In a rebellious move against the gender binary, as well as notions of toxic masculinity imposed by their South Asian heritage, brown gay men and non-binary individuals are adorning their hands with traditional henna with pride.
The word “forbidden” comes up quickly when asking a South Asian gay man about their first memory of henna. Shazad Hai, the co-founder of Rangeeta, the world’s biggest LGBTQIA+ Bollywood event in Toronto, remembers being “mesmerised” by the bridal mehndi (the term used in Hindi, while henna originates from the Arabic), that his aunt wore when he attended her wedding aged 10. “I just remember being very captivated by it,” he says. “After she got married, we were all at her place and I kept on asking to look at her hands.” However, the adults around him reminded him that a boy was not supposed to be so curious about the traditional tattoo. “Anything in which I was trying to express myself in a feminine kind of way was forbidden, which included mehndi,” he says.
Growing up in a South Asian family with Indian roots myself, I knew a pair of slaps across the face would await should I dare to look at my older sisters’ henna cones and templates for too long. The same curiosity I had for their make-up or nail polish had to be concealed at all times, and especially in public, where the community had eyes everywhere. Over the years, the unbearable family pressure of fitting into moulds that were never created for queer brown individuals made me push away anything related to India and my heritage. I thought my gayness could never co-exist with my South Asian-ness, because of how homophobic the culture I grew up in was.
After moving to London, I realised there were hundreds of brown LGBTQIA+ individuals just like me who were using that heritage to shine even brighter. Lady Bushra, a UK-based drag queen, says wearing henna today is as much a statement as the rest of her drag. Born in an ultra-orthodox Muslim family, the performer was introduced to henna as a child at Eid. “Patterns and designs were reserved for women, but as children, we would take a clog of henna and sleep with it in our hands. Overnight our hands would go red.” Today, Bushra uses red henna to pay homage to the dancers performing the Indian classical dances, Kathak and Bharatanatyam. “I use something called alta, which is red henna and that red pigment is liquid sindoor (also called vermilion), from India,” she says. “Dancers choose that brilliant red to draw attention to their hands and feet as they carry out the gestures and movements, telling a story. I wear it in a very simple way, dipping the top of my fingers in it and then making a set of little dots on my hands.”
There is a galaxy of possibilities when it comes to henna’s more intricate patterns and designs, which turns it into an art form, and a career for many “henna ladies”. In Toronto, Shazad Hai first booked a henna artist for his housewarming surrounded by his brown queer friends. “I wanted to make this a mehndi party,” he says. “It was quite challenging, because I remember phoning different places and a lot of them refused to do mehndi on guys, but there was one woman who said yes. When she put it on me for the first time, it felt like Christmas. I was so excited. It was close to Pride month and this became my tradition. It is such a grounding moment for me to start off Pride. It’s part of a personal ritual now, a sacred experience.” From fitness competitions to performing in LGBTQIA+ clubs as a go go dancer, Shazad has worn henna with pride in spaces that are dedicated to representing the masculine body. “I felt how important it was for me and how much it mattered. I could be in those mainstream spaces and be up on stage and still have that South Asian-ness on me no matter what. I was able to reconcile both sides of myself.”
When it came to getting married, Tyrone Bauer, from Mumbai, knew he wanted to experience some of the traditional elements of an Indian wedding celebration with his partner, Daniel. As cis gay men, they don’t wear henna on a daily basis, but chose to have one discreet pattern tattooed on their hands during their pre-wedding ceremonies. “Our haldi (turmeric ceremony), and mehndi (henna ceremony), happened the day before the wedding,” says Tyrone. “While we wanted to stick to tradition, we didn’t really have a bride, so we decided to both have a small design that really meant something to us. I had Daniel’s name on my palm and vice versa.” Tyrone’s wedding, which was featured in Netflix and Condé Nast India’s show The Big Day, showed how queer South Asians can enjoy some of the traditions they were brought into, but on their own terms.
As Gay Times has put it, “India has always been queer AF,” with gay, trans and non-binary deities whom brown LGBTQIA+ individuals should feel a connection with – but swathes of that history have been erased. “As South Asians, we share a heritage that is over 5,000 years old,” says Lady Bushra. “It is extremely rich and diverse, and we are entitled to it. Our forefathers and ancestors fought to keep the invaders out in order for us to still have that unique culture.”
Inherently political, choosing to wear henna as proud brown queers is a way to reconnect with a glorious heritage and finally feel valid as a whole. “To deny that part is to deny a part of yourself,” says Shazad. “You have to own all of you.”