“It’s Not Enough Until I Get Myself to Like Vagina”: Elton J Fernandez on LGBT+ Life in India

*This article was first published in #ReclaimTheBindi Zine, Issue #2 (June 2016)

This month’s theme for the #ReclaimTheBindi zine is LGBT+, and when I learnt this I was stumped. As a cishet woman, I have no personal experience with such matters. What on Earth was I going to write?

Perhaps a news piece on LGBT+ rights in India? Nope, boring. A list of my favourite LGBT+ desis? LMAO nice try! There aren’t enough out desis for that!

And then it clicked: I should turn the conversation over to someone who knows what they’re talking about and can effectively utilise this platform. And the first and only person that came to mind was Elton J Fernandez.     Elton J Fernandez is a makeup artist and hair stylist in Mumbai. He is not only famous for regularly doing celebrities’ makeup and being in publications like Vogue India, but he also has his own YouTube channel: India’s first professional beauty channel. His tutorials are beautiful and created with the modern working woman in mind.

I first stumbled across him when looking for a Deepika Padukone makeup tutorial last summer, and I stuck around because right in his very first video he mentions the need for skin tone representation in the media. Erm, HELL YES! His charmingly frank, I-am-unashamedly-me personality and his skill at applying beautiful makeup kept me hooked and I quickly became a big fan.

Elton was kind enough to let me interview him, and while the focus is on his experiences, I also made sure to take advantage of the fact that he’s a makeup artist and asked beauty-related questions – it would have been a disservice to our #glazeddonutgoddess readers not to!

Without further ado, I’ll let Elton do the talking!

LGBT+

 

Sethia: To start with, could you tell our readers how you identify, to give them some context?

Fernandez: I’m an adult homosexual man.

Sethia: Can you tell us about your childhood? What was your home environment like (in regards to people who weren’t cisgender and/or heterosexual) and how did this affect you? How religious was your family? What was your relationship like with your sibling(s) at that time?

Fernandez: My mum and dad were religious but very urban, chilled parents. I was raised in the most cosmopolitan city of India – Bombay! I was raised Catholic and my brother was 2 years older and we never got along until we were young men in our late teens. As a child, I was an altar boy in church and was taught that anything other than heterosexual is an abomination and gets you front row tickets to the burning fires of Hell!

Sethia: How aware were you of your sexuality before you came out? Did you struggle with it for a long time or was it something you always knew?

Fernandez: I’ve had interactions of a sexual nature with boys since I was a child. It wasn’t sex as adults understand it, but just touching each other and playing silly games. As a young man, I was taught I needed to have a girlfriend, so I certainly went out looking for one! But it never felt organic to me, like it did when I was with people of the same sex as myself.

Sethia: Do you still struggle with your identity?

Fernandez: Not at all. I’m 100% certain of what makes me tick.

Sethia: Although you were living in Hyderabad independent of your family for university and your early career, you’ve also talked about how the homophobia you experienced there is common in “small-minded cities”. Did this impact your coming to terms with your sexuality while you were in the closet? Can you give us a sense of what life in the closet was like for you?

Fernandez: I think most people tend to lose contact with the bigger picture when they live in close-knit communities that promote smaller personal agendas. In India, where sexuality isn’t commonly talked about or discussed, it’s tricky to come out of the closet because you have nowhere to look for answers! I remember being incredibly nervous when I told my first friend that I wasn’t straight like him. It was a nightmare! But such a burden lifted off! Gradually, coming out becomes like a reward, and doing it feels easier to do. I have also lost a few friends in the process, but oh well!

Sethia: Would you mind telling us a bit about the homophobia you faced in Hyderabad?

Fernandez: People were always snickering, poking fun at me, being disrespectful and intrusive. I’ve been gay-bashed a couple times by groups of homophobic men that randomly pick on people they consider easy targets. I’ve had chilli powder thrown in my eyes. It was ridiculous.

Sethia: Let’s talk about the big moment: coming out. How did you feel once you’d come out for the first time? Did coming out change how you felt and thought about yourself?

