“I was doing theater for a while and I think that was the turning point for me. It helped me realise my sexual orientation in a positive way. It taught me to be comfortable with myself. Understanding my sexual orientation was a process. I had to understand a lot of things about myself; what comforted me and didn’t. But most importantly it taught me to accept myself and then letting the world know who I was. I came out of the closet in 2014, but it wasn’t until close to a year to let others in my social circle know. It took me 6 months to draft a mail to my parents and let them know that I am gay and that I wanted to perform as a drag queen on stage. It wasn’t easy, I didn’t just wake up one day and make a decision to come out of the closet. It was a process. There were consequences to the decision I took, the road ahead was definitely not flowery. I wasn’t privileged in anyway. I lost a lot of friends and my parents didn’t speak to me for a year and we were fighting. Through the entire ordeal, I think they finally realised that there was a lot of hurt going back forth between us a family and started making attempts. My mother asked me, “Who is a drag queen?”. I had to explain the concept to her – “They’re just performances of a man dressed up as a woman on stage”. “So why don’t you get paid for it?”, I said “I will if I go abroad.” “Why are you here then? You should go there!”, my mother insisted. As much as there were consequences to coming out of the closet, there were also positives. It was a beautiful journey, I became more assured of who I was and what I wanted to do.
Whenever people see me as Maya the drag queen, they think I am a transgender or a cross dresser but in my day to day life I’m not like that. They keep misinterpreting who I am onstage and who I am in real life. They make assumptions that the person is on their way to get a sex surgery or a gender transformation. It’s not like I’m against them, I’m all for it and I fully support it. There are people who believe they are stuck in the wrong bodies, but not me. I’m very comfortable with my body, I feel like I’m born into the right body. ‘Drag’ is a performance art. It’s been there for years together in India, I don’t even have to talk about its presence in the west. The biggest examples being traditional Indian dance forms such as Kathakali and Theyyam. If you look at old Bollywood films such as Mughal-E-Azam, you will see instances of drag performances albeit the man donned a role of a eunuch. When you compare the time and nature of the environment during which Mughal-E-Azam was released in – it was a rather huge deal. However now, we’ve reached a point where toxic masculinity is bursting out in our society. It’s reached a point where it has become harmful to not just to me as a drag-queen performer but also to the entire LGBTQ community and heterosexual women. It’s a good fight to be a part of actively and participate in. I don’t let myself be let down by it because I’m a warrior. That’s my thing.
Right now I have a handful of friends, I can count them with my fingers. I think it’s a good thing because they are perfectly fine with who I am, they’ve seen me in different shades. In the beginning, they weren’t able to understand me. Questions like, “Why are you like this?” came into the picture. They had a different perception of who they thought I was and who Maya was. I created Maya, I can do whatever I want to with her persona. If you understand me for my off-stage person, as Alex, I think that’s absolutely perfect and that’s what they’re doing today.
Apart from dreaming about how I’ll be meeting RuPaul; the guy behind RuPaul’s Drag Race and building my own drag race show in India – my other long term dream has been getting my parents to watch my drag queen performance on stage. I see them cheering for me, rooting for me when I go on stage and don my role as Maya the drag queen. I want them to say and feel with pride, ‘Hey, that’ our son on stage. He’s doing something he believes and that’s what’s right!’. Right now they’re conflicted, because they’re still struggling to come to terms with me being a drag performer. They are constantly affected by the stigma that goes through them, they’re of the opinion that such a thing isn’t socially acceptable. Naturally, they are driven by the fear that it is a social problem and that society isn’t going to accept me or what I do. There have been times when they’ve been hurtful, but I’ve learnt the art of taking things with a pinch of salt and moving on. I don’t hold it against them, I just move forward with positivity. It took me 25 years to come to terms with who I am. It might take my parents longer to fully accept me or it might take them much lesser even. You know, close to two years ago there were times when my mother would scream at me and say that I am not supposed to be performing as a drag queen. But things change, she was packing make-up, some sarees and all the other accessories I needed to don my role as Maya on stage. That said a lot and meant a lot to me. She would also say, ‘Oh I know where you’re losing all your hard earned money from these drag performances. You’re buying all these expensive blouse materials, these sarees and getting them stitched at the tailor’s shop’. So you know, things happen. People can change. Recently, I was approached with an opportunity to perform internationally – I’m not sure if that’s going to come through though. When I mentioned it to my parents, they said – ‘Yeah sure, you should go for it. Sounds like a huge deal!’. I think they’re going to be happy as long as they see me financially secure. There have been many times when my mother’s nearly convinced me to give up the idea of performing as a drag queen because it wasn’t a feasible option. However, I started getting paid for a few shows and that was a big deal. My parents heaved a sigh of relief and were happy that I was slowly able to sustain.
On the subject of coming out of the closet, I wouldn’t like to equate it as it being easier for men or for women. It’s hard for both. For a man, it’s always stereotypically associated with being feminine or being a transgender. For women, it’s even harder. The patriarchal world is so unforgiving that it finds it weak when a woman falls in love with another woman. For bisexual people, let’s not even get there because they are always considered to be invisible. They’re the most discriminated of the lot and that’s a lot to deal with. When I came out to my parents, I told them I was bisexual but as time went by I realised I was purely homosexual. Also, I have started associating myself with being ‘queer’ than ‘homosexual’ because people wouldn’t understand me doing drag and being gay. They didn’t understand which box to label me under. I’m a queer man, it’s as simple as that.
