Love And Syllabus

This issue of Outlook is dedicated to queerness. It is taking stock of things and people and spaces. The cover is all love. This is for all the special things on earth. Like Venus Xtravaganza.

Illustration: Maitri Dore
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (“Q” can also represent Questioning), Intersex, and Asexual. The plus sign represents the plethora of identities that fall outside these labels. Photo: Illustration: Maitri Dore

“Some of them say that we’re sick, we’re crazy. And some of them think that we are the most gorgeous, special things on Earth.”

—Venus Xtravaganza in Paris Is Burning

In the December of 1988, drag ball performer Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza was found under a bed in New York City’s Duchess Hotel. She had been strangled to death. She was only 23 and had said in the 1991 Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning that she had wanted a sex change operation to feel complete. She had left home early to not embarrass her parents.

A few years ago, I was asked to teach fashion communication to graduate students of fashion in a sleepy little mountain town. I began by making them all watch this documentary that captured the world of the “ballroom” scene in New York City during the 1980s, where members of the black queer community wrestled with the “daily” of their lives and of the world they inhabited.

After we watched the documentary, we spoke about intersectionality of race, gender, sexual identity, religion, class, caste, ableness and privilege.

The characters had similar backstories. They performed drag and they been thrown out of their homes for their queerness and were vulnerable to violence and assault. They struggled to live with dignity. They had that audacity of hope. This, I have seen in many of my friends who have that rare spirit that makes them resilient and inspirational.

I watched this film in college when I was studying journalism. There were other films and many book recommendations. The rest we found ourselves. But curiosity, while a beautiful thing, isn’t enough. And not every student in colleges and schools is interested in finding the ‘out of syllabus literature’ to understand the world’s many people. Nobody ever talked about queerness at home or anywhere in the social circles while I was growing up in Patna in the 1990s.

In school, there was an absence so great that I had to unlearn first that the world existed only in binaries and then, experience the world in its totality, to understand and to accept and to love.

Over the years, I met many such fellow humans. From drag queens to hijras in Mumbai’s red light area in Kamathipura. Many things happened over the years. In 2018, the Supreme Court partially struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalising same-sex relations between consenting adults. In 2014, the Supreme Court ordered that a third gender category be created for transgenders or “hijras” and said that transgenders will be allowed admission in educational institutions and given employment.

Drag queen shows became popular and restaurants and other spaces started displaying rainbow stickers to announce they were allies and friendly.

All this and more and yet, there is a lot more that can happen.

Discrimination still is rampant. Violence, too.

The way ahead is to make educational institutions change school curriculum to educate students on LGBTQAI+ community and provide for safe campuses in schools and colleges where bullying and ragging of LGBTQAI+ members don’t happen.

Transgenders remain the most marginalised community. They are often subjected to violence, including rape, and have to leave their homes because of stigma.

While some colleges have set up support groups like the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and some of the IITs, a lot more needs to be done to integrate the community members. Jadavpur University established a gender-neutral toilet on its campus for LGBTQIA+ in 2021 and while a few colleges may have taken this leap, a large many still have high incidence of abuse and mockery and bullying.

Pride’s insistence on inclusion is great, but it has largely remained an urban phenomenon and while urban India is becoming a little more tolerant, and pride parades are getting bigger in cities, rural India is still grappling with corrective rapes and honour killings when it comes to the community.

It is up to the policymakers and civil society and us, the media, to keep fighting for the inclusion of all minorities.

On our part, we continue to write about what matters.

And keep on insisting that we go to drag queen shows and pride marches and every place and space tagged unfamiliar to become more human, to learn and to be awed. Like I once was. At Kitty Su hotel in Delhi where I first met the drag queens and drag kings on a humid night.


“To make depression disappear

I screw some rhinestones on my ear

And put my brooches and tiara

And a little more mascara on.”

—Jerry Herman in a song from the 1983 Broadway hit La Cage aux Folles

A drag queen sang this as she got ready for her gig at a Delhi hotel a few years ago. They were four of them in that room. Exaggerated lashes, luscious wigs and a lot of hope and despair.

One other said that the drag queens were the most visible part of the battle for freedom.

Their performance was the only reprieve from their daily existence, but freedom comes not like a torrent, but mostly a drizzle. Slow and unsteady.


Maybe on a night, watch Paris Is Burning. Maybe ask the college or the workplace to be more inclusive. Maybe do more.

This issue of Outlook is dedicated to queerness. It is taking stock of things and people and spaces. The cover is all love. This is for all the special things on earth. Like Venus Xtravaganza.

(This appeared in the print as 'Love And Syllabus')