I first heard of Alex Mathew ‘Mayamma’ from my brother Pritham D’Souza, when he told me he was doing a bridal shoot of India’s “first” drag queen. I was intrigued. My exposure to drag queens in India was limited to lewd Bollywood versions that were offensive, tawdry or both and not comical in the least, though the latter was apparently the aim.
I used to visit Bombay as a child once every six months as my grandparents lived there. My parents always made those trips special introducing us to the various delights Bombay had to offer – chaats at Chowpatty beach, visits to Taraporewala Aquarium, Victoria Gardens, Elephanta Caves and Gateway of India, a ride on a double-decker bus, a train at VT, shopping at Colaba, hot peanuts and chanas from street vendors. (It’s nice to see, nearly four decades later, they are still on the list of things to see and do in Mumbai.)
But I was always fascinated by the Hijras (trans women) that could scare just about anybody. I would see bullies in my grandfather’s neighbourhood terrified of them, people in cars afraid of them approaching, because, as I was told, if they weren’t given money when they begged and they cursed the person, it would come true. To a six-year old, they were magical because they held special powers, and their nuanced behaviour my brother and I always loved to imitate. Perhaps we felt emboldened then – courage was always a requisite for us, the cousins visiting from Mangalore (read ‘small town’). While we didn’t see hijras every time we visited, for me a trip to Bombay meant looking forward to seeing them at the odd traffic light.
One Bombay trip though, I saw somebody be really rude to a hijra, and it upset me, because she seemed to have done nothing to warrant such rudeness. My mother encouraged us to ask questions about them and even encouraged us to go speak to them, but I was shy. However, I did learn about hijras and hermaphrodites, why it was important to not be shy and treat them as we would any other person; not many did – only because they happened to be different – something children don’t really understand I think, but learn from imitating. Fortunately my mother was never afraid of “what society thought” and didn’t shelter us from the unpleasantness around us.
My mother had a personal stake – the story she told me when I was about eight years old has always stayed with me. She had a friend, a beautiful, intelligent young woman who was married to a hermaphrodite. Nobody knew he was one, my mother said he was really handsome and kind and her friend really loved him. But when her family came to know of this, they got the church to annul their marriage. The couple was heart-broken; a young couple who had so much to offer the world wasn’t given a chance to just because they were different.
I believe my aversion to religious and societal interference started from there. One would have thought with the “progress” the world has made, humans would become more compassionate. Why is it hard for us to accept somebody different, when their difference doesn’t hurt us, on the contrary could enrich our lives and our societies with their contributions, a right so many are denied because they are shorn of their basic right to express themselves freely. As Alex Mathew said to us, no religion teaches hate, so why do many religious leaders propagate it.
Having just left Qatar, where homosexuality is a criminal offense, to return to India, where it is also an offense, for us is not acceptable. That people are treated differently by law TODAY because of their gender or sexual preferences cannot be acceptable. That we live in a society where the law makes people who come out vulnerable cannot be acceptable. But it makes us hopeful that there are young people like Alex making the effort to bring about change and keep conversations moving forward.
We couldn’t make it to one of Mayamma’s performances as we were on our four-week South India trip and our stopover in Bangalore was scheduled for mid-November (but we’re definitely planning on catching one of her upcoming shows).
So we met Alex over breakfast for this interview (read below) and fell in love with him right away. It was hard not to after listening to him belt out his versions of Lady Gaga and Madhuri Dixit songs – in true Mayamma style with a message. His courage, his capacity to love and forgive, his mission to educate and create awareness are all inspiring.
How was Mayamma, the character born? What was the inspiration behind her persona?
The birth of Mayamma was due to my eagerness to do something out of the box. I was done playing safe and listening to what the society was telling me to do. My dream was to be a Broadway performer. I had to achieve it somehow. That’s when I came across this movie Mrs. Doubtfire. Robin Williams was playing this hip old granny who could take care of kids and at the same time, be entertaining. That’s what inspired me first.
Mayamma in Malayalam means ‘mother of illusion’ or ‘mother of magic’. The name is a representation of the sheer illusion formed when I perform as a woman on stage. I first performed as Mayamma in September 2014 at The Humming Tree in Bangalore.
Maya focuses on social issues in her performances – why was this important for you?
