Queerness, globally, has always been about the struggle to simply be, a struggle that continues in each era. While the spontaneous protests by members of the gay community that broke out in front of the Stonewall Inn in New York City in the US on 28 June 1969 proved to be a defining moment in the modern queer liberation movement, paving the path for Pride Month to be celebrated every June, the challenges of identity and exclusion never really end. Prejudice and hate against the LGBTQ+ community continue in India, despite the reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (which criminalised homosexuality) in 2018.
“Yes, we are celebrating Pride Month,” says Grace Banu, a trans and Dalit activist from Tamil Nadu, “but what does it even mean for someone in rural India who doesn’t know what Pride is and has no safe space or privilege to practise it?”
This Pride Month, we sought to go beyond the obvious manifestations of Pride—parades, marches and rainbow capitalism—to look at how the relative egalitarianism of the World Wide Web is helping strengthen the queer liberation movement. The internet was especially useful during the early days of the pandemic, when people sequestered at home, with families who may or may not have understood them, sought comfort and companionship through online communities.
Over the last few years, a number of queer influencers have emerged on social media. They use their social media accounts to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ rights, chronicle their own lives and journeys, document struggles or heartbreak, offer opinions or connect with their own. As transgender activist and doctor Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju says: “Social media opened up a conversation about trans-ness that mainstream media could never do. We found a community, we found our own voices, and we were able to tell our own stories.”
To mark Pride Month, Lounge meets eight social media influencers from the LGBTQ+ community whose voices are shaping the narrative on queerness in India.
GRACE BANU, 31
Location: Thoothukudi /Chennai/Delhi
Preferred pronouns: She/her
Instagram: @gracebanu and Twitter: @thirunangai
Dalit and trans-rights activist Grace Banu is no stranger to oppression. Growing up Dalit in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, she has faced caste and gender discrimination all her life, says the Trans Rights Now Collective founder and first transgender engineer in the state. Her early experiences have made her a passionate advocate of the trans community, which struggles to find a safe space to express itself. All her social media handles—Instagram, Twitter and Facebook—are crammed with content on Dalit trans issues, offering clear insights into her politics. Appeals for monetary help for trans people struggling after the covid-induced lockdown jostle with photographs clicked at advocacy events, educative material and strident opinions. Despite the occasional harassment challenges she faces, “the digital platform has helped me to reach out to more people”, she says. “For the past seven years, I have been doing advocacy through social media platforms,” she adds, pointing out that younger trans people use the platforms particularly well.
After all, every forum that helps create a safe space for people who have been silenced for too long must count. “Where are the activists from our (Dalit trans) community?” she says. “We are still struggling to have a say.” This is, perhaps, why her enthusiasm for Pride Month appears somewhat muted. “Yes, corporates changing logos, queer people of privilege conducting events, having Pride marches in state capitals is great,” she says. But it means nothing to queer people from rural or small-town India, especially if they belong to the DBA (Dalit Bahujan Adivasi) community. “They don’t have a safe space to practise Pride,” she says, pointing out that the Pride movement still lacks equality. “Pride needs to be for all.”
– Preeti Zachariah
MAITRAYANEE MAHANTA, 26
Preferred pronouns: She/her, they/them
When schoolmates would call Mahanta a boy because of her hairstyle, she would laugh. “Frankly, I never understood why they were making fun of my hair. I never saw people from the lens of gender; even as a child, I looked at a person as a person. What bothered me was the fat-shaming,” says the queer content creator. Since 2017, she has been documenting her life on Instagram, sharing posts on travel, friends, daily life, to “normalise what being a queer means, whatever normal means for everybody. I want people to have the confidence to be as open about their life as possible,” says Mahanta, who enjoys the platform’s “visual appeal”. Her content stands out for the freshness with which she celebrates individuality without labels. It doesn’t shout about queer rights, pointing you subtly to issues through posts about daily life—like answering questions about why she wears her hair short. Whether it’s her Euphoria-inspired make-up tutorial, simple get-ready-with-me-for-the-day videos, or posts of her showering kisses on her girlfriend, Mahanta shares her life as openly as possible to remind her 24,000-plus followers that “gender, labels are just a concept of society”.
Mahanta has always lived without secrets. “I had my first girlfriend at the age of 21 and everyone knew about it. I spoke about queer rights, had queer friends.” Her mother, however, came to know only last year, when a video in which she discussed her sexual orientation on a show to mark Pride Month went viral. “For a week, she kept asking me why I went on that show. She’s okay with it now, almost. I don’t want people to look at me differently, that’s why I started my Instagram page,” says Mahanta. “When I post pictures with my partner, I want people to see two people, not women, celebrating love.” The constant trolling and hate comments do get to her, but she gives herself a talk on such occasions. “It has helped me get the clarity I have now. I have been called a chhaka (eunuch) many times but I find that funny. You are calling me a trans; what’s wrong with being a trans?”
