It is very rare to come across gay men in India who do not have interesting stories to tell.
Be they tales of ‘coming out’ or sexual, emotional and physical abuse.
Almost everyone has their own unique struggle to share. It is what binds them and also sets them apart.
Swapnil Sabban aka Alizeh Khan is one such gay man who has created his own unique niche within the #LGBTIndia community.
Here’s to celebrating his life and times!
Born in a highly conservative Telugu family, Swapnil Sabban was fortunate to have parents who just let him be. From his formative years, Swapnil was fascinated with our Indian epics. Whenever his mother told him stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, he would listen in innocent wonder and amazement.
While all children dream of being the hero in every story, gallantly slaying the villain and rescuing the princess, Swapnil wasn’t swayed. What enamoured him always were the roles and the power that the female characters possessed. They are the ones that held sway and could truly make or break a story. Change the course of history, literally. So, whenever asked to don an avatar of a male character, Swapnil would refuse and would fight instead, to play the female lead.
As a kid his parents would give in and assumed this was just a phase. But unbeknownst to them, this wasn’t ‘just’ a phase. The seeds of Swapnil’s obsession with cross-dressing had taken root deep within his heart. Whether it was dressing up like the other women in his Mumbai chawl or imitating Madhuri’s dance moves in ‘Dola re dola re’ Swapnil could carry off a saree in style, with a swagger all his own.
But as he grew so did the range of comments. They began to range from “Cute kid” to “Chawli Ki Champakali”. This shattered his confidence and he transformed into a timid, fragile and introvert kid. He would get beaten up and bullied at school, all the time. Participation in fancy dress competitions stopped completely, thereafter. His studies suffered drastically too.
Forced To Mend Ways
By the time he reached Class V, ashamed of his “sissy” mannerisms, his father forced him to join karate classes. Swapnil, had his eyes set on Bharatnatyam though. But it wasn’t to be and karate was forced down his throat.
He persevered but couldn’t reach far. After his ‘Yellow Sr.’ belt, his instructor spoke to his father. He praised Swapnil’s diligence but thought that Swapnil was much better suited for singing and dancing, than martial arts. He wanted his father to enroll him in classes he had a more natural inclination towards. The advise backfired as Swapnil got thrashed for demonstrating his “girly-ness” at Karate class, too.
When at Karate camp in Penn, a ghastly sexual assault occurred that shook him to the core. While he was asleep a gang of boys applied toothpaste to his private parts. Swapnil feels he was drugged prior to that, as he had no recollection/inkling of the act while it was being committed. Here too, a girl called Shrutika, who then went to become a good friend, came to his rescue.
The camp turned out to be his worst nightmare ever and by the time he was 10 and in Class V, he was already harbouring suicidal tendencies. He kept pleading to God, “Let me die; I don’t want to live.” Not surprisingly, he failed Class VI and his studies slipped into a downward spiral, since.
Intermittent Rays Of Hope
Sunlight, however, sneaks in through the tiniest holes and illuminates the darkest rooms. Like a ray of light through a tiny hole, one statement, in spite of the fact that it came from one of his most hated Math teachers Ms. Smita, changed Swapnil’s life forever.
“We are all literate but not all of us are educated.”
That’s what she told him and it changed Swapnil’s life for the better, thenceforth. His attitude towards life underwent a complete U-turn after that. What the world says about him stopped mattering to him as much. And he decided to live for his happiness and for others whose lives he could impact more positively.
By Class VIII he had proven himself as a brilliant playwright who was also environmentally conscious and aware towards his surroundings. He began participating in elocution competitions and emerged as a budding poet, as well. When his attitude changed, so did everything around him. The world seemed to need him now making his vision a tad rosier too.
When in Class VIII, he had another striking glimpse at compassion through his Science teacher Ms. Amrita and his class teacher. Boys in his class would beat him up severely despite his asthmatic condition. They would also haze him for “not being a boy” and not playing during the Phy Ed period. Ms.Amrita noticed this violent behaviour one day and apprised his class teacher about it. They collectively reprimanded the boys severely,
“You have no right to ask anyone whether they’d like to play with boys or girls? It is none of anyone’s business and you shall stay out of it.”
Although his father wanted to see him as a Software Engineer, Swapnil nurtured a dream of becoming a gynaecologist. Life had other plans for him though and he actually began influencing young impressionable lives as a teacher with the ‘Teach For India’ campaign.
Sex And A Lifetime Of Abuse
Abuse had been a constant in his life since Class I. The older boys in the chawl where he lived would sexually abuse him, constantly. They would pretend to be straight but would use him for sex all the time. He became their entertainment but admits that he began enjoying the attention and the spotlight. They would call him using effeminate names and Swapnil would go over reluctantly at first, more readily subsequently.
