While Miss India World, Navneet Kaur Dhillon, is endorsing popular brands and getting all the help she needs to represent India at an international pageant, Nolan Lewis had to run from pillar to post in search of sponsors and funds to get to Brussels as India’s representative at this year’s Mr Gay World pageant. Held in the Belgian capital between 31 July and 4 August, the competition featured contestants from 25 countries, most of whom were funded, coached and groomed as diligently as Dhillon.
We meet a day before Lewis is to leave for Brussels. He tells me that though Wendell Rodricks has agreed to design his traditional costume, no one else has offered any help. “I understand why they wouldn’t want to sponsor me for such an event. But most people I spoke to were very supportive and wished me well,” he says modestly.
Lewis is not India’s first representative at a gay pageant. In 2008, Zoltan Parag Bhaindarkar went to Los Angeles to participate in a contest. Later, the media reports stated that Bhaindarkar was “too scared to come home (due to threats)”. A source says he has since sought asylum in the United States and currently lives in New York. The following year, Bhavin Shivji Gala was India’s representative at Mr Gay World, but didn’t show up at the event. In 2011, Raul Patil contested but did not attend the finals.
Lewis is not flustered by the country’s chequered history at gay pageants. “Parag’s story is different,” Lewis tells me, “he was outed by the media. I am the first gay man to represent India and to publicly speak about it. That’s how I have changed Indian history. I am Mr Gay India. I want people to know about me. I want to make a change. I am not in it for the employment opportunities or the goodies, and if there are threats, I’d rather come back and face the music.” For Mr Gay Pakistan, Amir Rafique, Lewis’ best friend among the contestants, the risk is greater as in his country, homosexuality is considered an offence punishable by death and the cultural backlash could be severe. According to Lewis, when it was suggested to Rafique that his life might be at stake, he responded, “Jaan toh jaani hi hai.”
During the course of our conversation, Lewis assures me that most opponents of homosexuality are not hateful, just ill-informed. He points to the temples of Khajuraho as evidence that “India has a long tradition of homosexuality”, that Indian society is more accepting of men having sex with men than many countries in the West, though there remains a pressure to get married. He explains, “Most gay men in India marry women due to such societal pressures. So if not gay people, at least think about the women they are marrying. These men continue to have sex with men and many women end up contracting sexually transmitted diseases.” He too wants marriage, but on his terms. “I want to settle down some day and have the right to family, inheritance and to adopt children.”
Lewis castigates gay men for “indulging in unsafe sex more than heterosexuals” and for “being promiscuous”. He makes these observations with an air of apology, stressing that if he could change one thing in mainstream society’s perception of homosexuals, it would be the impression that all gay men are promiscuous and effeminate. These statements inevitably raise questions: while breaking stereotypes is ideal for any activist, does making society feel comfortable with gay people, who are not “overtly gay”, help those who do not follow traditional gender roles or societal norms? Is it acceptance, if there’s an implicit requirement to fit into heteronormative culture? Lewis thinks about this a little: “I know a lot of guys who say they prefer masculine (or ‘straight-acting’ or ‘straight-looking’) gay guys and there is a fair amount of discrimination amongst gay people as well. But on the whole, we are same as everyone else.”
Part of his preparation for Mr Gay World has been to educate himself about the history of the movement for gay rights and equality. His discourse may not be as polished as the professionally trained female beauty contestants in India but at least he says what he thinks, without resorting to thoughtless templates about Mother Teresa.
Three months ago, Lewis posted online: “I’m gonna be contesting a pageant surrounded by six-foot tall, eight-pack abs Greek Gods. At a petite 5’8” with a lean physique, I don’t stand a chance at Mr Gay World 2013.” On his way to the airport, when I ask him if he can win, he says he now thinks he stands “a very good chance”.
In the end, Mr Gay Pakistan, Amir Rafique, could not make it to Brussels due to “visa problems”. Wendell Rodricks’ clothes did not make it to the pageant. But Nolan Lewis made it to the top 10 and returned home to his family. That’s already a first for India.