SUSHANT DIVGIKAR/Rani KoHEnur, 32
Preferred pronouns: He/she/they
It’s 10am and Divgikar aka Rani KoHEnur (their drag name) is sitting in the make-up chair, speaking on the phone while preparing for a magazine shoot. They have returned from the US a couple of days ago, after taking part in events celebrating Pride Month, such as the Outloud Raising Voices Music Festival and Revry Presents House of Pride, a variety extravaganza produced by a queer-content streaming network. “This is my 16th year in the entertainment industry. If I was doing this for myself, believe me, I would have retired long ago,” says Divgikar, an actor, singer, reality show contestant and drag queen. “Growing up, I didn’t have a reference point for who I wanted to be. It took me so long to get the kind of recognition I do now. So I do this for that one kid who feels unseen, and I want to say to them—you are important. That is what I say through my performance, through my art, and through my social media persona.”
Being a performer comes naturally to Divgikar. Starting out with reality shows like UTV Bindass’ Big Switch Season 3, directed by film-maker Rohit Shetty in 2012, they went on to win Mr Gay India 2014. An accomplished singer, they participated in the TV show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa on Zee TV in 2018, placing in the top 15, and were also seen in the premiere season of Queen Of The Universe, a singing competition for drag performers, in 2021. With 1.8 million followers on Instagram, Divgikar feels they are reaching out to a substantial audience—not just young people but their parents and grandparents, who need to see LGBTQ+ lives normalised.
Their Instagram page is not just a collection of images in impeccable hair and make-up, it’s also a record of thoughts and emotions. When they came out as gender fluid/non-binary in January 2021, it was on Instagram. “I had to come out to all of you about my gender identity because it was giving me a lot of anxiety... I have realised that I cannot be bound to only one gender. I am the synergy of both ! I love my Male as much as I love my Female…This is different from my orientation...I just want to say to each and every one of you that I will always have the same soul and THAT will never change,” they wrote. “I let my followers live with me. When you speak your truth, someone out there feels represented,” they say.
TRINETRA HALDAR GUMMARAJU, 24
Location: Manipal, Karnataka
Preferred pronouns: She/her
Gummaraju has had a long day in the wards of the Kasturba Medical College Hospital in Manipal, Karnataka. Coming off a 12-hour shift, she writes a post on her Instagram account titled “Friendly reminder: You’re trans”, talking about the small incidents that pepper her day—from a patient calling her “sir” to her voice rising involuntarily to a baritone as she yells across a busy ward. “We find our ways of avoiding scrutiny, of allowing ourselves the safety of passing in situations that could very quickly turn uncomfortable, if not life-threatening,” she writes in the post in her trademark honest, deadpan and self-deprecating style.
Gummaraju has become an important voice among the trans community in India for this very reason: her account of living life as a trans woman in this country, juggling a tough medical career with the demands her body makes after gender-reassignment surgery, as well as her celebration of her stunning beauty and sense of style. All this is an inspiration to people from the trans and LGBTQ+ community and beyond. “I have been posting on Instagram since I was 14 and in high school. It was a very different space back then—much more low-key —and it became a safe space for a teenager experimenting with gender and discovering the vocabulary of being trans and queer…of feeling not quite so alone while real life was brutal,” says Gummaraju over the phone. “The internet was the only place I could be myself and find my voice, and find a community. Coming out is not a one-time thing—you come out again and again, to yourself as well as to others—and being able to articulate what I was feeling and going through was a source of strength. My account slowly evolved from being a place where I merely posted personal stories to a place of reclamation and power.”
Being seen as an important voice in the community has also led to opportunities—she is not only an influencer in the best sense of the term, helping young people on similar journeys navigate their lives, but is poised to make her acting debut in the popular Amazon Prime show Made In Heaven’s season 2, releasing soon. How does she do it all? “The thing is, I love everything that I do. This is what I choose for myself. I don’t ‘curate’ the content on my page—when I feel something intense, I put it out there.”
Being open and visible is a way of taking control of the narrative about herself, she says—it’s a way of not letting others dictate your self-image: “When you are trans, when you have not had a choice in the matter and have never had the privilege of privacy—you have never fit in, you have always stood out—you are used to being visible. So taking control of that is actually reclaiming power—of saying ‘this is how I am going to tell my story’.”
NAKSHATRA BAGWE, 31
Preferred pronouns: He/his
Instagam: @nakshatra.bagwe and YouTube: Nakshatra Bagwe
Bagwe is perhaps one of the earliest queer content creators on social media. He began creating content in 2012, when, as a second-year mass media student, he made a film, Logging Out. The story revolved around a young man (played by Bagwe; it was a solo project) desperately seeking love online and meeting a scamster. The young man so wants to believe he has met someone who can love him that he debates the pros and cons of sending nude images, as demanded, before a face-to-face meeting. At the last minute, though, he decides it’s not worth it. The film won the audience choice award at the KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival in 2012, kick-starting his career in film-making as well as his journey as a social media content creator. This February, he received YouTube’s Silver Play Button for reaching 100,000 subscribers. He currently has 106,000 subscribers on YouTube and 93,500 followers on Instagram.