Till date, he isn’t aware if his parents know about all the sex that he has indulged in. But they have never mentioned it or confronted him with it. By the time he was 16, all the boys in his chawl had ‘done’ him and he had been reigned the quintessential Madhuri Dixit of the locality.
Madhuri, the reigning Bollywood superstar in those days, was incidentally his icon too. He longed to look, dress and dance like her. He would learn how to dance through her and ‘superstar making choreographer Saroj Khan’ through a popular TV programme. Swapnil considers both divas his dance gurus.
Love In My Life
Although it was common knowledge that he was gay, it didn’t stop one of his classmates, Mitali, from falling for him. They used to be sworn enemies at first but she eventually fell for him hard. She even proclaimed, “I don’t mind if you are feminine too.” Of course, Swapnil chose to walk away.
Swapnil with Umesh, in happier times.
In Class X, however, gratis a gay dating app Planet Romeo, he chanced upon a man called Umesh. A photographer by profession, Swapnil elaborates,
“Umesh was my first, true love and will always hold a special place in my heart. The moment I set eyes on him, I knew I was in love. I bunked school just to be with him and ever since our first meeting, the relationship just felt so easy and natural. I was enamoured with his politeness and head over heels in love with his gentleness and caring nature. We would visit different spots in Mumbai and walk hand in hand for hours.”
But like all good things in life that ever touched him, this too was too good to last. Umesh was betrothed to a girl chosen by his parents, since he never gathered the courage to come out to them. Swapnil was young and lovelorn and eventually his desperate need for love and attention resulted in straining the courtship and they fell apart.
Best Days Of My Life
In his college lab. Happy Days.
Swapnil attended Andhra Education Society, Matunga and opted for the science stream. He says, “I couldn’t have made a better decision as these junior college days turned out to be some of the best days of my life. I used to be Islamophobic but this college changed all that. I made some of the very best friendships here.”
My Introduction To Androgyny
While in college, he met a fellow gay guy Ajay Siroya on Grindr. He was the one who opened the doors of Gay Mumbai to Swapnil. Until then, he had existed only in his own bubble like a frog in the well. Believing that there is no other like him or that he would never be fortunate to know any other like-minded gay fellas. To him, until then the word ‘gay’ had always seemed like an abuse.
“People flinging it at me, had pierced daggers through my heart more often than I chose to recall. I grew up full of hate, shame and guilt at what seemed to be my ‘unique mental condition’.”
Swapnil + Ajay: Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi
Ajay changed all that for me. He would take Swapnil to Maheshwari gardens in Sion very often. MG, as it’s popularly known as in gay circles, is a hub of activity and a microcosm of Gay Mumbai. Its colour, vibrancy and energy attracted Swapnil, like a bee to a flower. Says he, “It is the place I felt most at home with. I stopped feeling alone and deserted in a world of self-doubt and under-confidence. It widened my horizons and introduced me to androgyny. I continue to go to MG very often, despite the fact that Ajay and I currently enjoy ‘Frenemy’ status at best.”
“Ajay helped me realise and accept myself for what I truly am. For this, I shall always remain grateful to him. For the first time I began to live instead of just surviving through a drab existence. In all of my 17 years, I had never purchased clothes of my choice, by myself. That began to change. I became more confident and assertive and derived a style of my own.”
Senior College And The Downward Spiral
In feminine clothes for the very first time.
Swapnil switched colleges for the last 3 years of graduation and it was an unhappy decision. He did not like it there one bit, in spite of having won the Mr. Fresher’s title. At the contest, while others cashed in on their singing, dancing or performing talent, he did something completely unprecedented.
He acted as Madhuri Dixit, his all time favourite ‘Bollywood Goddess’. Mouthing all her popular dialogues to the ‘T’, Swapnil sailed through the contest, easily sweeping away the title.
He presumed that having bagged the title, life would be smooth sailing from then on. But boy! Was he mistaken? It was anything but that. He hated this college and wanted to switch over to his previous one. Once again, thanks to all the hazing and snide remarks, he withdrew into his shell.
Life As I Know It Today
To the world now, he proclaims,
“I am an extremely reserved, introverted person but assertive in my own ‘bitchy’ way. I now boast enough confidence to give it back. This is something that I lacked all my life. If you dare cross my path, be ready to bear the wrath of the unleashed beast.”
This attitude has helped him immensely in life and he now takes insults on the chin and refutes them in double measure. He has broken off ties with all his relatives and his parents remain his only family now. But for that he has no regrets.
He has found his own paralllel universe among the gay community and a safe haven in his writing. Emptying his heart out into his blog ‘I Am Crushed By Patriarchy’, has become his favourite hobby. Incidentally, the blog itself started off as a college project and has organically grown beyond his wildest dreams.
