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Stereotypical images represent gay rights movements. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Stereotypical images represent gay rights movements. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Pink-sweater blues

When atypical or 'camp' dressing evokes completely opposing points of view

“They dress so disgustingly and then they call themselves activists," said an acquaintance —a supposedly liberal Delhiite, educated in the US—who called after the Supreme Court’s judgment that re-criminalized gay sex. His comment, I said, was disgusting. Both reactions symbolize how atypical or “camp" dressing evokes completely opposing points of view.

The buck really stops with us. The primary reason why many people cling to the gay stereotype of “pink" or rainbow dressing—instead of fundamental freedoms—is because the media zooms in to such photographs when anything is written about the issue. We forget that a large section of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, including those who turn up at Gay Pride marches, doesn’t ever wear anything peculiar or pink. Lost in the maze of photographs beamed out in newspapers and on TV, in our heads we club together a few expressions of effeminate dressing and cross-dressing, mistaking them as the only language of freedom that the gay community speaks.

“Even the most incisive articles arguing for our rights written in India and abroad after the Supreme Court judgment show pink feathers, maroon lipsticked mouths and cross-dressing as holding images," says a 30-year-old fashion journalist who doesn’t want to be named. “Besides, even when some members of the gay community do dress up a little more liberally for gay parties or like-minded gatherings, it is not for the benefit of guards, drivers, neighbours or moralists, so they really have no right to comment," he adds.

Parmesh Shahani, head of Godrej India Culture Labs, a cultural ideas platform, and author of the book Gay Bombay: Globalization, Love And (Be)longing in Contemporary India, brings more clarity. “We forget that a large number among the gay community work as corporates, accountants, postmen, professors, lawyers and scientists.... It is no different from those who happen to be straight. So the real issue is of inclusive rights and not about some men wearing salwars or jewellery," says Shahani.

Sections of society which are unwilling to accept pluralities in sexuality that echo through dressing, fret about external attributes while responding to serious issues. Often, they are the same people who get “offended" when women wear mini-skirts or reveal cleavage, but gleefully get photographs taken with bridegrooms in flowing angarkhas, dupattas and red sherwanis (all examples of effeminate dressing) at weddings. No one says a thing when a heterosexual man’s underwear peeps above “disgustingly" ill-fitting pants. Nobody labelled Baba Ramdev gay when he escaped from a furious crowd in a woman’s salwar-kurta.

“They overlook that all kinds of people—straight or gay—have been dressing badly or very well before the judgment, will continue to do so even now, and the judgment is not a response to dressing," stresses Shahani. “Even in the US where gay sex is not criminalized, there are people who find non-stereotypical dressing offensive," he says, adding: “There is really no connection between dressing and one’s sexuality. Period."

But homophobes and so-called moralists miss the point, making body language, mannerisms, rings, necklaces and bracelets or ponytails of men the very reasons to harass and ridicule the gay community.

“Dressing effeminately or preferring pink to black is a personal choice; even amongst us in the gay community, not all of us like to do it. Exactly like some male dandies in green shoes at work, who don’t stand for all straight men," says an activist for same-sex rights. He agrees that attention-seeking clothing is preferred among some during protest, especially now because the community is angry and wants to retaliate by emphasizing the differences instead of the similarities. Not unlike what Bra Burning women did in the 1960s or those who participate in SlutWalk do, using their bodies and clothes as a flag of dissent.

Drowned in the pasting of stereotypes are the sentiments of the closeted—who live their lives wearing what you and I do, without ever allowing the body to speak its mind.

The Body is a monthly column on the body’s language in fashion.

Also Read | Shefalee’s previous Lounge columns

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