Before I started performing as Maya, I would come across these alarming issues in society related to assaults on women; a girl child getting raped at her school by her athletics instructor was a trigger and made me think of the issues related to individualism, gender equality and feminism. That’s why I focus on social issues during Maya’s performances.
The whole societal norm that a man should be like this and a woman should be like that is utter bullshit. Let people be who they want to be. Why put them in boxes? Performing on stage as a woman is in itself a form of activism. I call it performance activism. Lately, I have been educating my audience by incorporating stories related to gender equality.
People often confuse drag queens with cross-dressers and trans-sexuals. Has Maya helped create awareness of the different kinds of genders and sexualities that exist, and are discriminated against in our society?
It’s an ongoing discussion that I keep having with anyone who doesn’t know the difference between a transgender, a cross-dresser and a drag queen. I have made videos related to this. They’re all on YouTube. Educating is the first step to creating awareness and I believe in that.
What has been the response to Maya’s performance?
It wasn’t great initially. I had critics saying everything from my saree wasn’t right to making horrible statements about my wig. But, I took it constructively and improved with the next performance. That’s what I do for all my performances. I consider myself as competition and try to up my game with the next performance.
Things are slowly changing; I think more people are accepting and happy that someone is bold enough to be a drag queen in Indian society.
Any drag queens in particular you are/were inspired by to create Mayamma?
Oh yes! RuPaul, Dame Edna, Bianca Del Rio and also my drag mother, LaWhore Vagistan. RuPaul is my idol; her goal to inspire drag queens has influenced me a lot, and I have a similar goal to have more drag queens from India.
You recently did a bridal photoshoot of Maya. What was the message behind the shoot?
The message was clear and simple. You can be with whoever you want to love. No age old law can cut you or your love down. Love is strong and is meant to break societal barriers.
Maya’s marriage also adds to the backstory of the character.
You said a lot of people have supported Maya including her makeup artist, a close friend of yours. How do they fit into Mayamma’s life?
I don’t think Mayamma would have been possible without the help of friends. There have been many who have helped me – from my makeup, to draping my saree and helping with my performance. Ajin, who is my close friend, has done wonders to Mayamma and transformed her into ultra glamazon. I have known him since my college days so, our working chemistry is very good.
Your dreams and future plans for Maya?
I want her to be known throughout India. It’s time the whole nation knows about this performer. The next step is to perform internationally. Like always, I’d rather take baby steps, and people will sit up and take notice.
Yours has been a very brave passage, to recently come out to your parents as well. Do you think you are luckier than most LGBTQ people?
Considering the spaces that I have been in, I would say I am luckier than some people who are drastically scarred after coming out. It wasn’t easy for me, I had my moments where I felt my family didn’t support me and I had no friends around to console me.
There was the stereotype that was enforced on me – good job, house, marriage. But, it was my life to lead and I know where I stand regarding my sexuality. So, I had my ups and downs when I came out.
You recently participated in the Gay Parade in Bengaluru. Are such movements helping create awareness about the injustices the LGBTQ community faces?
Yes. Definitely! We have to prove to the government that we are a majority and not a minuscule of a minority.
Of the LGBTQ community, which group do you think suffers the most – in terms of discrimination as well as ignorance? Why do you think that is?
I think it’s the transgender community that suffers the most. We live in a patriarchal society and anything that is related to feminine traits is discarded in a pro masculine society. There are times when I have come across gay men who are pro masculine and macho. I know it is their choice. However, slamming it by saying that is the only way in the community is wrong. Transgenders aren’t fully accepted within their own community. It will take years and lot of grass root level education to make people accept the transgender community.
[The states Tamil Nadu and Kerala in India have been the first states to introduce a transgender (hijra/ aravani) welfare policy. According to the transgender welfare policy transgender people can access free Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) in the Government Hospital (only for MTF); free housing program; various citizenship documents; admission in government colleges with full scholarship for higher studies; alternative sources of livelihood through formation of self-help groups (for savings) and initiating income-generation programmes (IGP). Tamil Nadu was also the first state to form a Transgender Welfare Board with representatives from the transgender community. In 2016, Kerala started implementing free SRS through government hospitals.]
You work for an NGO – Solidarity Foundation. Tell us a bit about the organization.
