time. Singers and bands from decades before – like Queen – were deemed irrelevant by and to us; old-fashioned and out-of-date, their days of glory behind them. No doubt that today’s youth, in the era of Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, feel as disdainful about 90’s idols the same way I had once felt about Queen. 

I was in secondary school in the latter half of the nineties. It was a religious school with all male students. There was, therefore, a lot of unguided testosterone that teachers tried to restrain through strict discipline and enforcement of rules that in retrospect, many former students now consider comparable to a prison camp. Rebellion, or just plain misunderstanding, was met by corporal punishment. Every other morning, our principal would conduct the school’s student assembly, which comprised a devotional message, prayers and the singing of both the national and school’s anthems. And that’s when Fionn Maharaj took to the stage, much to the chuckling, mocking and chiding of the students. A Chemistry and Math teacher otherwise, Fionn would strut to the podium, remove the microphone from its stand and twist his body this way and that as he moved to the rhythm and the melody of singing, which in a school comprising proud, macho – or more accurately, pretending to be macho – boys, wasn’t too much melody to go with. Mr. Maharaj sashayed his legs and hips, timed his musical rhythm by snapping the fingers of one hand as he held the microphone in the other.

You might imagine the kind of fun young boys lucky to have been born into heterosexual humanity would have had at Fionn Maharaj’s expense. As our Chemistry or Math teacher, my school- and classmates did not make Mr. Maharaj’s experience pleasant, or leave him with the conviction that he got through to his students. To be a teacher in secondary school is difficult enough; to be a “pansy”-male teacher in an all-male secondary school would have been extremely difficult. In his classes, students taunted Mr. Maharaj as he tried to teach, mocking his sissy-ish (as it was regarded) voice, his unmale gestures and movements and attempts at disciplining students, which often resulted in shoving back by the student. Such was the level of contempt and disrespect the students showed for Mr. Maharaj, but this did not seem to faze him; he never toned down his body language or style of speaking to seem more “manly”. And so, the fodder for ridicule never diminished. Throughout my years at that school Mr. Maharaj remained the target of mockery and contempt. It was a process that I’m certain repeated itself with each influx of new students. Yet I have to say Mr. Maharaj took it all in stride – or strut – and never toned down the tendencies he possessed. In retrospect, I realize now, it was very tough of him. Tougher than my schoolmates postured to be, and more resilient – very deserving of the respect and admiration that was flagrantly denied him in my secondary school days. Paradoxically, Mr. Maharaj was more of a man than we could have hoped for as students at that time. If we regarded him with contempt and disrespect then as unrefined boys, it now seems the opposite as mature young men – Mr. Maharaj was not beneath us by masculine standards, but above us; a real man among boys, a teacher not only of Math and Chemistry but also of courage and truthfulness to oneself no matter what the world. A man among boys indeed, a royal among knaves, not a king but more aptly, a queen.

The biofilm of Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, recently came out (pun intentional). Admittedly, I’d watched it in the cinema one night after work; I was restless, bored and did not want to return to my house just yet. Indeed, if I’d had another endeavor I deemed better to do than look at a biopic of a singer I considered – as you recall – irrelevant to my current tastes I’d have no doubt pursued that other thing. The theatre at the time was empty; I think there were about eight or fewer people who were probably there for the same restless reason as me. Bohemian Rhapsody was the title of the film. Its accolades include: Winner, Best Motion Picture (Drama) at the 2019 Golden Globes; Winner, Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture at that same event (won by Rami Malek for playing Freddie Mercury); Best Picture nomination at the 2019 Academy Awards; Best Actor award at that same event to Rami Malek, as well as Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing – all at that event. 

Rami Malek was tasked for and by the role of Freddie Mercury, but Freddie Mercury made all those awards easy to win. I was ignorant of him until the movie, and after the movie I was in awe of him. He was a musician, a singer, an artist and human being before his time; even before current time today, when the movie provided for himself and Queen a renaissance of sorts. Their music both merged and transcended genres, eras and sensibilities. Freddie had a beautiful spirit, unfazed by the ridicule and contempt he was subjected to not only as a Parsee immigrant to the United Kingdom of the 60’s, but also because of his homosexuality which was implicit in his on-stage antics, costumes and gestures, not to mention, of course, his off-stage lovers. Yet, he pressed on: creating, moving queenly on stage, his voice not just soaring but climbing, climbing up to heaven where his fans are convinced he is carrying on as he did to this day. He was indeed a fearless man, resilient and convinced of his talent, yet by the same token those who knew him spoke of his humility, his unassuming bent, his kindness, introversion and loyalty to his artistic drive to create, play and perform. I – you could say – unabashedly fell in love with him the more I delved into his music and the kind of person he was amidst the challenges he faced; that unbroken, unfazed spirit that persevered. It confirmed a notion I had: that a heterosexual man could fall in love with another man; more in the direction of true love because it is love that is artless and comprised of respect and admiration. As a student I’d thought I’d only fall in love with women, yet perhaps it is not too unfathomable to understand I could with a man describing himself as a queen. After all, what he did name his band?

There was no difference, in essence, between Fionn Maharaj and Freddie Mercury. They had the exact same initials, even. Perhaps that was – as Freddie and Fionn might have believed respectively – a symbol. Freddie Mercury received the world’s love, but Fionn did not receive love from his own world, that world that consisted of contemptuous, ridiculing, mocking students. And yet, Fionn strutted, sashayed and hip-swayed despite it all, despite us all. That’s what made true royalty: not necessarily brute presentation, but self-composure in the face of tribulation. It was known that Fionn did have a wife and children with her, yet we eagerly chose to assume he was gay and living a lie instead of denying he was homosexual at all. If he was indeed gay, such suppression even has nobility to it: it must have taken a gargantuan internal and external effort for Fionn to “do the right thing” by his parents, religion and society at the time and his own conditioning by them all. It must ultimately be the right thing, however, for individuals to healthily and openly actualize themselves as who they are – that’s when nobility ends and royalty resides. Freddie Mercury, British citizen and frontman for a band named Queen would have no doubt – figuratively – told you that nobles are below royals, and no one is above royalty. That’s what Fionn was: despite the ridicule and mockery, he remained upbeat, positive and concerned about our well-being, just as Mr. Mercury had been amidst his own mockery from others; even from biology itself, as AIDS decayed his body and took his life – his physical form at least. Yet, even that is not true, for decades later Freddie Mercury’s astounding voice still remains, climbing and climbing, higher than heaven, “punching a hole” through it on the way, as he would have remarked. And what of Fionn? Even if he was gay and eventually came out, it would be naive to conclude that he also eventually lived his life as expressively, experimentally and experientially as Freddie Mercury: fully, openly queer; having long-term relationships with chosen lovers. In that way, Fionn’s story does not have that kind of happy conclusion. But for it to have a satisfactory conclusion, it is imperative to understand that the true admirability in Fionn’s story was that in his time as a teacher, in the midst of the torments of testosterone-titillated young men, he carried on regardless – just as Freddie did until his death, just as millions of other unsung individuals do in the midst of their own respective internal and external torments. They both had resilient, persistent, mighty spirits, unswayed by their respective worlds – Freddie Mercury in 1950’s-1980’s society and Fionn Maharaj in one more recent, one that might as well have been in Freddie’s time in its attitude to queenly and queer-ly expression in men. Resilience, unswayed determination, fearlessness: the very traits that boys ridiculed in my secondary school were keenly sought out by us as we grew into young men.

