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mohini chaudhuri | Updated on September 12, 2014 Published on January 31, 2014

Nolan Lewis, who represented India at Mr Gay World, on the challenges of gay pageants

In December last year, Mumbai-based tarot card reader Nolan Lewis finally clinched the big film offer he had been waiting for. The project, which was to be helmed by Afdhere Jama, a Somali filmmaker and LGBT activist from America, explored a gay relationship between two Indian characters. Days before Lewis was to officially sign the contract, the international producers of the film developed cold feet. Their fears were not unfounded. In a blow to gay rights in India, the Supreme Court had upheld an archaic law making gay sex illegal in the country. “After the ruling, the producers had to rethink their decision. I’m trying to be optimistic. I’m really hoping this is just a delay and something can be worked out soon,” says Lewis.

In August 2013, Lewis took a chance when he represented India at the Mr Gay World pageant in Antwerp, Belgium, during which he was spotted by Jama. The risk paid off. He didn’t win but made it to the top 10, the closest an Indian has come to the title. The application for the contest came with a caveat — “By participating in this pageant, you could be putting your own life as well as those around you at risk.” He hasn’t yet been in any of the life-threatening situations he was warned of. On the contrary, the congratulatory calls kept pouring in — some rather embarrassing ones from aunts and uncles who had no idea he was gay. His business, as a card reader, has picked up as well and gays and lesbians form most of his clientele. “There have been a few sarcastic comments from my mum’s church but that has been the only drawback,” says Lewis, 29, at his suburban Mumbai apartment.

Back in 2008, when model Zoltan Parag visited Los Angeles to try his luck at an international gay pageant, matters ended quite differently. In some media reports, Parag said he was “too scared” to return to his home country. He sought asylum in the US and hasn’t been back since. Now Lewis has the tall order of picking a representative for this year’s pageant in July. He was also hoping to organise a full-fledged Mr Gay India contest. “The atmosphere has completely changed post the Supreme Court verdict. There are many more people coming out and are willing to participate. I can see so many emotions run amok. But my biggest worry is the safety of the delegates. With this ruling, participating in this contest is now, in a sense, illegal. So I need to make sure that whoever takes part is completely aware of the risk,” he says. He is considering sending an NRI contestant, since it seems like a safer option, but promises that there won’t be a no-show from India.

Aspirants from India already have it much worse than others. Barring India and Namibia, all the contestants at Mr Gay World, last year, were winners of the Mr Gay pageant in their own countries. In the absence of an official Mr Gay India pageant, Nolan was put through a series of interviews by the show’s organisers before being picked as the official Indian entry. “Normally, a swimsuit round in a pageant is done on the ramp but here I had to do it on Skype,” he says. With no sponsorships in hand, only designer Wendell Rodricks offered to help, gifting him a lime green jacket. He spent close to ₹2 lakh on his ticket, visa and clothes, but believes it was money well spent. “You don’t get to be a part of a world pageant every day. Besides, for a gay man and lesbian woman there are no role models. But young girls can aspire to be like Sridevi. I think Mr Gay World gives us someone to look up to as well.”

Since the pageant, Nolan has played a role in the film Hearts, a gay love story, shot mostly in New York. The film, which is also made by Jama, is scheduled to do the rounds of international film festivals this year. “The film is essentially a gay love story but doesn’t unnecessarily focus on the homosexuality angle. It is like any other film on relationships,” he says. Lewis has also sent his resume to the United Nations, hoping to do his bit for gay rights and is awaiting a response.



Church vs the personal

A deeply religious child, Lewis dreamt of becoming a priest some day. He was the star student at Sunday school who was always thorough with the Bible. “As I grew older, I started asking the church hard questions about why homosexuality was not allowed. They didn’t have the answers, so I lost faith in them. Later, I became a tarot card reader and the church doesn’t accept that as well,” he says. At 21, he started working on a luxury cruise liner where he learnt how to read tarot cards from a colleague. He initially pursued it as a hobby but now makes a good living from it. Lewis was also a crew member on an international airline (which he refused to name) for five years. He quit his job in October 2012 after they refused him permission to enter the pageant.

He now hopes to counsel gay teenagers, perhaps, a need that stems from his own troubled teen years. “Between the ages of 14 and 19, I always had a girlfriend. But whenever I saw a good looking man, I knew there was something wrong,” he says. Lewis came out and told his family when he turned 19. His confession came as a shock not just to his parents but also to the girl he was dating at the time. “I knew what I was doing was wrong. So once I figured who I really was, I told my girlfriend. It was really explosive. But it’s been 10 years and we are friends now,” he says. His parents have also come around over time, although, his mother often finds herself torn between her allegiance to her church and her ‘rebel’ son.

With his film on hold, Lewis is back in Mumbai attending to his tarot business. In the meanwhile, he is caught up with the more pressing task at hand — scoping out his successor for this year’s pageant. “Being gay and lesbian in our country is a huge challenge. We can’t always be living as a silent minority. It’s about time somebody brought about a positive change,” he says.



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Published on January 31, 2014
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