Fernandez: It’s just like a weight being lifted off one’s shoulders, less guilt from the burdens of secrecy and having to live a constant double life, covering traces of white lies. But really, I just remember taking a deep breath and feeling so free, bursting into tears as I told myself to always stay strong and never let people’s opinions of me weigh me down.

Sethia: How did your parents react to your coming out? How did your sibling(s) react? How long did it take for everyone to come around? Are there family members who still treat you differently?

Fernandez: My parents went through their initial shock and opposition, but as we continued to talk, I tried to be as blatantly honest as I was sure of myself and what I wanted. However, gradually with time, guilt got the better of my folks, and they slowly gravitated more towards religion and penance and prayer, wanting to reserve our seats in heaven as a Catholic family.

My extended paternal family were always petty, super judgmental and holier-than-thou. My rude uncle would keep saying to me in front of other family, “You look more and more like Michael Jackson as you grow!” It was always hurtful to hear, and confused me because I never understood what kind of happiness he could’ve received by sharing that kind of opinion of me, with me! I’ve severed bonds with anyone that’s made me feel like I was less worthy of happiness than them, simply because of who I chose to lie naked with. My brother is 2 years older, and he’s incredibly supportive and lovely. I love him.

Sethia: How are your relationships with your family members today? How involved with your life are they? Have you introduced any of your partners to them?

Fernandez: When I was a child, my mum was everything a child needed to grow independently – she was strong, funny, beautiful, fashionable, stylish, and a total city girl. I loved that. My coming out caused her to spiral downward into self-blame, looking skyward for forgiveness and help. It’s been 13 years since I came out, and she’s still waiting on Jesus to make me hetero! Fat chance! Our relationship is broken, depressing and frankly, I’m happier when I don’t hear from her. I know it’s cruel to say something like that about the woman that gave me life, but only I’ve walked in my shoes. I’ve tried hard to change her mind by just being my own strength and guide, by single-handedly elevating my life respectably and by being a compassionate hardworking human being, but it’s not enough until I get myself to like vagina. How bizarre!

My father has tried to accept my sexuality, but feels chained by his Catholic upbringing. I do respect that. And I respect that he isn’t constantly preaching down condescendingly and trying to cure me of some disease, like my mother does.

I’ve tried introducing conversation about my long-term partner, but my parents aren’t interested in discussing anything related to what they call my “lifestyle”.

The only good thing my paternal family has ever given me is my talent and love for music. My maternal family, however, has always been more loving. Granted, everybody has differences and that’s alright. But to be able to love beyond it, is truly a gift. My aunt Pamela has been my firmest believer and my strongest supporter, and I love her deeply.

Sethia: Could you describe the difference between being out in Mumbai and Hyderabad, and give us a sense of the atmospheres and attitudes of each city?

Fernandez: Bombay is far removed from every other city or town in this country. It’s a state of mind. People are exposed to so much more than themselves. Hyderabad has money and power, and that’s about it. For the most part, it’s painful growing up in Hyderabad if you identify as homosexual.

People in Bombay seem to be busy with working hard and making ends meet. It’s a less judgmental, more desensitised bunch of workers that live and let live.

Sethia: How receptive do you find international cities are to LGBT+ people?

Fernandez: Luckily, I’ve always felt free and uninhibited as a responsible homosexual man everywhere I’ve travelled, except my own country. That said, I’ve never been to any other country that belongs to what we know as the Third World.

Sethia: How involved are you with the LGBT+ community (in India)?

Fernandez: I don’t see myself being at the core of gay rights activism or anything because it’s too much politics and intellectualising, and that’s just not my thing. I value good intent, good sense and compassion above all else. I am, however, at the core of the social circuit within the gay community insomuch as my work is respected and acknowledged, my presence and opinion and support is valued, and I feel part of a very lovely community. I love walking at the Pride Parade with my friends, and my social media is an extension of everything I believe in.