And what indeed is a man, I would often ask myself since those school years, as I’m certain most of my schoolmates did. We have bumbled and suffered in our journey to know exactly what a man is and many of us still do today. Back in secondary school, we dismissed the likes of Fionn Maharaj and Freddie Mercury, making conspiratorial fun of our teacher’s initials – F.M. – to validate our assessment: the Fag Man, the Fairy Man, Fruity Man, Foolish Man, Female Man, even Femme Man (by those of us “cultured” enough to know the term yet rarely using it, lest we incur the accusation that we were of the type of people we were mocking). We did not know – far less even think of – the truest, most resonant expression of the shared initialism of both Freddie Mercury and Fionn Maharaj: F.M., of course, standing for the Free Man.


Tristan Marajh is a Winner in the William Faulkner Literary Competition of 2020 and his work can be read in a number of literary journals; most recently in down river road, based in Kenya and Ayaskala, based in India. With a childhood spent in the Caribbean islands of Trinidad & Tobago, he resides in Toronto, Canada.

Poetry | 3 Poems by Subhaga Crystal Bacon | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

Shaki Peters, 32, Amite City, July 1


She was full of laughter and an abundance of life.


Shaki, there’s a plant that grows here, where I live, 

called Shadbush—it’s also known as Service Berry—

but it’s the genus I thought of yesterday, seeking shade 

on the hillside, carrying you with me in the heat of day. 

How it gives shade, gives fruit, dark purple, seeded, 

and nourishing. 

                                 Your face, Shaki, in the one photo 

I can find, is round and open, dark and sweet. Your eyes 

seem to tip up a bit at the outer corners. Your lips 

are full, plush as pillows. I keep waiting for some story

to explain your murder. I don’t know how much

that matters in the long run, but it might fill the gap

around your death. I keep thinking about the name Amite

City. from the French for friendship. 

                                                                           Like my hometown,

Philadelphia, City of Brotherly Love. Likewise,

no friend to trans women. I spent a month in Louisiana

in 1984. It was hot and humid and I loved the way sweat

soaked me, sticking clothes to skin. I used to move

from shade to shade, the shadows of buildings, 

banana trees, and one very large fig tree in the yard

of the house I rented, hand-shaped leaves the size of fans.


In 1984, Shaki, you weren’t even born yet. It was a heyday 

for being Queer if you don’t count AIDS. We were all 

trying on gender like a wig or a dress or suit and tie. 

I used to go to a drag bar in Philly where I had a crush 

on a zaftig redhead I now know to have been trans.

She was very kind to me, taking my face in her soft hands,

fragrant and styled like the mother of a childhood friend 

I had to share a bed with one weekend. I clung all night 

to the far edge in fear that I would accidentally touch her. 

There was a ripeness in her, sweet, nourishing, a kind 

of femme that makes my heart ache, that I’ve never known 

or been. There are many kinds of shadow, Shaki, many kinds 

of shade. I think of you now inhabiting that: luscious, lush, safe.


Brayla Stone, 17, Little Rock, June 25


You gotta forgive me if u feel I’m too much


Brayla, there was a lot of you to reckon with for only 17.

Your Facebook page is full of photos of you in pinup 

pose, your tongue stuck out, these interspersed 

frequently with the faith that God got my back.

The paradox gives me whiplash. I feel very old 

and very white swimming up from your social media sites.


The wigs of many colors, the clothes likewise, 

and eyelashes the size of butterfly wings. I feel 

your fight, your will to not just live but to thrive.


Seventeen in Little Rock, Arkansas, and someone

paid five thousand dollars to have you killed

by another teenager who already once beat

a murder charge. 

                                   You had humor and pride 

and grit and some source of cash that kept you 

in brand name flash and bought a car 

for your momma. 

                                   Your body was left in a car

on a walking path in a suburb called Sherwood,

which is ironic in a sad way, with its innocent

suggestions of Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

 The cops say there’s no indication of a hate crime, 

Arkansas being one of four states in which they don’t exist.


Forgive us, Brayla, for not being enough for you.


Merci Mack Richey, 22, Dallas, June 30


This man TEASED my bestie for being gay in middle school whole time he really had a crush on her.


Merci, I try to imagine your fear, being chased 

and shot by Angelo Walker who bullied you 

in middle school. Only you two know what happened

in the days before your death, the video you planned 

to release.

                   Once again, a man has killed 

a trans woman because he couldn’t live with his desire. 

It started in your teens, his teasing, taunting, 

then as adults? 

                              To shoot you while you ran, 

to stand over your fallen, your small body and shoot 

you again. 

                     Merci, you know the fear 

that festers to killing disgust. You could prove

what Angelo Walker was, what he is still, 

even with your death on his hands. Killing you 

does not kill the part of him that wanted you.


Subhaga Crystal Bacon the author of two volumes of poetry, Blue Hunger, 2020 from Methow Press, and Elegy with a Glass of Whisky, BOA Editions, 2004. A cis-gender, Queer identified woman, she lives, writes, and teaches on the east slope of the North Cascade Mountains, in Twisp, WA, USA.

‘An Indian gothic drag art performance’ – A photo essay feat. Patruni Chinanda Sastry | by Saumya Kalia | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

Where patriarchy ends, expression begins: An Indian gothic drag art performance

The lore of vishkanya is intoxicating in its effect on the Indian cultural discourse. The “poisonous maiden”, enrobed in myth and legend, carries an ominous mark. It is a secret that hangs heavy in the air; neither fully embraced, nor completely eschewed. It passes on in grim looks, exchanged as demure whispers, understood as cautionary tales in traditional set-ups. Like all things clandestine, its lure indulges social dogmas and inspires a web of fancy. 

But for Patruni Chinanda Sastry, the lure doesn’t warrant loyalty to the myth. The 28-year-old artist is known for many things: dancing, drag art, LGBTQI+ activism. Which means that he knows exactly how to turn the prism outwards. If anything, he believes, the myth demands a closer look, a dissection, a complete evisceration if needed. 

His recent performance, VisssKanya, does exactly that. It is a play on the legend, the tradition of witch-shaming, and the force of patriarchy that binds it all. Along with Sajiv Palasa, he mixes it with the contours of drag art and gothic culture, albeit within the Indian sensibility. Captured by Hyderabad-based photographer Manab Das, what unravels is a spectre of delirium, defiance, and delusionment. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das and Artist : Patruni Sastry

Time stands still in the land that vacillates between tradition and modernity. The parable of vishkanya has evolved but never once betrayed the violence, lethality, and deviousness the female figure is understood to possess. The most recent figuration came in the form of a Bengali actor politically and socially indicted. Rhea Chakraborty’s role in Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide was sold as witchcraft on television screens; anchors swearing by occult forces at play. The woman was unwittingly vilified to preserve the presumed innocence of the man. 

This is in line with India’s sordid history of witch-shaming — labelling norm-defying, often independent women as “daayan” or “chudail”. Witch shaming in India is a departure from Shakespearian witches and their green faces and black robes. Here, the daayan or chudail was marked by her association to black magic or the tropes of jaadu-tona. Progressive or independent women were relegated to be these anomalies, devious figures, sinister witches. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

This characterisation was where gothic drag art found the need to intervene in the dominant narrative. Somewhere between their transgression and expression was a mirror that could reflect the reality of patriarchal forces at play. Two figures headline this performance: one played by PCS in a vivid red-and-black saree donning the feminine figure, with Palasa playing the masculine entity. The two bodies continue to pose with constant contact without a break, unlike other photo shoots.

In two hours, their progression reveals the notoriety at play. PCS, dressed as a woman in the garb and jewelry of a traditional woman, was the seductive, poisonous “vissskanya”. The man was swayed, cajoled, and his mouth strapped shut. The slurring ‘s’ uncomfortably hung in the air, as if the passage of utterance might inspire introspection. 

