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Meet Lisa, the Indian drag queen who made Delhi Pride happen

Meet Lisa, the Indian drag queen who made Delhi Pride happen

Lisa Nova Jena spreading her arms

‘Lisa has always been inside of me, but I could never explore it beyond my washroom or closeted doors.’

Lisa Nova Jena, 38, has spent more than half her life hiding. Being born a Sikh and a gay man, her alter ego Yashwinder Singh had to face the strict Punjabi social conventions since childhood. Dreaming of becoming a drag performer only made it worse.

In a society where women are still regarded as somewhat inferior to men, a man wanting to explore his femininity and play with genders might be considered crazy, he says.

Colonial laws such as Section 377 of Indian Penal Code still criminalize homosexuality. Furthermore, Punjab is one of the most conservative Indian states, surely not one fit for a gay man, let alone one who wants to be a drag queen.

A close up of Lisa Nova Jena at a Delhi Pride
Lisa Nova Jena at Delhi Queer Parade | Photo: Priyansh Tripathi

‘I was scared to come out to my family’

‘I was scared to come out till the age of 27, but now I am an openly gay man,’ Yashwinder says.

‘Friends have had mixed reactions, while my family strongly opposed it. I had to leave and settle in Delhi.’

Despite his family’s conservatism, Yashwinder feels at ease while in drag. He started watching tutorials on the Internet to do his makeup, ‘like his drag sisters’.

Needless to say, he adores RuPaul.

‘Yes, she’s inspirational. I believe it’s unimaginable to think about drag without RuPaul’s shows.’

Yashwinder knew he had to challenge social norms to perform. Moving to Delhi also helped since, ‘life for LGBTI people has slightly improved in big metropolitan areas.’

‘I still remember the summer of 2015 when I first performed in drag. I was working with an NGO, but it wasn’t an open performance. Later on, in 2016, I got the chance to perform in front of my team on office retreat with a much larger audience,’ he explains.

‘I did the impression of a famous Punjabi aunty who loves to bitch around, especially about her daughter-in-law.’

Although he was wearing Indian traditional clothes for that, what Yashwinder really likes is pulling off Western outfits.

‘I love stockings, garter belts, gloves, and hats and everything unusual for Indians,’ he says.

Lisa’s campaign for HIV prevention

Lisa was aware she might have been dismissed as a mere entertainment performer. That is why she campaigns actively against bullying and for HIV prevention.

‘I have this zeal and activism inside me which encouraged me to use drag as a medium to convey a message,’ she says.

When PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) was introduced to India, she challenged the prejudice around it. There was a misconception in India that people only used PrEP if they had HIV.

‘I also made a short film called All About PrEP. It is said to be first Indian film that talks openly about PrEP,’ she says.

All About PrEP

This is our tenth film in the series – CageD_UncageDIn this short film Lisa talks about her experience of being on PrEP. She shares everything you always wanted to know about PrEP – how to start it, its effectiveness, its availability, its side effects. And if you have any further questions or comments please do comment and LIsa will get back to you. Direction, Cinematography, Editing – Soban Ahmad KhanStory, Screenplay – Darvesh Singh YadavendraMusic – www.bensound.comMake Up and Hair Styling – Yddu AbeerThanks to Humsafar Connect Humsafar TrustPahal Foundation Khwaab Foundation AWADH PRIDE Lucknow India HIV / AIDS Alliance The Global Forum on MSM & HIV Yashwinder Singh Akash Wadhwa Yusra Husain Naqvi LGBTQ@Facebook Harmless Hugs Yaariyan AHF India

Posted by CageD_UncageD on Wednesday, 15 November 2017

‘It was high time we had a Delhi Pride’

Yashwinder still lives in Delhi, where he moved in 2005. In 2008, the capital had its first Queer Pride Parade. The first and second Delhi Pride took place in June. The parade was then moved to the last Sunday of November when temperatures in the Indian city are much more bearable compared to the rest of the year.

‘The meeting was organized by a group of activists in May 2008 at Connaught Place in New Delhi. We all agreed it was high time we had a Pride in the city.’

With less than a month’s time to plan, they had to share tasks and fears alike.

‘We were afraid the right-wing groups would attack us. There were many unknown fears, but we made it to the pride day. It was 29 June 2008,’ he remembers.

Yashwinder and his friends also ordered masks, so that marchers could hide their identity. They were surprised by the number of people who attended.

‘We were expecting a 100 people, but there were more than 500. Many straight allies came to support us, too,’ he says.

Yashwinder explained the Queer Pride Committee core group has recently expanded.

‘Many youngsters joined. Oops, yes, we are more than a decade old now,’ he laughs.

Delhi Queer Pride Parade will celebrate its eleventh anniversary this November. LGBTI rights in India have come a long way since 2008, but the road is still long.

Yashwinder and a friend at Delhi Pride
Yashwinder (left) also attended Lucknow Pride in the capital of Uttar Pradesh in 2017 | Photo: Yadavendra Singh

‘LGBTI people here are pressured into heterosexual marriages’

Particularly, marriage is still a real issue for the Indian LGBTI community.

‘That is a major challenge as in Indian society marriage is a must, and most gay men are pushed into heterosexual marriages,’ he says.

When asked about the differences between being a gay man and a lesbian in India, Yashwinder says women have it worse.

‘India is a patriarchal society. Gay men have some advantage as they’re born male,’ he says.

‘Women’s voices are usually suppressed. Also, the number of correctional rapes is very high, but it’s all under the carpet.’

Yashwinder’s family is more understanding of his sexual orientation and drag performances now, yet they still pressure him into a heterosexual marriage.

‘I stopped visiting relatives at family gatherings as people generally ask about marriage,’ he complains. 

Although having considered heterosexual marriage when he was younger, Yashwinder realized he would never marry a woman when he was 22. Still, his family wants him to find a ‘nice, Indian girl’.

Being an only child, the pressure is even higher.

‘As I’ll be hitting 40 soon, my father tells me sometimes, “you are alone, you need someone to take care of you, perhaps someone who is needy, either be a divorcee or a widow who is looking to settle down”‘, he says.

The petition to decriminalize homosexuality

While dealing with this personal challenge, Yashwinder is also fighting another battle, together with other LGBTI people and allies.

‘This year is crucial for us. We have filed a petition against IPC 377 and we’re hoping that Right to Privacy Judgement will bring something positive for the whole community,’ he says.

The Indian Supreme Court decided to reconsider the constitutional validity of IPC 377. A decision is expected to be made later this year.

If IPC 377 is scrapped, this November’s Delhi Pride might be the biggest to date.

‘It’s a celebration of who we are, of our lives. We are hoping our Pride will grow bigger and bigger in number.’

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