New Delhi: “There are a lot of pre-conceived notions about the vast and beautiful community of transgenders. It’s assumed that trans people are only capable of begging or prostitution or sex work but that mindset needs to change. I have transgender sisters and brothers who are doctors, lawyers, teachers, medical professionals and in the corporate spheres. You see people like me who are in the entertainment industry and flourishing. It’s not because our gender is this or that. It’s because our talent speaks louder than our gender”, says 31-year-old Sushant Divgikar a.k.a. Rani Ko-HE-nur, an LGBTQIA+ icon and a Drag Queen, in an exclusive interview with team Banega Swasth India.
Sushant was born as a male but today, they identity as a non-binary and trans person. They don multiple hats – actor, singer, model, columnist, ecologist, motivational speaker, pageant director, and video jockey. In the past, Sushant has been a psychologist and has represented the country as Mr. Gay World 2014. When asked how do they do it all, they said,
I wanted to be the representation I didn’t see in the mainstream.
Further talking about the mainstream representation of the LGBTQIA+ community, Sushant said, there’s hardly any representation in mainstream cinema or performance-based industry. They said,
We definitely need to have more representation and positive and correct representation. It shouldn’t be tokenism because that doesn’t pay my bills. I would really appreciate if people took into consideration that these are stories of real people. It shouldn’t be made the laughingstock or there shouldn’t be a caricaturist sort of a portrayal of our community. That’s been done to death in the 90s and 2000s. We are evolving as a society and a community and I think we need better scripts, better representation and real stories to be floating around.
In 2015, Sushant performed officially as a drag artist for the first time. This was for Merchant of Venice, a stage production directed by Vikram Kapadia. Sushant believes that drag has been a part of Indian culture and ethos from time immemorial.
It’s not a new development in our country. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t claim that space and name it something. We could have named it anything but the performance art and drag has always been a part of our culture and it’s very deep-rooted in our Indian culture, they said.
Further explaining the history of drag in India, they said,
Right from kings and queens’ palaces and their courts, you saw men performing as women. From smaller towns to big cities, you still see people performing during our bigger festivals like Diwali and Navratri – men performing as women and women performing as men. Even in our classical dance forms like Kathakali, Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam, you see many references where people exhibit the opposite gender in a very beautiful way through their art which is dance or singing or performance art. So, that’s all drag.
Sushant urged people to celebrate India’s vast and varied culture that already has drag in the form of classical dance forms and the duality of voice like Sushant does. They added,
We don’t need to look at reference points from the west. We have everything here. Just celebrate your culture as much as you can. I chose very Indian drag. I chose to say Rani Ko-HE-nur because rani means queen.
Rani Ko-HE-nur is Sushant’s stage name. They have represented India at Queen of the Universe, a drag-singing competition. When asked how’s Rani Ko-HE-nur different from Sushant, they said,
It has come to a point where now Rani and Sushant are sort of synergising and becoming into one person and I think that’s beautiful. Audiences enjoy it because what I am on social media is what I am in reality. I think being more relatable nowadays is just the way forward. I think now Sushant and Rani are kind of slowly becoming into this one person. Because, earlier, when I used to identify as a cis-gendered man, that distinction between Sushant and Rani was a lot. But now that I would like to believe that Sushant is becoming closer to how fabulous Rani is in their day-to-day life.
The Conflict Of Gender Identity And Coming Out
While talking about gender identity, Sushant said,
The conflict is always within ourselves than with the people outside.
When coming out about one’s sexuality, there is always a thought that whether or not the people around us – friends and family will understand us. But, Sushant is of the opinion that we always underestimate the nuances that other people might understand about us. They said,
I have to say this to the younger generation that please believe, that people that have come before me and my generation, have worked so much only so that you all get a better tomorrow. I want to tell every kid that yes, you will have conflicts. Yes, you will have all of these questions inside you about who you are, who you should be, what you should be. We all have gone through that, but I think the best thing is that when you sit with yourself and you ask yourself, where you started and where you are now, you will get all the answers in between. There will be conflicts but please believe that you are not alone.
Sushant shared that they were scared of coming out as a trans not because their family was against it, but because of an internal conflict.
My family is the most wonderful family, they said and added, Not a lot of people are as privileged as me to get so much support from their families and that’s why in the queer community, we become each other’s family. We have the power to choose families.
The Changing Face Of Homosexuality In India
Section 377, a controversial British-era law banned consensual gay sex. But, on September 6, 2018, the Supreme Court decriminalised all consensual sex among adults, including homosexual sex. Talking about the same, Sushant said,
Homosexuality was never criminalised in our country. We tend to forget that we are the land of Kama Sutra, the land of sexual liberation. I think that during the colonisation period is when the British could not deal with the fact that we were so advanced in our thoughts and spirituality and we were so sexually evolved that they curbed us. They kind of oppressed our sexual freedom and that’s when they created rules like this.
Sushant believes that India isn’t a homophobic country but having said that, it will take us time to unlearn things and accept people from the LGBTQIA+ community. They said,
Our country has never been disrespectful. It has never been as respectful but it has never been disrespectful. And they have not ditched us. Like we haven’t been hung for being gay. We have not been killed for being transgender. Yes, there are hate crimes and it will come under the realm of jurisdiction.
In the quest for equality and to leave no one behind, Sushant believes that more policies need to be made for transgender people, especially trans women. For instance, India’s first comprehensive clinic for the transgender community was launched in Hyderabad in 2021. Sushant, who inaugurated the clinic said,
It’s a transgender-led clinic. Now you have medical professionals who are transgenders, there are doctors who are transgenders handling these clinics. After a point, you are just like, they are doing everything, why aren’t we giving them provisions? Why can’t we give them basics like education? If you can educate your girl child, you should educate trans people because a lot of them are asked to leave their homes at a very young age. So, they don’t get educated.
To promote the education of Trans women, recently Sushant pledged to donate half of his earnings from his current tour towards the education of their trans sisters.
I am not a millionaire or billionaire but if I can do my little bit, why not. We need to create policies and awareness through advocacy and sensitisation.
While signing off, Sushant emphasised on giving respect, something that is available for one, to one and all. They said,
Your journey is your journey and somebody else’s journey shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be similar and exactly like yours. So, respect; live and let live; love and let love.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.