Traditional understanding of goth in rural areas manifests through stories of witches, black magic, vishkanyas. So it was imperative that the gothic anchored the performance here, but without the pre-conceptions it remains shackled with. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artist : Sajiv Pasala 

PCS explains how gothic culture was growing as a counterpart to gothic music and punk trends; a lifestyle being developed from a music setting. It is a way of living, and not restricted to fanciful notions it is often confused with. Goth in drag came to grow in prominence in western drag culture — PCS hat tips to artists like Sharon Needles who would dress in the widely-accepted black-and-white binary, a western goth staple.

Is gothic an often-used medium for drag artists? Now more than ever. As creativity thrived, drag artists went ahead and looked for inspiration from the society they lived in. Goth culture was resounding with gender fluidity — a western figure titles emos muffled the gendered aspects of play. Gothic drag matched the non-conformity with artful performances. 

But Vissskanya is again a departure from the western gothic drag portrayal — the white is quickly replaced by the red. Feedback from some sections railed in how the absence of white didn’t make it gothic enough. But for the artists, it was more important to do justice to the context behind the presentation. The red carried a powerful message to a patriarchal set-up, especially when used as a tool of subversion.

The clarion call thus becomes evident: “Even men are witches, I am just one”, the artists explain.  With this, the performance shirks off taboos and time-honoured beliefs: a headstrong woman is not a witch, and witchcraft deserved a different treatment. This was a chance to recalibrate morality within tradition.

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

To take it a step further, the performance deludes the gender binary as is widely understood. There stands the traditional alpha, gazing at the seductive beta. But a closer look shows the feminine figure, adorned with jewelry, with a mustache. Gender permeates through the performance, pushing forth forces of fluidity.

The ring that sat on the man’s finger in the previous picture now binds his mouth shut. This was the man who had the power to oppress the feminine voice, but the progression of the performance uses the ring as a symbol. The imagery interrogates male privilege and puts it into perspective. There is something about a man ceasing his railing defence of “not all men” that paves way for reflection. 

In another image, PCS dressed as a woman bites the glorious chain of patriarchy and oppression.  It then disrupts the traditional set-up and encourages conversation around patriarchy, as documented from the lens of the oppressed. Myths may continue to be weaved by gatekeepers of traditions and values, but for PCS these time-honoured traditions hold little weight especially when times keep changing.

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

Drag art transcends labels and stereotypes. It throws caution to the wind in its attempt to transgress and create. So it’s only natural that it adapts and grows into an entity of its own, beyond the restrictions of stage. The photo performance grew out of a desire to unify the drag diaspora during these times; and like all art eclipsing through a pandemic, it reached its audience virtually. 

Flair and flamboyance, markers of most drag performances, run in abundance through the performance. But more importantly, it is true to its form. As a drag artist, PCS’s performing philosophy lies in the transparent reign of ‘tranimal drag’. Put simply, it is the idea that drag can be created out of anything. You enrobe and adorn what is in sight; in this case, the red saree, strings of jewellery, and dabs of rouge are what PCS plays with. The vision has to fit the elements, not the other way round. There is a lot of creative freedom in making something which can be found anywhere — an idea that resonates in the times of a pandemic. This approach of drag made fashion and performance accessible to people sitting at home. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry

This does two things, One, it caricatures art into a more inclusive mould. Art, PCS explains, has often governed conversations around beauty and romance. Even drag art has to a certain extent dictated ideas about how women should look, how they should dress, how long nails have to be in order to replicate the woman. Cross-dressing was in turn enabling stereotypes — a cycle that needed disruption. With tranimal, drag artists can put multiple things on their face and create a look that aligns best with their identity.

And two, it unravels the idea of privilege and the fashion benchmarks accompanying it. Tranimal doesn’t invest money in clothes or cosmetics, it just makes do. It juxtaposes the costly with the cheap, the pedestrian with the luxurious. Everything is made accessible on one body form and mixed together. The audience then needs to question and wonder what is what, and the aesthetics of privilege are abandoned for the time being.

Drag art in itself is intersectional — involving theatre, music, dance whatever suits the whim of the artist. Dance has been PCS’s preferred form of expression. He was five when he saw the Tamil movie Padayappan where the heroine was angry because she was rejected by the hero. In fury, she screams loudly and dances. This was the kind of implication he grew up with — whenever you’re angry you’ve to scream loudly, his five-year-old understanding dictated, and only then will people take you seriously. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

He later learned Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, Odishi, and Buto, a Japanese art form. To balance this artistic flight, he trained to be a full-time engineer who now works in the poetic city of Hyderabad. 

It soon became a part of his expression, where the spectrum of emotion oftentimes translated into dance. He paced with agility, and soon came to view the art form through the lens of drag. He finally found the vocabulary — a visual language — to distill ideas and explore issues of identity.

In many of his performances, he asks audience members to pull out chits out of a jar with each one having a gender or sexual label written on it. He then presents it for the individual sensibility. That was the only way for him that stood a chance to reach out to people and denude the richness of gender and sexuality for a more accepting audience. If a picture is worth a thousand words, one can only wonder how potent a moving performance can be.

PCS describes himself as an expressionist dance, and one has to merely gleen through to see strokes of the German movement across his body of work. It is the idea of creating oneself, reproducing a feeling or thought for public spectacle that ushers through. The visuality has since carved his identity as an activist, as he established pieces that were relevant and political in nature. Commentaries on same-sex marriage, equality, the MeToo movement all found space in his oeuvre that has went on to inspire many and initiative conversation. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry and Sajiv Pasala 

Drag art for performers like him became a conduit for a thriving socio-cultural discourse around the LGBTQ+ community. In their transgression is an abundance of expression often tucked away from the mainstream. People have innumerable pre-conceptions and often dismiss it for sensuality or vulgarity. There are assumption that you have to be gay or transgender to participate, or the stigmatisation of drag queens as ‘hijras’ (eunuchs). The acceptance of drag thus endures under a spectre of shame and unacceptability. 

But like other drag artists, PCS is no friend to conformity. He didn’t find it necessary to dwell on mythology or take stories in the way they came. Traditions were accepted as much as they were rejected. This becomes evident in his understanding of art: the abstract concept is like water which takes on the shape of the jar it flows into. Famous drag queen RuPaul’s words quickly ring in resonance: we’re all born naked and the rest is drag. Art, for him, will always exist as an asexual entity that can be moulded into any gender identity. 

He adopted the stage name S.A.S, an acronym that would come to undergird his body of work. It stands for “Suffocated. Art. Specimen.” Suffocated, for the plurality of expression that strokes within him. And specimen — of art —  to distance himself from gender labels. It is the fluidity of being that holds his confidence and loyalty.

What would it take to move the dial forward on drag culture, gender, and sexuality? Conversation. Artists like PCS are inching close to an answer. Blogs like Dragvanti, that delves into Indian drag in particular, are an instructive medium for knowledge. 

Pictures Credits : Manab Das | Artists : Patruni Sastry

As long as we’re fighting patriarchy, we’re also fighting expression that enables it. The photo performance, along with his other work, criticises the binaries of masculinity and femininity. PCS’s art probes the normative theories of gender and sexuality, and exists in the visual realm. In fact, it insists on creating a performative experience. How do you explain the spectrum of gender or sexual orientation in a way that people understand it? Why don’t we go ahead and dance on it instead of talking about it, PCS thought. And that’s exactly what he continues to do.

He negotiates with his performance on two fronts: one, as an artist, who must do justice to an evolving creative express; and two, as a member of India’s vibrant drag community that fights for a place in the cultural tapestry. Art and activists bind PCS’s work; each breathing a life into him: free, fluid, and transcendent.


Saumya Kalia is a journalist and writer. Most days she is proud to be a product of her times; other days she finds a deep hankering to move to the rhythm of the good-old-days. Her tryst with time inspires her to explore life and living, as it cuts across socio-cultural periods. She swears by coffee, good literature, and everything popular culture. She mostly lives out of suitcases and currently finds base in Mumbai. 

Read more:

LGBTQ+ Vol 1 – Issue 35 released.