My biggest struggle till date has been to make people understand the difference between Maya and Alex. Drag performance is an art, it’s what I do. My sexuality has nothing to do with it. I could be a straight man and be a drag queen, there have been lots of heterosexual men donning the personas of drag queens on stage. I know of a heterosexual man who performs as a drag queen in Rajasthan. That’s pretty huge! People often confuse the person I am on stage with the person I am in real life. Drag performance is a profession and it’s what I do, it’s a recognised art form in many countries. My sexual orientation is just who I am. The two must and should not be equated.
The thing about Maya is that she is just a very expressive creature who communicates with love. As Mayamma, I call myself ‘The Queen of Love’. Only love can trump hate, I have always believed that and has been a driving principle in everything that I do. Also, I think that if I had created Maya with the sole purpose of finding fame – I think I would’ve ended up making fun of women everywhere. I’m not here to make a caricature of a woman. The reason why I continue putting up performances of Maya is because people actually tell me that I inspire them and that’s what leads me on with my life. Because it means that there are people like me, fighting the good fight and that’s what’s more important. Before I created Maya, I was a theater artist and I used to go for a lot of auditions where I would end up getting rejected. People used to reject me on the grounds that I was too feminine, they weren’t okay with the fact that I was comfortable with who I am. Male roles weren’t being given to me because they weren’t convinced I could pull it off. Another ground for rejection was the fact that I have an obvious Malayalee accent. One time, a well known theater actress pointed it out to me and said, ‘Just spend 6 months training with me and I can neutralise your Malayalee accent and diction’. People were pointing out that these were my weaknesses, so I took them in and converted them to my positives. I stopped going to theater classes, karaoke to work on myself. I started watching a lot of movies like to come up with an on stage persona. Initially, I created Maya with the intention to try something new, to just have fun and be myself on stage. I didn’t create her to inspire people. My grandmother would always tell me, take life with a pinch of salt. And you know what? She was right. That’s what drag performance is all about. You’re doing something funny. My first performance was in my mother’s saree, with minimal make-up, one inch heels. But I got better with time, I improved and it was a slow but good progress. I progressed into this glamorous woman. Being Maya taught me to love myself, there was a point where I was very conscious of the fact that I was very feminine and I wanted to change it so bad. To become more macho. But Maya, she taught me that being feminine was my song. Through Maya, I like to explore other social issues like caste discrimination and exploring marriages beyond castes, colour and religion.
The inspiration for creating Maya’s persona came from a lot of movies like Mrs. Doubtfire, Chaachi 420 and obviously legendary characters like Dame Edna, RuPaul and eventually RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve personally spent a lot of time and effort researching, figuring out how I want Maya to be. Nobody told me what to do, it was my own sweat that got me here.
For me, doing Indian drag is of prime most importance. I want to scale it to new heights, because this is a genre of art that’s never been explored in India. There was a period where I wasn’t getting any opportunities for performances, I was out of a job and looking for a big break. It was a rather difficult time and I went into a depressive phase. I had created this entity, this powerful persona and here she was next to me but I am not able to sustain her. My art wasn’t being recognised and that was a breaking point for me. But I had this flicker of hope inside me that kept me going, I had the guts to take the plunge in the beginning. I remembered what I had in the beginning before I got here and just pushed myself to try, even if it was for the heck of it. I think I would’ve lost my mind if it wasn’t for a few friends who stuck around me. Opening up to them about how I felt really helped me deal with my issues and helped me deal with what other people were throwing at me. I had gone through a break-up earlier this year and it affected me to a point where I would keep having emotional outbursts by just watching a movie, a video or listening to music. I went to a counsellor and took her help to address my pain, it was during those sessions that I discovered that I had been dealing with a lot of things – suppressing them one after the other and it had all come crashing together. So I think that mental health is equally important, we need to have people we can up to – this applies to both the LGBTQ people and heterosexual people.
My counsellor added that I should be able to express myself as often as I can – that I should write and vent. So I started creating a life for myself outside of being Maya. I make funny videos and laugh at myself. I like to take pride in laughing at myself. I think people should do that too, people should take time out to enjoy the things that they like, just to appreciate beauty around them and to find purpose.
We live in a social media centric world, I don’t understand why people spread hate. All they want to do is think of horrible things to say to the other person online, mindlessly. I see a lot of people doing, not taking into consideration the other person’s feelings. People should just learn to love each other, accept each other.
I see myself falling in love, settling down. Why not? I see myself being with someone who is far more intellectual than I am. Someone who can give me opinions on the things I care about. In the end of the day, all I want is a caring and supportive partner. This is very hard to find in the gay world as well you know! Everyone’s focusing on sex, good looks. If someone has a towering personality but isn’t great looking – I don’t care! I don’t even have issues with caste or religion. I would be attracted to his personality, how I’m spoken and how I’m being swept away by that. I’d like to adopt a child, have a cat and a dog. These are things I’d love to have.
I do the things I do because somewhere out there, there’s a gay Indian teenage boy trying to find some inspiration in his own country, to be able to express his true self, his sexuality unabashedly. I want to be able to be that person who people can be the beacon, a guiding light to free oneself of stigma and pursue the art of drag performance openly. And to be queer openly.”
– Alex Mathew
"I was doing theater for a while and I think that was the turning point for me. It helped me realise my sexual…
Story By – Humans of Bangalore