What makes him popular is the unabashed way he addresses topics like coming out, dealing with loneliness and dating, introducing his own personal experiences, especially for queer people living in non-metro cities, towns or villages. He also discusses newsy topics, alerts followers to fake or scam profiles on dating apps and provides details of arrests or complaints against people who harass community members. What gives him the edge is the entertaining short films and series he creates, inspired by real-life experiences. His content is bilingual—English and Hindi—so it’s accessible even to small-town queer persons. He recalls a person living in the Sunderbans in West Bengal telling him he would travel some distance to get network just to watch his videos. It wasn’t just entertainment, it offered the person comfort and reduced his loneliness. That’s what guides his work. “My first commitment is towards the community because they are the ones who have brought me here and will continue to help me grow. There is a lot of confidence-building work that’s needed in the community,” says Bagwe, who also runs a travel company that customises trips for gay and bisexual people.
One of the big turning points in his influencer career was a nine-episode mini-series in 2017, Agal Bagal, a romantic comedy about two neighbours, rivals turned lovers. It gave him his first million views on YouTube. He attributes at least 60% of his success as an influencer to this project. Bagwe feels motivated when people tell him how his content gave them the confidence to come out, or accept themselves. “Personally, I am proud of what I have achieved,” he says. On a lighter note, Bagwe notes his YouTube channel’s comments section has turned into an unofficial dating platform where people reach out to each other.
PATRUNI CHIDANANDA SASTRY, 30
Preferred pronouns: They/them
Sastry, a Hyderabad-based drag queen, dancer and founder of Dragvanti, an online space for the Indian drag community, has always been remarkably candid on their Instagram account, using it—since 2018—to post pictures in drag, talk about gender fluidity or relate untold queer stories from the Mahabharat, among other things. “Social media has helped me in living my authentic self on the web,” says Sastry, adding that it is an easy channel to share information about their art or relationship.
However, as they recently discovered, it has its dark side. “It is like human interactions in that sense,” says Sastry, recalling the backlash when they posted a picture with their then fiancée, a heterosexual woman, in 2020. “The world changed around me,” says Sastry, who has identified as pansexual/bisexual ever since they came out in 2018—it was the first time they personally faced bisexual phobia from friends in the queer community. “People thought it was a lavender wedding,” says Sastry, referring to a term used to describe a marriage of convenience that masks the fact that one or both parties are queer. Even worse, they were called fake. “People said I was actually straight and was using the label of bisexuality to be within the community,” adds Sastry, who is now happily married to their partner and continues to post pictures of her on Instagram.
This could stem from limitations of representation within the queer community. According to them, people outside mainstream sexual orientations, such as asexuals, pansexuals and abrosexuals, still do not get enough space to tell their stories. “The politics of Pride needs to change,” they add. “Unless it includes everyone, it can become a gimmick. That should be the focus of Pride celebrations.”
RAFIUL ALOM RAHMAN, 29
Location: Garo Hills, Meghalaya
Preferred pronouns: He/him
For Rahman, coming out is not black and white. You have to come out at different times and places, he explains. “I haven’t really come out to my family yet. I want to first focus on building myself, my life, emotionally and financially. I come from a middle-class family, and I think aur bhi gam hai zamane main (there are more important things to tackle right now) than coming out.”
One of those things is The Queer Muslim Project, a social media community he has been building since 2017; it spotlights stories of queer Muslims around the world, and the combination of queerphobia and Muslim hate they face. What makes it a unique platform is the way in which first-person narratives reflect the dilemmas and challenges of the community. A Muslim Latina, for instance, shares what it means to be a Muslim queer person at a time when religious fundamentalism is on the rise, and the toll it takes on mental health. A Sunni Muslim from Pakistan shares his views on pleasure. Giving such space and freedom to diverse voices can be a powerful way to encourage others to be more open and comfortable about their own identity. “When I came to Delhi in 2011 for higher studies, I realised there were hardly any stories of queer Muslims in LGBTQ+ circles. You were either a Muslim or queer. I wanted to tell the world you can be a proud Muslim and queer because we, as a minority, are viewed from a negative light,” says Rahman. His Instagram account, he says, picked up during the pandemic, when people were stuck in their homes with family or abusive partners. It now has over 37,000 followers.
The Project is working with The British Council and American Center on cultural events that can shape public discourse. It’s currently working with the Council on an exchange programme for queer poets. “Social media has opened many doors for us as a community but at a policy level not much is happening. By putting these narratives in the public domain, the hope is to amplify our voices and eventually reach the policymakers.”