Submissions now open for Vol 2 of the series, scheduled to release in 2021. (Art, reviews, fiction, poetry, essays, and more)

Solicited entries are paid. Submission details here.

Essay | To perform is to be: Drag culture, Indian art, and activism – Saumya Kalia | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

To be a drag artist is a curious thing. You can be anyone, everything, the sum of your desires, all at once. But what becomes of this curiosity in a cultural discourse that doesn’t let the mind wander? A discourse that thrives on stereotyping, refuses to recalibrate, and reduces everything to a label? 

If the Indian drag culture is anything to go by, then this curiosity endures. In the fall of 2018, when the Supreme Court passed its landmark judgement on Article 377, two things happened. One, a promise of liberation hung in the air, with a renewed resolve for the challenges to come. And two, the lid on a boiling pot was finally removed for drag artists — their art receiving a nod-of-sorts to waft through mainstream Indian art. 

Across time and continents

History stands clear and consensual on one thing: drag is not a product of the 21st century. The earliest documentation of cross-dressing — to wear clothes culturally ascribed to the opposite sex, that is central to drag art — is strewn across cultures. Jonathan David in his book Drag Diaries writes about how native Americans, indigenous South Americans, and Ancient Egyptians often cross-dressed for ancient religious ceremonies. 

The most culturally notable figuration of drag is through theatre; more particularly in the plays of Shakespeare that opened at London’s Globe Theatre in the 17th century. It was convention for male actors to play female characters, and cross-dressing was a common trope in his plays. Viola became Cesario in the Twelfth Night, Rosalind transforms to Ganymede in As you like it. 

Some activists, however, trace the roots of drag closer to home. It was documented in texts with varied terminologies, and smidgeons witnessed in dance forms like kathakali and theyyam. Variations of the term were being documented in late 800BC texts. Patruni Chidananda Sastry, the founder of DragVanti, a blog for uplifting desi drag community, says, “If we try to compare the first draft (of drag culture), it was something that was a part of the Indian art circuit.” Instead of being developed into a singular art form, it had intersectionality with dance, theatre, and other creative fields. 

The Desi drag culture

Despite the rich history of drag in India, there remains an uncomfortable distance between drag and mainstream culture. One reason can be traced to a general wariness to western ideas and art forms. Drag, by and large, is seen as a western niche — a premise further cemented by the popularity of American drag shows. 

The reluctance can also be ascribed to cultural barriers. Cross-dressing or violating gender norms are seen as social aberrations, and thus anything in relation is saddled with misconceptions and misrepresentations. It is thought to be “incorrect” or “vulgar”, mostly because its messaging rallies for an alternate value system. 

But an evolving art ecosystem is working to destigmatize drag culture. Indian drag performers borrow stylistic elements from western conventions: flamboyant clothes, theatrical make-up, sashaying through stages. But there is an effort to retain traditional markers of Indianness, as they opt for saree and salwar-kamiz in their stories and performances. 

The ‘desi’ gets prefixed to ‘drag’, to visualise a community of change-makers, performers, and pioneers. Maya the drag queen, Lush Monsoon, Betta Naan Stop, amongst others performed at clubs and social gatherings. The solidarity of Indian drag community has strengthened with time, making it easier to articulate what’s needed to develop this nascent, vibrant scene of art. What started as an isolated, individualistic flair has swelled into a movement of expression. 

Drag art and the message of inclusivity

Language and identity are interlinked, with language evolving itself to be more inclusive. But it has to reach everyone and be comprehended to make an impact. Where language fails, art when compounded with drag culture can do wonders in reshaping cultural sensibilities. 

Drag artists are finding transcendence, meaning, and community in a moment of socio-political upheaval. What inspires drag art in India? One merely has to look towards social movements in time to understand what breathes life into it. Since the essence of drag lies in transgressing binaries, the community becomes an artistic ally to other disenfranchised groups. Stories of women, gender representation, sexual identity, and other minority groups often anchor drag performances. 

Names like Gulabi Gang, and Pink Chaddi came to be associated with social campaigns against domestic violence and Hindu nationalism. Patruni Chidananda Sastry, a 28-year-old expressionist dancer, started a blog, Dragvanti in addition to performing on politically relevant themes. Art and activism become bound in a promise of liberation, communicating fraught social relations and structural inequalities.

For art to connect with contemporary ideas, there is a need to tell true and diverse stories. Drag culture offers an unassuming and rich medium of storytelling, that breathes life into this fight for inclusivity. 

It is also worth mentioning that the discourse isn’t limited to drag queens; there is non-gendered drag, artists who are indifferent to conversations about gender. To create inclusivity, underplaying the gender card is important and must align with an understanding that is constantly developing. Gender, after all is said and done, remains a social construct. Drag art becomes a tool for plugging the loopholes that come with a constricted view of identity, gender, and sexuality. 

The next step

Indian drag landscape stretches along upmarket clubs, literature festivals, and cultural spaces. In the pandemic, these artists have taken to social media to connect to their audience and unite the drag community. Drag art is being used as a tool for activism and expression, now more than ever. As a nation that is still coming to terms with same-sex relationships and gender fluidity, India needs an artistic push. 

The first step in this pursuit is for drag culture to be integrated in the broader cultural conversation. Right now, it relies on internet subcultures and social fringe groups. Whatever widespread representation does exist does more harm — shows like Zabardast, a Telugu show that portrays drag culture, unwittingly passes along homophobic and offensive messaging. 

In order to preserve the authenticity of drag, there needs to be a determined effort by members of government and civil society to embrace it. Steps like identifying drag as a field of art, acknowledging artists and performers, offering accolades and institutional support, and building more vibrant platforms can be a positive start. In many ways, drag continues to fight art and demands respect.

Art carries fierce activism, and much like drag, it must be allowed to continue unapologetically. It is only then can Indian drag art can reach what it has set out to achieve: steer discourse, facilitate dialogue, and inspire movements. Its curiosity keeps it alive, only when it remains untamed.

 


Saumya Kalia is a journalist and writer. Most days she is proud to be a product of her times; other days she finds a deep hankering to move to the rhythm of the good-old-days. Her tryst with time inspires her to explore life and living, as it cuts across socio-cultural periods. She swears by coffee, good literature, and everything popular culture. She mostly lives out of suitcases and currently finds base in Mumbai. 

Fiction | ‘Journey’ by Madhavi Johnson | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

Bumper to bumper traffic clogged up the round-about on Eighth Avenue in uptown Manhattan. I drew my second-hand fake fleece closer as I emerged from the subway warmth. 

There was a bite in the air after last night’s snowfall. Joggers and walkers tiptoed gingerly around little grimy glaciers on the side of the pavement. A young man in spandex ran past me, with his honey-coloured boxer trotting alongside, panting, tongue out, and keeping pace with his master. Dog and master deftly side-stepped the glaciers and crossed the lights on 110th street.

Just a few more blocks to go, another 10 minutes, if I kept up this pace. I did not want to be late for my Zumba lessons again. With warm air blowing out of my nose and mouth, I lowered my head against the wind and propelled myself purposefully towards Broadway. 

I spotted in the distance a few plastic bags. Lined up on the sidewalk opposite the park, arranged neatly around a lamp post outside building #207. Also were pieces of furniture – two chairs, a table lamp, and a sewing table. Made of solid wood. 

I stopped to take a closer look.

Three clear bags tied neatly with kitchen strings: dishes, crockery, and cutlery in the first one. Dresses, sports clothes, and a jacket in the second. Shoes and other odd ends in the third. 

***

Gabby Sanders watched the tall woman from her kitchen window. Blonde, dusky, wrapped in a dark brown fleece, rummaged intently through the garbage bags, lifted a few clear bags, and carried them to one side. Then she sat on one of the wooden chairs and peered at the motif on the sewing table. 

