In a rebel movement against gender binary, as well as notions of toxic masculinity imposed by their South Asian heritage, gay browns and non-binary individuals proudly adorn their hands with traditional henna.
The word “forbidden” comes up quickly when you ask a gay South Asian about his first memory of henna. Shazad Hai, the co-founder of Rangeeta, the world’s largest LGBTQIA+ Bollywood event in Toronto, recalls being “hypnotized” by the bridal mehndi (the term used in Hindi, while henna comes from Arabic), which his aunt wore when he attended his wedding at the age of 10. “I just remember being very captivated by it,” he says. “After she got married, we were all at her house and I kept asking to look at her hands.” However, the adults around him reminded him that a boy wasn’t supposed to be so curious about the traditional tattoo. “Anything in which I tried to express myself in a feminine way was forbidden, including mehndi,” he says.
Having grown up in a South Asian family with Indian roots myself, I knew that a pair of slaps on the face would await me if I dared stare too long at my older sisters’ henna cones and patterns. The same curiosity I had for their makeup or their 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 to fit molds that were never created for brown queer people made me push away anything about India and my heritage. I thought my homosexuality could never coexist with my South Asian identity, because of the homophobia of the culture I grew up in.
After moving to London, I realized there were hundreds of brown LGBTQIA+ people like me who were using this heritage to shine even brighter. Lady Bushra, a UK-based drag queen, says wearing henna today is as much of a statement as the rest of her drag. Born into an ultra-Orthodox Muslim family, the performer was introduced to henna from her childhood on the occasion of Eid. “The patterns and designs were for women only, but as children we would take a clog of henna and sleep with it in our hands. Overnight our hands would turn red. Today, Bushra uses red henna to pay homage to the dancers performing classical Indian 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 this bright red to draw attention to their hands and feet as they perform gestures and movements, telling a story. I wear it in a very simple way, by dipping the tops of my fingers in it and then making a set of little dots on my hands.