Also read about Gay Twins Yogendra and Nishant Mule. Yogendra is intimately known to Swapnil and acts as Alizeh’s mentor.
“My blog brought me friends and fans alike. Helping others discover their potential has given me a new lease of life. I have become stronger and more opinionated and want to reach out to and help as many as I can.”
Its not like he’s completely ridden himself of all his depression. Swapnil still has his moments of doubt and fear. He has contemplated suicide in the past. While still in school, he even tried to hang himself with a belt. As late as this year, too, he tried slashing his wrists.
Life Is Still Beautiful
A chance participation in a Mx. Androgynous contest held under the ageis of Gaurav.org happened in Apr 2018. Held for the very first time in India, Swapnil won the debut title therein. There has been no looking back since.
It became his ticket to the world of glamour, success and fame. As debut title winner he was called upon to participate at the Kashish International Film Festival‘s finale function. His confidence, grace and style won over many hearts apart from all the catcalls and encouraging applause.
But his best contribution to the world of glamour, in his own words,
remains his persona as
‘Alizeh Khan-The Girl With A Beard’.
“People come up to me and say, before me they were afraid to come out and embrace androgyny. On seeing me rocking the femme fatale look with a beard and finding acceptance and applause, more and more people want to follow in my footsteps. They find an inspiration in me and look up to me for guidance and motivation. It feels like the best reward ever.”
Now, with my Instagram account and a growing number of followers, Swapnil feels a sense of responsibility toward his fans and the queer community. He does his best to not just act as a beacon of androgyny through his pics but also through his strong, thought provoking poetry. Writing and performing at various Open Mic sessions to spread his message, his first performance on a platform called ‘Onenest’ remains his most memorable.
He currently works as a performing artist with Color Positive as a model, dancer and actor. With a show coming up on 30 Sep 18, hectic rehearsal schedules swarm his life. Inspite of that, he takes time off to walk the ramp for ‘Bezubaan’ an initiative by Vinay Nirmala where they hold themed fashion shows each year. Last year’s theme was ‘Unsung Heroes’. Bezubaan also performs under the ageis of ‘Color Positive’.
Color Positive (CP) is an initiative that works with the LGBT Community and its allies towards spreading awareness, inclusivity and employment. CP also works towards equality of women and towards Animal Welfare as well.
Swapnil is also a self taught, natural actor and director. In his debut film ‘Merak’ he ably brings out the true meaning of love. He tries to educate people and tell them that love knows no bounds, it is devoid of looks and gender. We cannot control who we fall in love with and neither should society.
A Few Parting Words For The LGBT Community And Films Produced By Them
In his experience Swapnil feels that, “Unfortunately, there is no unity among the LGBT community itself. It faces discrimination among its rank and file too, which weakens and worsens our situation. How can we persevere unitedly in our fight with the rest of the heterosexual world when we suffer from fissures within ourselves too?
In that sense I greatly admire and appreciate the Hijra or Transgender community especially those that belong to strong hijra family clans. Although they have frequent friction among themselves when they see a threat from outside their community, they all unite like fingers of a fist and ward it off successfully. This attitude is sadly absent among the rest of the LGB community. Bigotry and discrimination against us shall continue until we present a united front and a collective voice.”
Alizeh Khan On winning the very first Mx. Androgyny Title. Pic Courtesy: QGraphy
Swapnil also hopes that Bollywood and LGBT film producers too steer clear of their stereotypical portrayal of effeminate gay characters. He is alright with the demonstration of effeminate characteristics in gay men. But takes offence to the portrayal of gays to look like ‘sissy caricatures’. As if to say that these mannerisms alone collectively define them.
“This is not all there is to us, gay men” he emphasises.
“Don’t make just one of our features define us. Why can’t gay characters in Bollywood be effeminate yet smart, savvy and appealing too?”
Given a chance he’d love to see that happen. He would be open to collaborating on writing or even acting in a Bollywood film or one produced by the LGBT community that demonstrates the gall to show gays in a more positive and encouraging light.
The Ugly Duckling Shines
Another thing that cheeses him off: the fact that cis-males play transgender characters in films even today. “Why not employ a transgender actor to play the part instead? It will not only help in bringing out the true flavour of the character but also bring inclusivity and employment to the very community such films seek to promote.”
Alizeh emerges as the gorgeous Swan.
His parting words, “We gays are like the ‘ugly duckling’ of the family.No body pays us heed, until one day we transform into a beautiful swan.
So yes, years of suppression and abuse makes us bounce back louder, stronger and prettier.
Of this, we shall make no bones; we proudly own it!”