Gabby wiped the moisture off the window with her sleeves and stood on her tiptoes to get a better view. Pixie whimpered behind her. The poodle needed a walk. Caroline usually took her out for a walk every day after dinner. Then they settled down to watch TV. But she was not home tonight. Maybe she will never come back home. Something had changed irrevocably in the morning.

Caroline was landing last night from Paris after the latest round of fashion shows. Paris was in high season, and she was in demand. She would land at JFK by eleven and be home by midnight, thought Gabby. When the bell finally rang, it was past 2 am.

Large snowflakes fell silently on the dry potted plants outside the building, covering them with a thick blanket of whiteness. Gabby opened the door. A large woman wearing a red bandana and black midi-dress stood outside the building holding Caroline by the shoulder. She had Caroline’s overnighter in her other hand.

“I found her in ‘Purple Turtle lounge,’ in their restroom….slumped against the wall. She was quite out of it, puking on herself. If I had left her there, trouble would surely have found her.” The woman rapidly spoke and spewed warmth out of her nose and mouth.

“You don’t remember me. Do You? I am Amy. 

Gabby looked at her blankly.

“I had come over last month to drop off a dress for Caroline. I work with her designer.”

“Thank you very much, Amy.” Gabby held Caroline by her shoulders as the woman disappeared into the cold, silent night. 

Caroline sat at the table the next morning, holding her head. A glass of orange juice and Alka Seltzer in front of her.

“If not for that woman… that Amy, you would have been in deep trouble, Carol.”

“I do not wish to hear your lecture first thing in the morning,” Caroline retorted. 

“You tend to do only what you feel like. No consideration for me.” Gabby persisted.

“You never get me. I want out, from modelling, from studies, from you… from everybody around me. I feel like my legs are stuck in a cauldron of hot tar. None of you are helping me. I have to get out of this by myself.”

Caroline walked out of the living room, slamming the bedroom door behind her. Twenty minutes later, she walked out of the house in a crumpled T-shirt and cotton pants, saying no farewell nor leaving behind a promise of return.

Gabby later found her daughter’s phone on the bed, its battery dead.

It had been over four hours since Caroline left. Dark shadows lengthened in the living room. 

Caroline had signed several contracts last month and received advances. But she walked away from it all. A promising career. Five years of hard work and opportunities. 

Gabby’s anger welled up. She quickly cleaned Caroline’s room, gathered the furniture she had brought home when she moved back from her college dorm, packed all her stuff into clear bags, and left them out on the sidewalk. 

Caroline would probably never return, not after the hurtful insults they had hurled at each other over the last few months.

Pixie scratched the door and barked impatiently. Gabby walked over and picked up her leash. 

***

Seated on the classy wooden chair near the garbage bags on 110th street, I examined the pink, white, and blue flag painted on the side of the sewing table. I knew what it was, of course. I wondered why the sewing table was on the sidewalk and who had owned it.

A woman in flowing floral robes came out of building #207 with a small dog on a long leash and walked past me, adjusting her headphones. The dog and mistress headed towards 8th Avenue.

I checked my phone. Just a few minutes left for my class. I hastened past the Lady and the dog towards Broadway, reluctantly leaving behind the stash I had discovered.

“You are late again, Daniella,” Petti sounded sharp. “You wanted to learn dancing. I got you the sponsorship. Now start taking things seriously.” Petti turned away abruptly as the teacher whistled, calling us to attention.

I needed help to cart the stuff I had found to someplace until my one-room rental apartment in the Bronx was ready. The sewing table, the two classy chairs, and the lamp were just right for that space and also the items in the clear bags. Petti rushed off after class before I could tell her about what I had discovered on 110th street.

The night was still young. I hurried towards my garbage bags. The woman in floral robes stood outside #207 with her little dog, watching the garbage truck haul the furniture, piece-by-piece, from the sidewalk. I ran towards her. 

She looked away, avoiding eye contact. 

“Lady, I need help. I need someone to store some things for me temporarily, just for one week. Please.”

She turned towards the building. The dog growled and bristled at me. 

The young man in spandex jogged past us with his boxer in tow and inserted the key into the lock. The two dogs greeted each other, and the woman followed them swiftly. The door slammed on my face.

The garbage truck was almost ready to drive off. 

Only my clear bags are left on the sidewalk. I grabbed them with both my hands.

***

Gabby went into the apartment and took up her position by the kitchen window again, and watched the woman. Pixie was stretched out by the fireplace listening to jazz.

The woman was still standing uncertainly outside the building. Two men walked past, looking at her curiously. One of them stopped and approached her. He moved close and tried to grope her. The woman turned around deftly. One kick in his crotch and he doubled up in pain. She was taller than her assailant, and her moves were sharp and defensive. She swiftly turned around to tackle the other guy like a dancer pirouetting on one foot, swinging the clear bags wildly as she moved. Robust, agile, yet graceful. 

The man had disappeared. 

Gabby withdrew from the kitchen window and walked quickly towards the front door.

“Stay Pixie, Stay,” she said firmly and stepped out of the apartment.

***

The bags weighed heavy in my hand. I still hung around building #207, feeling safer than anywhere else. I could hear a dog yapping inside one of the apartments. 

A door clicked open behind me. 

The woman came out of the building. She walked towards me. The look on her face was interesting. Was she baffled? Bewildered? Evidently, she had not encountered anyone like me before. 

She hesitated and then slowly held out her hands.

“Give me the bags.”

“No, why?”

“I want to take them.”

“No, they are mine.”

“No, they are not.”

“Lady, I found them on the sidewalk. This and the furniture. How can they be yours?”

“I was the one who put them out there. Do you want me to keep the bags for you? Then stop talking and follow me.”

“Then how about we get the furniture also?” I pushed my luck. 

The truck would not have gone further than the next block. There was still time to chase it.

The woman opened the main glass door to the building and turned.

“If you do not shut up, you are welcome to leave.” 

I entered the foyer behind her with my lips tightly sealed. 

“Where are you from? You have any family or friends?”

“I am Daniel-la.” I liked to stress the ‘la.’ 

“I am from Saugatuck.” 

The woman looked puzzled.

“In Michigan. You probably have never heard of it …. a small town of hardly a thousand people. Nothing like New York. I am part Caribbean, part Indian, by the way. The Indian half is actually native American,” I volunteered.

“What brings you here?”

“I came to New York looking for a job when I turned 18. No longer wanted to depend on my folks.”

I was trying to impress her. The lady looked elegant, her accent measured, and posh.

“This is my daughter’s stuff,” she held up the clear bags.

I stopped, just outside her apartment door.

“It is nice of you to let me have her stuff. Thanks.” 

“That’s OK. Caroline doesn’t need these now. My name is Gabby.”

She opened the door.

I smelt a lingering perfume. Jasmine?

“Shoo, Pixie.” The little dog growled and backed away slowly.

Muted lighting, plush carpeting, paintings on the wall, fresh flowers, jazz music in the background, I yearned to enter Gabby’s world. 

The traffic on 110th Street, the glass door clicking shut, the elevator door opening everything seemed to be in slow motion, deliberate and measured.

“Come back and collect the bags in the next few days. I will put them out into the garbage next week if I don’t see you by then.” 

Gabby’s voice broke my reverie.

I slowly backed away from the apartment door.

***

Downtown Manhattan was warming up with activity. Petti wrapped the scarf tightly around her neck and stepped out of Penn Station on to 34th street carrying a pizza box. She turned to look at the vents outside the subway out of habit. A young person huddled near the vents on a piece of torn cardboard. In winter, the vents provided warmth. They were a symbol of comfort to the homeless. 

“Hello, are you OK?”

