Beauty pageants have always been controversial. At the onset, they reinforced the idea that women should be awarded for their physical beauty over other traits. Then came the men; to be evaluated for characteristics like strength or fitness; establishing a clear gender binary of feminine and masculine traits to aspire to.
Now throw into the mix the Mr Gay World Pageant. Gay men being evaluated for their social campaign, the work they want to do help the homosexual community, their reach on social media etc. Of course as with everything in the world today, physical beauty is a criteria but it is relatively free from pandering to the gender binary.
Sushant Divgikar, the winner of the 2014 Mr Gay World, India edition and now national producer of the same pageant, emphasises the importance of why a separate pageant is needed, if not necessary. “If we send our boys to other pageants (a Mr India for example); they don’t look a certain way, they don’t promote a certain machismo so they will never get selected.”
The way representation works is, one needs to see people like oneself succeed to believe it is possible: whether that representation is in terms of race, gender or sexuality. What a Mr Gay World manages to do is celebrate beauty in a community that has been largely ignored. Till the mainstream pageants don’t become more inclusive of different kinds of male beauty, the Mr Gay World pageant will remain a necessary niche.
“… if you look at the Mr Gay World India winners – there is a diversity in the past and present winners. Nolan was very masculine (2013), I am the skinny boy (2014). Anwesh is this very cute chocolaty types (2016), Darshan is very athletic (2017)”, says Divgikar.
It is equal parts astonishing and not-so-much that even though India has been participating in this pageant since 2009, it has not made a splash into the mainstream. Divgikar thinks, “…maybe that’s a good thing” considering how our country treats our homosexuals. The legality of the issue aside, there is rampant homophobia even in the public discourse with plenty of politicians (Rajnath Singh) considering it ‘unnatural’ and many doctors and self style yoga gurus (Baba Ram Dev) considering it ‘curable’. But suffice to say this behaviour is not signature to India alone.
All of Africa (except South Africa) has a homophobic attitude, officially. The father of the winner of Mr Gay Ethiopia cut off all communication on learning about his son’s pageant win. Mr Gay Namibia has been at the receiving end of death threats. The Chinese contestant was unable to make it to the contest last year, as was Mr Gay Syria.
Lack of funding and institutional support, a negative attitude of the government, and little publicity are some of the many hurdles the pageant (at least at the national level) has had to face. Divgikar paid for everything from the tickets to the wardrobe, personally, when he was representing. After becoming national director, he’s looking at everything from crowd-funding sources to corporate sponsorships for future contestants.
He says, “It was amazing to see Celina (Jaitley) just call in to say don’t worry about the (contestant’s) tickets, she’d handle it. And she was explaining that she was not in the country, how would she know, please give her some time – when I wasn’t even expecting anything…and she just sent it! This year the Humsafar Trust has been a blessing.” But generally brands, even some of which are largely marketed to the LGBT community, are reticent about being sponsors.
At the calm centre of the storm is this year’s Indian representative, Darshan Mandhana, spearheading the #Untag campaign. It drives the point home that one is more than the labels one is given. They are reductive and only limit us; and while this may seem like a cliché that is hammered in, in every ad campaign; we’ve only learned this intellectually not internalised it.
In this campaign, you have people sending in their images with the tag of things they may have been called. They take up the mantel of the word proudly and re-imagine the word for what it means to them. And in a way, this is a joint effort to do the same thing with the pageant, to create an alternate narrative for India: that we are not only a country limited by the archaic British law criminalising carnal sex of an ‘unnatural’ nature. We are also a country of pride parades, of a gay man on the cover of a national daily expressing his right to protest.
© India Today Group
Mandhana has a very clear idea of the significance of this platform. “I come from the small town of Jaisinghnagar…” where there is little or no discourse of these things. “Winners of this pageant are going to become the voice of so many people who look up to you to bring about their change, their right, their freedom, their right to be themselves.”
The people who may as well be from such small towns who see one of their own, living his life not being marginalised rather revelling in one’s beauty and sexuality. He considers this pageant very special because, “We are representing something that needs to change. We have started something good, something that people need.”
Mandhana realises he is a representing a country that doesn’t condone of him. But his idea is not to be held back by that. “It is very important to become part of society where you feel comfortable with them and they feel comfortable with you. Thankfully I have never faced any discrimination. I have been part of the corporate world for 7 years, my close friends and colleagues know about me and they’re OK with it.”
And he has been lucky in that regard, because there is a huge hypocrisy towards the gay community in India and within it. There is a hierarchy, Divgikar explains “The gay man is the ‘whitest’ of the lot, the Bi’s suffer discrimination even from the gays, and the transgender – they have it the worst I think.” And the same thing gets magnified outside the community. We celebrate the homosexual identity as a sign of our so called liberalness; we attend their fabulous parties and we are happy with them being our designers and hair stylists. But they can’t be lawyers or professors or they are fired or driven to suicide. It’s a presumption to think the homosexual tendency tends to be more creative. It’s actually creative people who are more embracing of different tendencies.
Even when Mandhana is proud to represent a country where he can walk freely as a gay man, he does rue the legal impact things can have. “For a same sex relationship to survive, so many factors need to come together”, he says. “I need to be ‘out’ my partner needs to be ‘out’ and we need to feel accepted as a couple. But tomorrow if marriages are binding and same sex marriages are legal, it becomes that much easier” and he intends to work for it. “I, as an individual may not have that much of an impact but with the organisation of the Mr Gay World pageant backing me, I can do so much more.”
Every participating country has some problems that it struggles with. Syria with its war-torn issues, India with our supposed sanskaar, Russia (that only participated in 2010) with its homophobic president but the show goes on. Because even in times of crisis, the one thing you can’t forget is: identity.
The very nature of the pageant makes it a gladiatorial competition where everyone is hoping to win but Mandhana has a very sobering attitude to it all. “It’s a huge responsibility, firstly to your country, then to your community and then to all the people in the world that you want to represent and speak for.”
Sounding completely pageant ready, we have fingers crossed for him for the contest, being held this year in Spain from May 5th to May 10th. It will be live streamed on the Mr Gay World Youtube channel. You can check it out here.