From a shy, scared and bullied boy confused about his sexuality in school to a confident, self-assured and articulate young man, Anwesh Sahoo has traversed quite the distance. From being constantly picked on for being ‘different and effeminate’ to lifting others up out of their depression and anxiety over ‘coming out’; life has been quite a roller coaster for Anwesh.
When FSOG interviewed him last, Anwesh had recently won the Mr.Gay World India (MGWI) 2016 title and a blossoming of sorts began to take shape. He was still pursuing his engineering when he came across this pageant and was quite the lanky, awkward and ‘rough around the edges’ teen.
Participating and eventually emerging victorious changed all that. But it was a mixed bag of goodies, some really heart warming while others not so much. Under the tutelage of his mentor and MGWI 2014 winner, Mr. Sushant Divgikar Anwesh learnt the intricacies of gait, poise, etiquettes and glamour and became the youngest MGWI to represent the country on a global platform where he was selected to be among the Top 12 finalists.
Until then he feels, he had a very one-dimensional view of his life and struggles. Even though he did not conquer the title at the international level, the platform opened up new worlds and gave him a million perspectives. What he was saddened to learn however, was that even in the world of gay pageants the concept of beauty was rather narrow and skewed.
The typical definition of beauty even there is limited to ‘tall, fair, well built and conventionally handsome.’ As a result people from Asian countries felt quite inadequate, unappreciated and under-confident on the world stage, no matter how successful and accomplished they were as individuals. He also felt that there was a pervasive sense of prejudice towards those men or women who were going out with Europeans. Unfortunately the world in general, is yet to get over its obsession with fair skinned ‘foreigners’.
The darker side of fame quickly reared its ugly head and pat followed the crank calls, the threats and scares. The filth that people spewed at him on social media and through phone calls scared the hell out of him and put a heavy price on his newly minted fame.
He soon realized that while pageants like Mr. Gay World India had their share of popularity, India still has a very long way to go before we reach anywhere near total acceptance.
Being openly gay in India especially in a patriarchal, masochistic city like Delhi comes with its own set of baggage and fears. But the city has a deep allure for Anwesh and he wouldn’t want to give it up for anywhere else. Instead, he has just learnt to be more practical and extra-careful
while stepping out of home and dresses conservatively depending on where and with whom he’s going and when he will be back. He avoids standing out and drawing attention when not required. Says Anwesh, “Delhi isn’t just unsafe for women, it’s terrorising for men as well. So it’s best to keep yourself safe as much as possible.”
Thankfully, a change of city and a stint with the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai came to his rescue. He worked at the Godrej Culture Lab (GCL), a fluid experimental space that explores what it means to be modern and Indian, as Curator and Performer and was blessed with an opportunity to perform at the Kashish Film Festival- South Asia’s Biggest and India’s only mainstream lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender film fest. The highlight of his stint at GCL was a tete-a-tete with none other than Sir Ian McKellen, of the Lord Of The Rings fame, who ‘came out’ at 47 years of age.
This chance meeting spurred his confidence further and Anwesh who enjoyed drawing, sketching and painting since childhood finally gained the confidence to bid adieu to the world of engineering, albeit after completing his B.Tech in Electronics and Communication and pursue his dreams in fashion. He cleared his entrance at NIFT in January this year with a staggering All India Rank #13 and now awaits yet another adventure starting this July.
Anwesh’s parents still have a difficult time coming to terms with his sexuality and his tryst with fame. Although they have accepted it, they still haven’t fully grasped it. Unfortunately they didn’t even make an attempt to understand his harrowing school days either and forced him into engineering against his desires. Thankfully, Anwesh found a safe haven within his blog.
In fact, the very idea for his blog was born when he was chosen from among all his batch mates in his last year at school to write a representative piece in the annual school magazine. The piece, which was nothing but the story of his inner turmoil on coming out, didn’t make the final cut as it was considered too controversial for the school mag and that’s how ‘The Effeminaire’, his blog space, was born.