The young man looked up with warm liquid eyes, flawless skin, curly auburn hair, and a confidence that seemed to be born out of privilege. He said in a measured accent, “I am Carl.”

“Where have you come from?”

Carl looked up at her without opening his mouth. 

“My name is Petronella. Petti for short.”

“Here is pizza. I will not be able to eat the whole thing.” Petti carried on without waiting for his reply. She kicked off her shoes, sat near him on the sidewalk, opened the pizza box, laid out a bottle of water, and handed him a tissue. Carl grabbed the pizza slice hungrily, wolfed it down, took long sips of water, turned away from her, and huddled over the vents.

“I am on my way to the next block to meet a few friends. Would you like to come with me?” Experience had taught Petti to keep in contact with the young ones on the street. They were clueless and the most vulnerable. 

Carl kept his eyes averted as if he had not heard her. 

“And the vents are not really comfortable. I know because I have sat on them myself sometimes.” Receiving no response, she continued. “Alright. If you do feel you want to join, I will be in Joe’s kitchen just two blocks away, on the corner of 31st street and 6th Avenue.”

Petti got up, dusted herself, and put on her shoes.

The street folks had not yet started arriving for their meals. Petti wore her apron, arranged the sandwiches, chips, and black coffee on one side of the table. The cold drinks and water on the other end, and lit up a cigarette. She had been unnecessarily harsh to Dani earlier in the dance class. Dani had tried telling her something, and she had cut her off. She dialed Dani’s number. 

“Hello Petti, glad you rang. You will never believe what I …..” Dani’s voice was high pitched, excited.

Petti noticed a movement on her side. Carl emerged from the shadows of the food truck and walked toward her. 

“Hold on a sec, Dani,” Petti interrupted.

“Hi, Carl.”

“I need a place to stay somewhere tonight.”

“What?” Petti was surprised at this leap of faith.

“You heard me.” He was rude.

“Dani. Listen. There is a young man here. He needs help. Can you come over to Joe’s kitchen and takeover the shift? I need to fix a place for Carl tonight.”

“What did you say his name was?”

“Carl…”

***

A lot had happened in five days. Petti forgave me and took me out for dinner, I found a futon by the roadside and was ready to move into my apartment that evening. 

I took the trouble to fix my makeup and put on my best coat before reaching Gabby’s apartment in the afternoon. 

Pixie stood wagging her tail and making whimpering noises as Gabby opened the door. He seemed to like me.

I hesitated at the doorway.

“Come in. Into the house.”

I glided over the plush carpet into the sunlit living room facing Central Park, pleasantly taken aback by the invitation. The fragrance of jasmine lingered.

“I came to collect the bags.”

“I know.”

Gabby looked at me, searchingly.

“Sit down. Tea..?”

“Yes, Please. Thanks once again for agreeing to…”

I sank into the soft couch and was swallowed into its silken luxury.

“How do you take it?”

“Just black, no sugar, please.”

My voice sounded far away.

Pixie stood near my knee, looking up with her liquid brown eyes. 

“Neither the dress nor the wig suits you.” Gabby’s voice startled me.

“What?”

“The dress and the wig. Both look ridiculous on you.”

I looked down at my pink dress. I had bought it online from Target.

“Open that bag.” Gabby pointed at one of the clear bags. 

“Take out the sapphire blue dress.”

I got up.

“You must be my daughter’s height. That dress will fit you. Go up the passage, the second door on the left. That is her room. Get changed, and for god’s sake, remove that wig.”

I walked back to the living room; my wig cast aside, my auburn hair loose and flowing, the silk dress a perfect fit.

I heard Gabby gasp and clutch her throat.

“Blue suits you. And your form is just like my daughter’s. This dress is hers,” she sobbed. 

The much-longed-for daughter, beautiful with auburn curls and clear, peachy skin. Caroline, a gentle and well-behaved child, a successful model at a young age, an ace student in college.

“She is now in search of a new life. She does not need any of this to bog her down. She wants to be free. To… be who she wants to be…,” Gabby cried.

I took her hand into mine. 

Washing windows, delivering newspapers, sweeping our yard, and running errands, Saugatuck and my past seemed so far away from the Manhattan apartment.

I was born a boy. I have this memory of being in the playground at primary school with boys. I felt totally out of place, awkward, a misfit. I could not relate to any of them. But when I chatted with one of the girls, I recall connecting to her immediately. It was effortless. 

I was Daniel, the twin who was different. I grew tall and lithe by 16, with silky auburn hair and honey-colored eyes. I also got straight As in school. My twin brother Barry was brawny and bull-headed. The boy-man in the family who did poorly in school, but grew into a strapping young man with a baritone voice, attracted beautiful girls and had the choicest cuts at the dinner table.

I used to dress up in my mum’s best dress and jewelry, put on a fancy wig with curls that she kept in her dressing table, take selfies, and sent them to a guy I met on Facebook. I became Daniella for him and for my own sake. He said I was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. 

I packed up and landed in New York in search of him when I turned 18. I never located my Facebook admirer, but a burly guy I met in an alleyway raped me on the second day of my arrival. 

Gabby flinched.

I lived on the mercy of soup kitchens, often fearful of being assaulted or falling ill and dying on the streets of New York. It was not a kind city for people like me. And I ignored my mother’s million calls. Picking the call up would have been like admitting defeat for me.

After nearly four months of no money, no food, and abuse in alleyways, I met Petti at Penn Station. She became my lucky charm. 

“Would you like a slice of Pizza?” she asked me when she saw me the first time. I was huddled near the vents at Penn station, drawing warmth from the steam coming out. She became my sister, my friend, my mentor. She arranged a counsellor for me and a part-time job at a recycling unit in the Bronx. With her help, I talked to doctors and started my treatment. I have finally learnt to accept Daniella with all her flaws and failings.

“I am so sorry you had to go through all this.” Gabby’s face was streaked with tears.

“Come with me.” She steered me to Caroline’s room. 

On the inside door of the wooden cupboard, I spotted the same pink and blue flag motif that I had found on the side of the sewing table.

“When was this done?” I asked Gabby.

“When Caroline was 14. One day she came home from school, got her watercolours out, and painted this flag. Not just here but in her notebooks and on the side of the sewing table. She even got a t-shirt made with that motif. I had no clue what this meant.” I noted the past tense.

“We were never great communicators. She was better with her dad. After his death, we barely communicated with each other. I was ambitious and quick to judge her. I never listened. I should not have been so hard on her.” Gabby’s voice was filled with despair.

Gabby knew that Caroline was trying to align her existence. Just as I had done with mine? And like me, she too would bear the consequences of acknowledging her identity and experience the accompanying pain and pleasure of that journey? 

Our journeys were solely ours to own and navigate. No one else could shape nor bear the consequences of our choices for us. Gabby could have only gone that far. 

I remembered my mother. Her silent support for me. Her patience with my anger and frustrations. She could not have done more than that. My father would not have allowed that. I had tried slashing my wrists with his razor but botched it up. Mum found me in the bathroom and rushed me to the emergency to get it bandaged. She never mentioned this to him. I tried running away when I was fifteen. Mum found me not too far from home and brought me back. And now her persistent calls after I finally moved away without saying goodbye, went unanswered. 

I slowly eased out of my uncomfortable heels and settled deeper into the plush sofa as we continued talking. Pixie lay at my feet, sleeping with a paw resting on my bare toes.

My phone rang as I walked out of Gabby’s apartment three hours later. I did not ignore the call this time. I was about to speak to my mother for the first time in six months.

***

“Do you think this dress fits me? Maybe one size smaller would be better?” I walked out of the cubicle towards the floor assistant in H&M. 

I had got my salary from my first full-time job as a shop assistant at a book shop and was now on a spending spree.

“Yes, I think so. Let me get you the right size.” The young man walked out. “Here. Try this. Blue suits you.” He kept his eyes trained on the dress as he passed on the hangar.

