“I am so jealous of Jaden Smith. He is everything my parents will never allow me to be,” said a friend (who identifies as gay) to me, during a casual conversation. It was a small, one-off statement, but it resonated with me deeply.
My friend was referencing Jaden Smith’s wonderfully gender non-conforming fashion choices—how he unapologetically dresses in skirts, heels, makeup and other forms of clothing that are far from being traditionally ‘masculine’—and lamenting his own inability to do the same. My friend lives in a small conservative Indian town, that has not only forced him to remain in the closet, but also hasn’t allowed him to dress how he wants.
But he isn’t alone in his predicament. In India, dressing beyond the gender assigned to you at birth, i.e. male or female, comes with a whole range of complexities. The expectations of hyper-masculinity from men and hyper-femininity from women are so pronounced that the moment you try to break out of them, you are seen as a threat to the status quo, and often ostracized. And yet, the situation isn’t entirely black and white.
A couple of years back, I attended a seminar where Vikramaditya Sahai—a prominent Delhi-based, gender nonconforming, queer activist—shared an interesting anecdote. While attempting to travel by the Delhi Metro wearing a saree, he was cornered by security personnel—who couldn’t decide whether to have him take the ‘ladies’ security check or the ‘gents’ security check.
While the story was told as an amusing one, it highlighted a universal reality that those dressed in gender non-conforming clothes face. Crossdressing and identifying as trans or gender non-conforming aren’t always the same thing.
Crossdressing is the term loosely applied to anyone who dresses beyond the constraints of traditional gender roles. However, crossdressing is different from being trans or gender nonconforming – because in such cases, they are wearing the clothes that express their gender identity, and not dressing beyond, or opposite to their genders. But sadly, in India, both categories often collapse into each other, because the moment one goes beyond a binary gender expression in terms of clothing and appearance, they are met with disapproving stares, prejudice and often, even heckling and harassment.
Dressing beyond your assigned gender is meant to be both an intensely personal and a political act—both a means of self-expression, as well as a significant way of challenging the rigid social impositions of gender norms. But in India, it often leads to discrimination and violence.
Trying to determine a person’s gender identity on the basis of their clothes or appearance is an inherently flawed concept. No identity comes with a rigid set of gender expressions- so it is none of our business, to assume somebody’s gender or sex on the basis of their clothes.
While many people struggle with their gender identity and expression, Indian cinema often goes and makes fun of it. It abounds with instances of men crossdressing as women, but in extremely problematic ways. From veteran actors starting from Kishore Kumar and Rishi Kapoor to contemporary actors like Riteish Deshmukh—men dressed as women have populated Bollywood for years. But these portrayals are far from political, revolutionary, or a challenge to gender norms—instead, they are exaggerated and caricaturish, and very often, extremely sexist. They serve to make fun of and trivialize crossdressing rather than actually further its cause, or help break the stigma surrounding it, so it’s no wonder that such negative portrayals have been internalized by our society—and has translated into further prejudice.
But crossdressing men in performance arts have a long history. In traditional, folk theatre ( “nautankis”) or street plays, or in classical dance or drama performances, men have often taken up the feminine role. Bengali theatre performer Chapal Bhaduri was one of the most iconic crossdressing folk performers, and became so legendary that men who play female roles in modern Bangla theatre are often referred to as ‘Chapal Rani’ (Bhaduri’s stage persona). In such cases, the politics of crossdressing is far more complex – while on the one hand, these crossdressing men were still playing exaggerated portrayals of women, but in many cases, they were also bringing out the pathos in these characters and were even addressing women’s issues. Though these crossdressing performers were largely accepted and normalized in popular culture (which was definitely something significant)- the respect for their defiance of gendered clothing lasted as long as it was confined to the stage.
With crossdressing women in Bollywood, the issue is slightly different. Whether it be Sridevi in “Mr. India” or Rani Mukherjee in “Dil Bole Hadippa,” Bollywood seems to drive home that for a woman, crossdressing as a man gives you more agency and power—which is an inherently sexist assumption because it seems to send the message that women can have agency only once they take on a ‘masculine’ appearance.
Gender-neutral clothing—i.e. clothes that anyone, regardless of their gender, can wear—has been slowly taking over the international fashion scene in the past couple of years, and in India too, the trend is slowly, but surely, finding a niche. Last year, designer Charchit Bafna debuted his line of gender-neutral clothes at the Lakme India Fashion Week and Jaya Iyer, another designer, launched a line of gender-neutral baby clothes. But even beyond that, the trend has been fast catching on with urban Indian millennials and the rigidity of the binaries around clothing might just be slowly collapsing.
However, the relationship between crossdressing and gender-neutral clothes is a complex one. While many crossdress to break out of binaries, many also crossdress because they identify with the opposite end of the spectrum (i.e. cis men dressing up as very ‘traditionally feminine’ women)—so for the latter category, gender-neutral clothing might make no difference whatsoever. But the fact remains that the underlying principle in both crossdressing and dressing gender-neutrally is essentially the same—to challenge the strict bounds of the gender identities that society thrusts upon you and to break out of these norms.
While gender-neutral clothes definitely need to become more mainstream, and more popular, we should also be questioning why one’s gender identity becomes associated with one’s clothes and physical appearance in the first place. Only then can we evolve as a society enough to not call it ‘cross’ dressing and just dressing the way you want to.