Meet Mr Congeniality

Anjali Jhangiani
Sunday, 10 February 2019

Pune boy Varun Shinde, the runner up at the Mr Gay India 2019 pageant, who also  bagged the title of Mr Congeniality and Mr Photogenic, talks about his plans to provide a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community to discuss their issues

The Mr Gay India 2019 was not just another beauty contest. Though the participants had to send in their photographs, audition and be filtered through a rapid fire round, they had to run a social media campaigns on issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community. Varun Shinde, who is currently the fashion head at International School of Design (INSD), Kothrud, believes that participating in this competition wasn’t just a ticket to the world of glamour, but also a platform which allowed him to work on issues that are close to his heart. “Being in the fashion industry for more than 15 years now, I always have my eyes open to see what’s happening around. I identified with this pageant because I am gay and this contest could accept me for who I am, and because I wanted to be a part of something glamorous like this since I was a child. One of my friends had participated in this competition last year, so I thought let me give it a try,” he says.
 
But there’s another important reason for Shinde’s participation. “I come from a modest family, both my parents are simple Marathi-speaking people. When I was 17, I got into modelling. I never had a godfather. There were many gay guys in the industry at that time-- top notch who knew how to handle it. But there was nobody to guide me and tell me what to do. Rather, they took advantage of me. This pageant gave me the opportunity to be there for young gay men just like I wanted someone to be there for me,” says Shinde.
 
For an important round, Shinde dressed as Goddess Durga in a costumed designed and styled by himself. “My dad was there for the show. He was so impressed with my Durga costume because it was the first time he saw me in a saree. When I was announced as the runner up, he came to me backstage and told me he thought the main trophy should have been given to me. That was a moment I will always cherish. The simple man who probably doesn’t even know the word ‘gay’ was so proud of me that he not just accepted me for who I am, he celebrated it. For me, my dad’s pride was the best trophy I could have got,” says Shinde. 

Spreading awareness about drug abuse
Recalling his work on his social media campaign for this competition, he says, “It’s important to understand your own community and the problems developing within. This pageant had a purpose of creating awareness about such issues, starting conversations, and finding solutions for it.” His campaign was on drug abuse. “Within the gay community, as with teenagers nowadays, there is a serious drug problem. They call it ‘high fun’ or ‘PNP’ which means party and play. There are numerous names for it. They don’t just use recreational drugs, they’re using hard core drugs which can spoil their bodies and health, and lives. I’ve been working with agencies in Toronto and London to help those who are dealing with substance abuse and drug addiction. At first they think drugs are “cool”, but soon they starts wrecking your life,” he says.
 
He is creating a website on which people who want help to get over their addiction can come and register and talk about their issues. “In India people don’t want to walk into a physical clinic because they don’t want anyone to find out, they don’t want their identity exposed. On the website you can discuss your problem anonymously. You can use it on your own time, write your stories and get as much help and support as you need,” he says.
 
Shinde’s long term plans involve including the acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in the education system. It is the education system that categorises students as male and female and creates certain stereotypes inspired by patriarchal conditioning, and sex education in schools is far from helpful in addressing important questions that come with puberty. “I’m in the right place now, so I can have a dialogue about accepting the LGBTQ+ community with my students. But accepting the LGBTQ+ community must be something you learn in school also because there is a lack of education about the community, and because people don’t understand it, they tend to not accept it,” says he. 

Making friends and looking ahead
Having won the title of Mr Congeniality, you know he will have you at “hello”. With his warm smile and patient listening skills, it was no surprise that all the other contest participants voted for Shinde for this title. How is he so good at making friends wherever he goes? Shinde explains, “My mom always says that it doesn’t matter whether you meet someone for a minute or an hour or you know that person for a year, there’s something to learn from them. Don’t look at their qualification, just look at their good qualities. Because of this I have made lots of friends and I have a really strong network right now,” he says.
  
Talking about the conversations within the gay community post the decriminalisation of Section 377 of the IPC, Shinde says, “There’s a sense of relief right now- - phew, now what next? Things can get very ugly, very soon. People are thinking of next steps-- Should we make weddings legal? What about single parenting? Now that things are in our favour, we have to educate the people within the community. We have to guide the youth to use this freedom wisely and set examples. If we just ape the West, it’s not going to work here because we have a different set of problems to deal with.”

He believes that there is a strong gay community in the city. “There is a foundation in Pune that hosts screenings of movies on topics specially for the gay community, there are group discussions and small events like parties where young and old gay people can come together and share their stories, listen to other people’s stories. But if you are willing to talk about your issues, only then will you find the support of the community. If you want to shut up and keep it all to yourself, you will never find out how much support you can get. You have to take the initiative to help yourself,” he says.

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