“You should check out other shades of blue. Let me get you a few more options.” He vanished again into the noise and sea of apparels in H&M. 

“You are tall and will carry them off well with that auburn hair of yours.” He brought back shades of blue and designs I would not have considered. 

“Wow, you sure carry that off very well. You should be a model,” he remarked in his posh accent when I walked out wearing one of his selections.

“Hi, Carl? Isn’t it? I would have recognized your voice anywhere. This is Dani. I met you a few weeks ago in that place downtown, with Petti.”

He looked up at me for the first time. 

“I do remember you. It was good to meet Petti and you that night. That was my first night out living on the streets of New York!”

A stylish auburn curl rested on his forehead. His smile reached up to his eyes. It somehow reminded me of an elegant lady I had spent an afternoon with not so long ago, drinking tea and sharing my story.


Madhavi Srinivasan Johnson is an Indian national born in Chennai. She spent her early career years working as a Copy Writer in an advertising agency in India. Her passion and engagement in women’s issues and rights of girls led her later into a career in international development/ humanitarian work with UNICEF in India, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Kenya, Namibia, and the USA (New York).  She lives in Ballarat in Australia, hosts a blog (miaamicamadhavi.blog), and mentors young men and women from developing countries. 

Poetry | ”Of Lipstick and Labels’ & 1 more poem by Anureet Watta | LGBTQ+ (Vol 1) – Issue 35

Of Lipstick and Labels

What they do not tell you,
when you finally kiss a girl is,
that it may not feel right the first time,
it may not feel right ever.
sometimes walking out of the closet
is like walking into a new one.
The labels you choose
after years of rummaging,
through leftovers
from past revolutions,
and all the sneers thrown at school,
the labels
might still not fit as perfectly,
as you thought they would,
but you’re allowed to get them wrong again
and again.
When this confusion becomes the most familiar part of my day,
I think
I’ve spent too long in the closet,
for all these ill-fitting sizes,
and too awkward shoulders,
by now,
I should’ve figured what to do with a black eye,
how to stitch torsos to fit like armour,
what do you mean all this lace and satin wasn’t meant for me?
When you kiss a girl,
you will still not know
what to do with your hands,
they’re too wobbly for this business,
the parts of her,
you thought you knew your way around
would still feel alien,
and unfamiliar,
like going back to where you once lived,
where everything is the same, but nothing really is;

but you’ve practised
for this unfamiliarity,
your hands on her stomach,
might make you hate yourself a little less,
for her soft belly, is just soft belly,
not disappointments measured out in tacos,
after all,
you might not crave the sharp edges,
you thought you always needed,
you wouldn’t have to fold yourself so small
to fit in little pockets of love
love is Marine Drive, huge, and salty,
but waiting,
and it doesn’t care what shape you are.

when you kiss a girl,
maybe all the flowers in all the poems will make sense,
maybe you’ll want to melt all the words,
that shuffle through your mind
as her face fits perfectly
between your chin and your shoulder
and melt them with the sweetest of lies,
and pour into the cracked edges of the world,
just so it heals.

what they do not tell you,
about kissing a girl is
even when you like it
is that your eyes will always stay open
on the lookout for fire,
but there might be lipstick
and hers might wear on yours
like a swatch
Make a colour you can’t name,
and when you get home
your mother might say
this shade
this shade makes you glow.


We Swallow the Sun to Keep from Stuttering

coming out

as a person, a gender, an orientation, a heartbeat,

was never a one-time thing,

but we keep longing for it to be,

maybe soon,

it will be our last time around.

You tell me,

what it’s like to dream,

a body for yourself,

heights and hair and hands and parts,

that match your heart,

you want to pick a name,

so much softer than all the things you’ve been through,

maybe one day,

these longings will just be the memoirs and reminder,

which come after new dawns.

You have never longed to be understood,

just acknowledged,

under kinder skies and with undoubtful eyes,

but until then,

I’m here,

and I’m not really a hug person,

but I think we can both use one,

it is hard to carry so much hurt,

in chests that have never quite felt like your own,

in hearts that have learnt to love,

in ways, they weren’t taught,

in hands that still have to prove

their actuality.

friend,

longings are soft,

but it’s the soft things that destroy us in the end,

that turn fights into revolutions,

it always hurts to become,

what you’ve intended to,

no one is looking,

blossoming is still blossoming;

we are, after all,

the truest reporters of ourselves,

no matter how many times we got it wrong before.

the moon does not have to ask,

before it changes,

the moon has never learnt to apologise,

when it shines greater than the sun.


Anureet Watta is a 19 year old poet from Delhi. She writes of queerness, girlhood and the overwhelming anguish of being alive. Performing across open mics in Delhi, she believes spoken word poetry is the perfect amalgamation of poetry and theatre.



Submissions open for

LGBTQ + Vol 2 (January, 2021)

Solicited entries paid.

The Bombay Review

Fiction | ‘Mirror, Mirror’ by Sarah Jane Justice | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

When Mirror’s face appeared beneath the flicker of my dreaming eyes, it was the first I’d seen of her in over a decade. 

I tell myself that I can remember every detail of her appearance, every line on her palms, and every static electric shock that ever struck me from touching her skin. After all this time, I know that her image must have been romanticised by the rough currents of my memory, but I relish the chance to hold it, just as it appears in my mind. I close my eyes to look at her, and there, I can wrap myself around the idea that the girl I am conjuring is Mirror herself, exactly as she once stood before me. 

I pretend that my mind can accurately reflect the shape of a jaw that clenched slightly as I reached it with my lips. I convince myself that I still know the pair of eyes that always seemed so captivating in their distinctive colouring. I have come to accept that those eyes must have been the same shade as every third set that forms the background of my daily routine, but it takes nothing away from their position in my memory. I remember them shining like no other colour I have ever seen, and I allow myself to accept that exaggerated idea as truth.

When looking back on the first blurs of youthful intimacy, the person who sparked them will always look special in the hazy reflection of half-forgotten years. Accuracy is easy to push aside when it comes to sparking the essence of nostalgic lust.

As teenagers, we are all clumsy webs of lust and limbs. Our growing feet kick us into a stumble as we stagger through the opening stanzas of romantic interaction, the foreplay for the very concept of sex. We trip towards the people who catch our eye, but rarely find ourselves falling into a comfortable land in their open arms. I have let time stretch the gap between me, my first love and the version of the self who loved her, but when I saw Mirror in my sleeping vision, I was immediately fifteen again.

With sparkling eyes and flame red hair that never quite matched the colour on the bottle, the legally named Miranda reached a level of rebellion that was always far above my own. She talked back to the adults lazily positioning themselves as authority figures and wore tank tops with slogans designed to ignite offence, layered under the worn leather jacket that defined her image. She hated the name her parents had bestowed on her and soundly rejected it, along with all the trappings of a persona that might have come with it. She insisted that she be called Mirror by all who came into contact with her, refusing to ever respond to the name on her birth certificate. To an adult, this might have looked like standard adolescent practice, a strategy of fighting back against control in all its forms. To my fifteen-year-old self, Mirror’s actions set her apart as a dazzling beacon of white light standing alone in a dry grass field.

The idea of being with another girl had barely appeared as a possibility before I started spending time with Mirror. I have been told by so many self-taught armchair psychologists that she was the one who placed the thought in my head, seducing my identity with the bold gestures she aimed in my direction. Girls press their way through the knee-high rushes of their defining years with constantly scribbled prescriptions informing them of the reasons for their own actions. They drown under dust-ridden books and glossy magazine covers that persist in the assertion that the balding faces garnishing their opinion pieces know the mind of a young woman better than any girl could possibly know herself. Even now, I struggle to see how many of the beliefs I have put forward as my own were once dictated to me in the shotgun judgments of passers-by. I still find it hard not to bend to the water cannon spray of ideas that keeps being fired at me, grappling to maintain the prevalence of my own internal voice. I still look to the memories I hold of Mirror, standing staunch and stubborn in her refusal to ever give in. To a girl who was slowly learning her own sexuality through tattered picture cut-outs hidden in a growing scrapbook, Mirror’s strength was nothing short of breathtaking.