Sethia: Is being involved with the LGBT+ community important to you? How much would you say you’re in conversation with contemporary issues?

Fernandez: Yes, I do think it is important to be involved with the larger community that I belong to. Like I said, I’m smart and definitely keep abreast with most things, but I do not see myself as an intellectual whose opinion is indisputable like God’s Holy Word.

Sethia: How do you see the future of LGBT+ rights evolving in India?

Fernandez: Slow and steady. It’s easy to be unhappy with the fact that change hasn’t yet arrived, but the process, to me, is important. We need to continue to trust in the magic of time and process.

Sethia: What steps are needed for positive change, and how can our readers be a part of that?

Fernandez: Shed labels, refuse to wear labels of colour, race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, gender. Love unconditionally. Literally without conditions. Love because you have so much to give, not because you have this and this and that and this to receive. Question everything, and especially your elders and leaders, and their motives. Question your own. Look for logic and reason in your answers, not tradition or culture, or blind faith. When you see any sort of discrimination, even when it’s a passing remark, call it out, and raise a flag.

BEAUTY

Sethia: On your YouTube channel you make a point of using Indian women with dark skin and Indian features (like the video with your housekeeper Sanjana, which, by the way, was adorable!). Can you elaborate on your thoughts regarding representation?

Fernandez: In many ways, I’m just fed up of seeing only cookie-cutter Stepford wives for celebrity influences in India. Our leading commercial stars are all fair-skinned, sometimes even foreign, bland and without any unique human personality or skill. I just feel like I’d rather watch a regular person like my housekeeper Sanjanaji than any heroine, because she has so much more character, wit, personality, style and charisma!

Sethia: Have you ever faced colourism because of your skin tone?

Fernandez: Constantly. I only get told I’m beautiful when I’m out of India. This is of course, besides my darling friends who are beyond wonderful!!

Sethia: How do you feel about personally wearing makeup? What look(s) do you like the most right now/think suit you the best?

Fernandez: I’ve always loved it. I love bending gender norms and playing around. I wear lashes and lips and blusher and brows and hair extensions too! I love stretching my personality to be different people when I feel like it. I love how my face wears a big black bindi. It’s my thing for 2016!

Sethia: Do you ever get shit for wearing makeup? How do you deal with it? What advice would you give to people whose families tell them off for wearing “too much makeup”?

Fernandez: Yes, but like I learnt from Game of Thrones, a lion does not concern himself with the opinion of sheep. Haha! To the condescending family members, I say “peace out!”

Sethia: What would you say your USP as a makeup artist is? What makes your work different?

Fernandez: That I simplify things and do not take 20 minutes to do what can be accomplished in 2 minutes.

Sethia: What are your favourite makeup products? (Be specific for our readers, please!)

Fernandez: There’s a bunch of products I really like:

– Nars bronzers in shades Casino and Laguna

– Anastasia Beverly Hills highlighter kit

– Maybelline Dream Velvet foundation range

– Maybelline Colossal liner

– Maybelline Brow Drama mascara in dark brown.

Sethia: As the self-styled Brow Guru, what is your eyebrow philosophy and what are your favourite products to use on them?

Fernandez: Open up the face, and let the eyes do the talking, whilst still being natural and bushy, but groomed!

I love Maybelline’s BrowDrama mascara because not only do they fill out sparseness with colour, but they also comb through hair and keep them glued in place for hours!

Sethia: How would you describe your personal style and aesthetic?

Fernandez: Chilled out, easy and fun, street but chic.

Sethia: What does your personal diet and fitness routine look like?

Fernandez: I’m pescatarian. I do not have aerated drinks unless as a mixers with alcohol. I only drink socially. I only smoke weed. I have a personal trainer Rakesh who comes home thrice a week to keep me slender and toned.

Sethia: Lastly, do you have any parting words for our readers?

Fernandez: Get laid. Make love. Never buy a car without understanding the engine, the body, and how well it drives you, or how well you can drive it!

You can find Elton at his Youtube page, as well as on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

– S

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