There has been no looking back since in this virtual space which has helped him liberate and express himself to the world in the words and colours of his choosing. He sent one of his articles to be published in the ‘Pink Pages’ magazine, India’s National LGBT magazine, and was surprised on getting a call from the editor who wanted to feature him on the cover. So what began as a rejection in a school magazine, eventually landed him on the cover of Pink Pages.
At IIIT in Delhi, away from family and in an altogether free environment, living in a boy’s hostel would have been any gay man’s dream come true, not so much for Anwesh. What should have been a delight soon started turning into a repeat of his school days once again. That’s when Anwesh finally decided to put his foot down and stand up for himself. He was now determined never to go through a repeat of the bullying and hazing once again.
Having accepted and embraced his own sexuality now, he boldly stepped out of the closet and became the only openly gay man in his college. A fact that most reconciled with and even embraced; some others remained neutral while some others even came up to him and secretly disclosed that they were gay too but terrified of full disclosure and hence chose to live a dual life.
In the last year of college, he had to share a room with a quintessential Haryanvi who was extremely homophobic to begin with but eventually once he got to know Anwesh better, the barriers broke down and the two became really thick pals. His roommate’s friends were still unconvinced and their behavior was extremely alienating. Anwesh refused to take such prejudiced treatment and confronted them head-on. He refused to be rejected even before those boys got to know him better. Why should he have to change his room just because his roommate’s friends could not look at him squarely in the eyes or speak to him? He refused to budge and finally those who had a problem with him simply stopped coming over to his room. It is this gradual assertiveness displayed by Anwesh, which rebuilt his confidence and gave him the strength to face the world with his head held up high. He realized that he did not owe anyone any explanations about the way he was and if they had a problem with how they saw him, it was exclusively their problem, not his.
When asked if it would be easy to be gay anywhere else, especially in more progressive countries than India, Anwesh believes,
“A country shouldn’t come in the way of one’s sexuality. The struggle to ‘come out’ is universal but just like everyone else who have access to their rights- I should have access to mine too.”
On what’s the best time to come out, Anwesh sagely opines,
“To each his own. Its best done when one feels comfortable and safe in their current environment to do so. In countries where homosexuality is penalised with imprisonment and even death, ‘coming out’ would mean suicide. The saner choice would be to keep your sexuality under wraps or move out as quickly as feasible. But in all other circumstances, the timing is extremely personal and should be left entirely to the comfort of the individual.”
A telling example of ignorance recently confronted Anwesh in his home state, in spite of homosexuality already making its presence felt with the annual Bhubhaneshwar Gay Pride marches, when the presenter of the most famous Odiya channel was interviewing him and with his sheer insensitivity asked, “How have you not been abused yet?” Such is the sad state of affairs even among the so-called educated and ‘presumably well-read’ elite of our country.
Anwesh propagates, not just the LGBT message but also highlights the issue of child sexual abuse (even among boys) through his TedX talks, with absolute missionary zeal. His initiation into TedX happened by sheer providence when a student on the organising committee of Mallya International School who approached him in 2016 to speak to parents, teachers and students about his internal turmoil, his personal struggle to come out and growing up gay. Since then he’s spoken at Xavier’s Institute of Management, Bhuvaneshwar and the College of Vocational Studies, Delhi University where he really touched numerous hearts with his words and emotional appeal.
His advise to closeted youngsters always is, “First and foremost, focus on your education, equip yourself with basic life skills acquire the wherewithal to support yourself financially and then boldly and confidently ‘come out’.”
Parents and teachers have been most supportive and one of the best feedbacks he’s received is when a parent came up to him and told him that his words had actually helped him in understanding his kids better.
Anwesh draws inspiration from people like Keshav Suri, the scion of the Lalit Group of Hotels, who is taking the LGBT fight and conversation forward in conservative and politically spineless India. He is the person who made the pageant Mr.Gay World India a reality and is slowly but surely changing the way Indians view homosexuality and homosexuals.
While finding a footprint in the Fashion Industry has become his primary goal for now, TedX talks have helped Anwesh find his larger purpose and he attempts to touch as many lives as he can, so that no other child may have to go through what he underwent.
Written by:- Delshad Master