Durga Gawde, artist, activist and drag king, auditioned for a very big brand. “I suggested that they make the actor gender-neutral instead of a cisgender woman as it is more inclusive. Everyone agreed except the client. The client checked out my socials and upon discovering that I use ‘they’ pronoun, they let me go. Cisgender people don’t have to go through this.” shares Gawde.
Interestingly, Gawde’s manager who is a cisgender straight male makes sure Gawde is well-compensated in their brand collaborations, which again puts the focus on cisgender privilege.
This raises a very important question – Are most brands pinkwashing and promoting performative action? Currently, the call for action for this community seems to be limited to only Pride Month. Dunzo through their campaign “Make room for more pride” has raised questions about whether Pride is seasonal and just limited to June.
Some influencers from the LGBTQIA community are demanding that brands go beyond tokenism and are seeking acknowledgement, accountability and actual change instead of performative action.
Current representation in Indian ads
“It is extremely important to get queer people from a diverse spectrum, not just gay men, not just cis gay men, not just cis gay women but trans people, queer femme people, non-binary people and let them be a part of the decision-making process. If you are collaborating with queer people, collaborate with a diverse group of queer people, and then when you bring all of these people in, you let them be the decision-makers, and let them decide what they want to say,” says Anwesh Sahoo (he/him), the youngest winner of Mr. Gay World India 2016.
“A lot of brands put a rainbow around logos, merchandises but that will only make the profile grid on your Instagram look beautiful but will do absolutely nothing to elevate the status of the queer people in our country,” he says.
Patruni Chidananda Sastry (they/he/she), a non-binary and bisexual drag artist whose workplace is open about queer identities but doesn’t have a gender-neutral washroom yet, says, “Brands are usually picking up stories about trans people or people who are homosexual. Stories of other identities like non-binary people and bisexual people are not picked up. Time and again we see the same people and individuals involved in these brands. Sexuality or gender is all about perspective. I see transness in a far more different way than other people.”
Reiterating Patruni’s point, Gawde says, “Brands should consult queer people while making content for them. A cisgender heterosexual person will never have the lived experience of a queer person, so we need queer voices in decision making,” adding that there is no proper representation of a trans person in the media. “They are either a joke, a psychopath or a murderer.”
“Brands should consult queer people while making content for them. A cisgender heterosexual person will never have the lived experience of a queer person, so we need queer voices in decision making," Durga Gawde, artist, activist and drag king
Certain industries like makeup seem to be queer-friendly. Anastasia Beverly Hills India collaborated with Sushant Divgikar for their bridal campaign. During Pride Month last year, Norvina Pro Pigment Volume 6 palette was launched and it was attended by a lot of people from the LGBTQ community.
Expectations from brands
Sahoo suggests that brands should acknowledge that the status of queer people is abysmal at this point, especially in small-town India. Brands with their own HR policies consider the way forward for non-discriminatory policies, same-sex partner benefits, and psychological and financial support to trans employees in their transition.
“That is where inclusivity really begins. That is when more and more people will come in and suggest policies,” states Sahoo, stressing the need for brands to support NGOs like Naz Foundation that successfully opposed Section 377 which criminalised homosexuality. “If you go to an NGO where trans people stay, look at the living conditions, so many insecurities they constantly believe in, people never made them feel belonged.”
Like Sahoo, Gawde highlights the lack of systematic support and calls for urgent attention towards health and medical insurance for trans people, “The more a queer person embraces their identity, the more they get away from the heteronormative society. It is like playing with fire and so financial independence is necessary,” she says.
Citing the example of certain clothing brands which claim to be inclusive, Sastry shares, “These brands bring in trans and non-binary people yet they still have a gender label, a man and woman section.”
Brand collaborations and experiences
Recently, alcohol brand Absolut launched a new campaign called Absoluteally where we see a diverse range of queer influencers providing food for thought. In one of the ads under the campaign, world gold medalist Dutee Chand implies that gender is a spectrum and far beyond than he/she and that people in love should be called partners. In another ad, our preconceived notion about drag is questioned when Alex Mathew, who goes by the moniker mayathedragqueen, says drag is an art form and not a representation of one’s gender.
Sahoo praises dating app Bumble and alcohol brand Absolut and shares that both of these brands let queer people be completely part of the process. From getting on a call with these influencers to having them fill up questionnaires to get a better insight into the minds of these diverse set of people “they heard us and let us narrate our stories; they were good allies,” he says.
The tech space seems to be quite queer-friendly and inclusive, as per Sahoo, who has worked with companies like Google, and Meta, more specifically WhatsApp and who is keen to associate with Amazon and Netflix too.
“If you are a good ally, you would pay all influencers the same way, you won’t just look at us as queer influencers,” Anwesh Sahoo, the youngest winner of Mr. Gay World India 2016
Apart from the tech space, even the advertising community seems to be inclusive. Gawde who has worked with Johny Walker, Publicis Sapiens, Soho House, and Vice, says when she was invited as a speaker on a panel discussion on inclusivity by Publicis, she felt “it was one of the most inclusive corporates she has associated with”.
Sastry who has also worked with Absolut has collaborated with local brands like Saucy, Kothaceru, Blur and Sugar talks about how some local brands have shown support by allowing Sastry to be themselves with their beard in the ad.
Even Absolut ensured that Sastry’s partner was in the ad where Sastry talks about bisexuality and articulates the nuanced relationship between their partner, a heterosexual woman and them. Sastry talks about how brands can use queer narratives and gain from them while sharing that they have always underquoted in their initial conversation with the casting agency, “I see there is a parity but I am still not that commercial,” they say.
Sahoo too addresses the pay disparity in the industry. Confirming that some brands do pay quite well, he points out that queer people can contribute to India’s growth and uplift its economy via pink money. “If you are a good ally, you would pay all influencers the same way, you won’t just look at us as queer influencers,” says Sahoo.
Addressing the pay disparity, Sanjali Giri, vice president - international brands & retail, House Of Beauty said, “The brand’s foundation has been built upon the idea that everyone is equal hence we do not look at our queer consumers any differently,” and added, “The brand also strongly believes that makeup is for all genders and not specifically for women alone and translates this in its very specific marketing campaign showing this inclusivity.”