The organization deals with better livelihoods for sex workers and the LGBT community. We are working on different projects that give jobs to the transgender community and support them.
How hard is it for somebody from the LGBT community to be employed if they are open about who they are?
It’s quite hard to find inclusive companies in India. You either hush up about your sexuality or are prepared to face the consequences of being out and open. I have lost two jobs because I am completely open about myself. It is a struggle to face. However, I now have a job that accepts me for who I am.
There is also a difference in perception, understanding and acceptance in the big metros from the smaller towns and villages. Are there helplines, hotlines for younger people to reach out if they have questions? Tell us about your project to create awareness in schools.
Yes, there are help lines and counselors available in smaller towns. That is a good thing compared to few years back when there was nothing available.
I have always wanted to perform in front of children to educate them further that people like me exist and Mayamma was able to recently at a school by the name ‘Poorna’. That was special to me. It’s quite interesting to know children have well thought out questions to ask compared to adults who form their own perceptions.
Are there any Indian celebrities or politicians who have come out as being LGBT? What about political parties? Have any supported the LGBT community actively?
There are celebrities who are open about being LGBT. I don’t think anyone has publicly proclaimed it because of the fear of the age old law. I think it is a bit of a see-saw when it comes to supporting the LGBT community for politicians.
[In an open letter in September 2006, more than 100 influential signatories, including Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen, Booker prizewinner Arundhati Roy, and author Vikram Seth, said the law had been used to “systematically persecute, blackmail, arrest and terrorise sexual minorities” and had spawned intolerance. They argued that section 377 of the Indian penal code perpetuated Victorian-era antipathy and bigotry towards gay people. “This is why we … support the overturning of [the law that criminalises] romantic love and private, consensual acts between adults of the same sex,” they said.
In July 2014, a book on LGBTQIA & Genderqueer rights published by Srishti Madurai was released by Vanathi Srinivasan, the general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Tamil Nadu. The move has been considered encouraging by members of the LGBTQIA community. Current Finance Minister (India) Arun Jaitley stated in February 2014 (as senior leader of the BJP) that he supported decriminalisation of homosexuality. On 13 January 2015, BJP spokesperson Shaina NC, appearing on NDTV, stated, “We BJP are for decriminalising homosexuality. That is the progressive way forward.”
On 12 March, 2016 the Lok Sabha voted against the introduction of a private member’s Bill, sought to be introduced by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor for decriminalising homosexuality. The motion for introduction was – for the second time in three months – defeated by a division of 58-14 with one abstention.
On 24 August, 2016 a draft law for the ban of commercial surrogacy was cleared by the Union Cabinet and announced by Sushma Swaraj, the Minister of External Affairs (India). The draft bill denied homosexuals from having surrogate children with Swaraj stating, “We do not recognise live-in and homosexual relationships….this is against our ethos.”]
What about religious organisations and groups? Are some more severe in their criticism and opposition than others? Have any been supportive?
They were very critical in the beginning. Now, there is a movement within religious institutions that are trying to understand the LGBT community and various issues faced in terms of religion and sexuality. There are severe critical religious groups and some who are supportive.
[The 11 December 2013 judgement of the Supreme Court, upholding Section 377, was met with support from many religious leaders. The main petitioner in the plea was an astrologer, Suresh Kumar Koushal, and other petitioners were religious organizations like All India Muslim Personal Law Board, Trust God Missionaries, Krantikari Manuwadi Morcha, Apostolic Churches Alliance, and Utkal Christian Council. Those supporting the judgement included Baba Ramdev, Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s vice-president Om Prakash Singhal, Maulana Madni, of an Islamic organization, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, Rabbi Ezekiel Isaac Malekar, honorary secretary of the Judah Hyam Synagogue among others.
Spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar came out against the Supreme Court verdict on Section 377 saying homosexuality is not crime and nobody should face discrimination based on their sexual preferences. In a series of tweets, the founder of Art of Living Foundation said Hinduism has never considered homosexuality a crime and to brand a person a criminal based on sexual preference would be absurd.]
Anything else you’d like to add?
I believe that anyone can dream who they want to be and it isn’t too late. Don’t give a shit to what the society thinks about you. Just keep your head held high and follow your dreams.