Chicago, IL: Abhijeet Rane, or Bon Abhijeet or Slumbitch Millionaire as they are known on Instagram (Rane prefers the gender pronouns they/them), is a performance artist part of the drag community in Chicago. Rane moved there in 2012 from Mumbai. By day, Rane works as a public relations expert hosting club nights and promoting events, but notes that their 9 to 5 job is just a continuation of activism, “nightlife and [queer] activism go hand in hand.”
When we spoke, days after the landmark judgement by the Supreme Court on Section 377, the law was top of mind. “[The repeal] was a surreal moment,” Rane remembers. “It was a landmark moment internationally…queer people here [in the US] don’t fully understand the sheer difference about being out and queer in India versus in a developed nation like the US. Being who you are “is no longer a hurdle.”
So how did you find yourself here in the US?
I got the opportunity to go to a great arts school [the Art Institute of Chicago] in 2012 and pursue exactly what I wanted to be doing. It was my first time traveling internationally by myself and here, in Chicago, I got the chance to define who I was to a completely new group of people. I was studying video and sound stuff and performance and grew as a person a lot but got bored about how critiques worked. [I found] the art world really self-referential. It didn’t really reflect what the world looked like outside class.
How and when did you start performing in drag?
As I was saying, I was getting bored at school, but I had a fake ID so I’d go out. I came across [the] Chicago drag scene and that it was getting attention outside of nightlife. I was drawn to the super aesthetic look of the queens, the high energy performances. It drew my attention. I started going enough to become friends with people on the scene and they said you should just start doing it. I was like oh okay, I guess, but I was really excited. This was four years ago now. I’ve made one mistake at a time to get to where I am right now.
Has your family ever seen you perform?
My family is super, I’m so lucky to have parents like them. Initially, they were like what is going on? We put so much money for you to go to arts school and you’re just going to clubs. It took some time, but for me, this is an art practice. It’s influenced by going to school and being dissatisfied about going to school. I restructured my art. When they came to my graduation and saw me perform, they were like this makes sense. It was a really beautiful moment.
That’s nice and unusual
Yeah, in 2016 I went back to India, I got a grant from my school to work on a project in Bombay to do a photoshoot with my dad. My goal is to travel and meet drag queens in India, there are a couple of people starting to do drag in India but there’s no performance space. A lot of queer nightlife at that point was super underground, it was on a need to know basis. You needed to know where the events were happening and you only learn about it when you know someone.
I guess there was a lot of fear
Exactly, it was illegal to be out and queer. There was no protection really. You don’t want to be super femme or drag or trans, because it brings attention to you, it brings a lot of police presence. It was super unwelcoming – it’s like that in any kind of like cis passing male culture with all the faults. I get why its that way. It took some time. The Lalit Hotel in Delhi has drag shows now because the boss Keshav Suri is queer, that has changed the entire game for drag in India. Now they can have performances, girls from drag race come, but it really was not a thing two years ago – the past year has changed the game.
You seem to really want to build a similar community or group of queer people, why is community so important to you? And what does it mean?
When I started, there was only one drag competition for amateur queens and not a lot of opportunities in Chicago for brown [South-Asian but also African, South American and more] drag queens. There was a community though, but it wasn’t reflected in the nightlife scene. At first, when performing in drag, the scene wasn’t super welcoming. It was hard to connect or be treated equally at these drag nights. It was clear our experiences were different from white drag queens, for example if I performed I’d get a reference to India by the judges or other performers, or I would be exoticised or fetishized in some way, but no one would critique my performance for what it was.
In response, I was very lucky to curate nightlife events and support shows that supported these brown performers and create opportunities they wanted.
One such event you’ve created is Bad Betis in Chicago. Can you talk about that further? How was it conceived and why is it important?
Bad Betis is a drag night performance that I created to increase representation in these drag nights. It is a competition for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders that we host. We’ve done this four times now and it’s really well attended. Again, it’s an opportunity for drag queens that want their own space to perform.
On another note, most of the drag nights are white and just don’t represent the tastes, such as the music preference that brown and black performers like. So we’ve started hosting R&B and Hip Hop and Rap drag nights.
What do these drag nights mean to you? Like what do you say to people who don’t understand?
To me, drag is inherently a political act. It’s a space of defiance, a space for super marginalised people who don’t fit in anywhere to come together at night and get a glimpse into a life where they can be out and open. It’s important to remember that drag is and will always be political, it’s the nature of it.
So, when Section 377 was repealed in India, how did it feel? I ask because of course, it impacts you and many queer people in India but also you speak or rather allude to being able to be your full self in the US – what does this ruling mean to you and your future in India and the future of gay people in India?
In India, I always grew up with the law in place. I knew I was queer, and I knew it was a social taboo even without an understanding of the law. I knew it wasn’t allowed. Growing up learning it was illegal and could send you to jail, it’s a big difficult thing to come to terms with as young and queer.
You go through so much shame figuring out identity but also feel illegal. It’s a terrible feeling. Any person who came out during that time and was themselves, is a superhero to me. I know how hard it was for me.
When Section 377 got overturned, I was in so much disbelief. It was a surreal moment. I did not know this would happen in my lifetime. I was ecstatic, I woke up with a bunch of texts about the news. It was otherworldly about this actually happening.
Was there any talk about this in the States, in Chicago?
It was a landmark moment internationally – there was so much disbelief it actually happened. It’s a really big deal that it was overruled and it warrants an international conversation. The Indian context is lost internationally because people don’t fully get the sheer difference about being out and queer in India vs. the US.
I’m hopeful that this is not the end of it, and that [this progress] is just the start. I think [the decriminalisation] is just a stepping stone to much needed actual change. First, you can have queer activists openly advocate for things. Before, there was a threat of criminalisation and targeting. That’s no longer a hurdle. I hope you’ll see more activists lobbying for change more than just marriage equality and adoption.
I think, before we talk about that, we [have to] set the baseline [for] equality for LBGTQ+ people, especially for trans people, because they need access to stable jobs, housing, medical assistance through official means. Right now, their participation in the economy is based on sex work and drugs and mafia stuff in Mumbai. I hope the activism moving forward is focused on more than just rich queer people in India.
There is such a social stigma and it’s going to take so much unlearning for middle class and rural people. Homophobia is so ingrained into us so many years under the British rule. So much more unlearning is needed beyond just legislation.
What do you mean by “unlearning”?
I mean activism focused on providing services and education about what it means to be gay and queer, right now the language about LGBTQ+ rights is really inaccessible.
What’s next for you? Are we going to see more of Abhijeet in India?
So, for the time being, it’s Chicago for me. I have been lucky to get a solid footing here, to grow as a person but also in drag and social life, establishing myself in the night and music scene. So it’s Chicago for right now.
But being Indian and being from India is really important for me. I’m in the process of getting my paperwork sorted out right now, but want to be able to visit India regularly and be really involved in queer activism and queer nightlife [in India.]
For me, nightlife and activism goes hand in hand. It’s as important to put up a party as much as support a crowd fund or protest. I think it’s important to put up a show for people who don’t have access to go to these drag nights or go out because of money, so I want to do this more in India.
Ultimately, establishing a wider platform and elevating other people is really important to me. It’s really clichéd but you can only grow a community if people at the top share their platform. I want to do that.
Aliya Bhatia is currently pursuing a master’s at Columbia University’s School of International and Public. She’s the managing editor at Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Find her on Twitter @AliyaBhatia
Featured image credit: Abhijeet Rane