In the years that have passed since knowing such a gravitational force as my first love, I have allowed myself to trust the person I became while standing by her side. I can remind myself that I know who I am better than the commentators who want to use my picture as bait for the self-satisfied rage of their readers. Still, when Mirror’s face fell unexpectedly back into my sub-conscious vision, I was jolted into that half-forgotten blend of inexperience, confusion and desire. I was removed from where I lay and placed in my awkward teenage body, feeling my sweaty fingers fumble with another pair of hands for the first time.

Behind my sleeping eyelids, Mirror addressed me as my current self. Fully grown, I stood before her as comfortably as I always had, wearing the mask of my remembered teenage body. 

I heard your news.

She spoke with her signature firmness, sending latent guilt rising in my throat with the sudden awareness that I had betrayed her. The scolding look in her eyes revealed that she knew I had reached a point of settling down, with a man no less. She glared towards the fingers that had once laced patterns across her youthful skin, now rubbing lotion into an abdomen that swelled with growing life. She saw that I had committed to the concept of reproduction, so dangerously unwelcome to our queer teenage selves. I had become a breeder, a role we had sworn away together in the blood oaths of our shared cycles.

I felt the residual impact of her stare burning me, even as I woke. I saw myself through the disappointment in her eyes, discovering the label on my chest that named me as a traitor to my own identity. The face of Mirror sat above me, playing back my most unacknowledged fears in the sound of her voice. Her ethereal form shouted accusations into a gust of dreaming wind, and my own voice fell back into my ears. Suddenly, I was living proof of the ideas I had once so angrily rejected. I felt myself boiling under the eyes of all the observers who had so vehemently insisted on recognising my desire as a phase. I felt their nameless faces staring down at my current happiness with gloating eyes, pointing to my swelling womb as evidence of the natural order. Evidence of what they had decided these half-forgotten girls would inevitably, truly want from life. The poster girl for teenage rebellion had become the perfect example of everything she was supposed to be rebelling against.

As consciousness began to drift back to me, I was able to remind myself that the fears stuck on repeat in my mind still came from the critics who had never stopped telling me what I was destined to represent. They claimed my happiness as their proof, while labelling me a traitor through a different set of vocal cords. In a world where the choices of individuals are used as swaying statistics regardless of the shape they take, I have always found it challenging to avoid the shame that comes with seeking a life that could bring me joy.

Slowly waking, I calmed myself with the touch of the warm body lying beside me, and the whispers of movement from the one still growing within. I looked fondly on the image of Mirror that was quickly fading out of my mind, and reminded myself of the principles that had always kept the fire in her eyes.

As a girl, my most sincere form of rebellion was living as the part of myself that I was told to reject. In growing up, I have seen womanhood as its own act of rebellion. Any step we take towards loving ourselves can be twisted into a betrayal, framed as treachery against whatever mould is currently being forced around our shapes. If I were to meet Mirror in whatever frame might now surround the spark I look back on so fondly, I know she would be unlikely to judge me for my happiness. The strongest act of protest a woman can commit is to stay on the path she has laid out for herself. 

My first love showed me that we live in a world that will always try to tell us what we believe. If I want to stay faithful to the picture of her that I still hold in my mind’s eye, I know that my most enduring love will be my most taboo. Self-acceptance will always be my greatest act of defiance.


Sarah Jane Justice writes lyrical poetry, whimsical character pieces, and thrilling genre fiction. Her poetry has been included in collections from The Blue Nib, Capsule Stories, and Pure Slush, and her short fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, Caustic Frolic, and Hawkeye Books. In addition to the written word, she is a celebrated spoken word artist, having won an array of competition titles, and performed at the Sydney Opera House.

Poetry | ‘Your Father’s Carpet’ by Holdyn Bray | LGBTQ+(Vol I) – Issue 35

You gargled salt water

Pretending you would become the ocean

And maybe you believed you could 

But saltwater turned into cheap whiskey and cigarettes

Yet no matter how many you lit 

you never went up with the smoke

And I’ll admit you stained me 

like the wine you spilled on your father’s carpet

All the sleepless nights

We wasted talking about the future and the people we wanted to become

How our sadness became a lifestyle 

And in the blink of an eye I saw everything we would become, all the time we would waste so I gargled salt water to get rid of your taste

And moved to the ocean, yet every time I light one,

I wonder if you can see my smoke signals or the way you stained me 

like the wine you spilled on your father’s carpet


Holdyn Bray is a poet and makeup artist from Sacramento, California, who currently resides in Los Angeles. She received a bachelor’s degree in Women and Gender Studies from UCLA in March, 2020. You can find more of her work on Instagram @nydloh .

Poetry | ‘Meet me on the Roof’ & 1 more poem by Agam Balooni | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

Meet Me on the Roof

When all was over in the night
I went to him. He took my wrist
and led me to the roof, turning once
to look back at me—I turn to iron dust
lining the path of an unsteady pole

The sky was in shock from Bombay lights
Leaning on the balustrade, now we looked
for darkness, now we tended wet roads
from the confidence of twenty floors
Meeting his eyes again

split me from my flesh:
around that wound my ego has hardened
When I had left him at his door
I began shaking all over
uncontrollably, addict in sudden withdrawal


Ducks from America

They alight in majesty from the wind
One foot upon the cement shock and flutter
Old or tired—fold their wings at last
pass black turds behind cement stares ahead

How they bend their tall necks all the way
around bury their orange beaks in their backs—
graceful except their feathers are somewhat dirty
of course their travels have been long

How far can I bend my neck? Not far
You don’t look good doing it anyway
Perhaps quack like them—yes the voice
in bending breaks later than the neck

Three of them are brown look—why
are they fighting—ha! ha!
digging their black beaks into one another
instead of bending burying graceful back

At what age do they come out of that country?
Fifteen, but also as young as eleven
but surely by eighteen
and only rarely in their twenties

And what age will they leave here?
Out by twenty at the earliest
but mostly twenty-five
though thirty really is more accurate

And sometimes they linger
For years sometimes
But they are always in danger
Eaten both here and there


Agam is published in HarperCollins’s 2020 The World That Belongs to Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia. He was nominated for a TFA Award in 2018. He grew up in Dehradun. 
 

Poetry | ‘Honeymoon’ & 1 more poem by Kenneth Pobo | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

THE HONEYMOONERS

When I married Stan, we 

honeymooned on Triton, a lovely

hotel built from frozen nitrogen.  Oh, 

that was grand.  235 degrees

below zero made us cling tightly. 

Lonely Neptune captured Triton.  

It worked out well for everyone.  

Stan and I plan a second honeymoon.  

This time we’ll jump on a methane 

ice trampoline, hold each other 

with every leap, kiss in mid-air 

the way Nereid and Naiad do 

when our telescopes have 

gone to sleep. 


DULCET TONES COMES OUT TO HIS UNRESPONSIVE DAD

Dad, if I tell you I’m the fig newton 

in the box of raisin cookies,

will you get it then?  

You’re a mailbox,

a slot that can’t be opened.  

I’m the letter falling 

on the sidewalk.  Still,

I keep trying to get through–  

we’ll be better friends then. 

The mail will arrive, 

all of it.


Kenneth Pobo has a new book forthcoming from Assure Press called Uneven Steven.  His work has appeared in: Amsterdam Review, The Fiddlehead, Paris Lit Up, Hawaii Review, and elsewhere.