Sexuality: Finding a New Life
Gilded saris, gem studded skirts, 7-inch-high heels, custom-made chandelier earrings…. It’s a wardrobe that would make any woman envious – except that it belongs to Sushmita Rai, one of Toronto’s famous drag queens.
A manager at a Toronto shoe store by day, Rai transforms into a woman by nightfall and is one of the most popular drag queens living and working in the Greater Toronto Area. The only son born to ethnic Indians on the island of Suva, in Fiji, Rai, who does not want to reveal her real name, always yearned to wear women’s clothes.
“I have three older sisters, so our house was always full of girl’s clothes. I did not have to look too far to find things I liked to dress-up in,” says Rai.
A fashion designer by training, Rai emulated the 1980’s Indian silver screen idol Sri Devi and is still deeply inspired by her. “I just love Sri Devi. As I was growing up, I was just so taken in by her ravishing beauty that not only my own clothes, but also the costumes I designed for fashion shows in Suva, were designed keeping her in mind.”
All through the teenage years, Rai’s sisters knew their brother was a closeted cross-dresser. Hailing from a deeply conservative Gujarati family, Rai knew the limits.
“The Gujarati-Indian community in Suva to which my parents belonged is small but very well connected, so I had to be extremely careful. I used to lock myself up in the washroom for hours modelling saris in front of the mirror,” she adds.
The last thing Rai wanted to do was to embarrass her deeply orthodox parents. They were second generation Fijians and for their only son to wear girls’ clothes was perhaps stretching the limits of their tolerance. In fact, up until 2007, her parents were unaware of the fact that their youngest child was a cross-dresser.
When Rai was 21 the family moved from Suva, Fiji to Rochester, in New York state. On a visit to Toronto in early 2002, Rai was totally captivated with the city.
“Toronto was my dream-come-true. My sexual orientation just did not matter. The vibrancy, the colour and the freedom to express myself, which is so much a part of this city, it took my breath away. I decided to move.”
Rai was sold on Toronto and decided never to return to Rochester, except on occasion to meet his ailing father. “I took the decision, much against my family, to settle down in Toronto. I find total acceptance here and feel safe cross-dressing. Toronto is a happening city. Every day of the week something is happening. Though I live alone, I am never lonely,” she says.
The shoe store manager transforms into ravishing Sushmita Rai by night. She dances at several gay and straight clubs around the city. Club organizers at Besharam, George’s Play and Queer Indian Mela on occasion invite her to dance and get the audience into the Bollywood, Bhangra and Reggae mood.
“I have participated in several Gay Pride parades and dressed up as Sri Devi for the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention float. It feels great to have such a tremendous response from the crowd. I usually start designing my outfits four months before the parade, as I like to look my best for that day.”
Rai thrives on the glamour and the attention and is confident of turning heads and hearts. A dull boring private party will be transformed once Rai steps in.
Rai shares his clothes with his sisters as well as their daughters. “In fact, my sisters and nieces let me pick their clothes, as they feel I have a very discerning taste; and if we all like an outfit we can share it. I have to maintain a huge wardrobe, as I seldom repeat my outfits. Most of my costumes are dance-specific. I can change into my clothes sometimes in less than a minute.”
Rai goes about her daily life as a man. “I have been hired by the company as a male and, like everybody; I too have to earn a living. Once I can pay for my basic needs, I splurge on my passion, which is dressing up in women’s clothes,” she says.
“I do not cross-dress every night as it is quite time consuming. But at least four days a week, I like to dress up as a lady. I dance to both Indian and western songs and my wardrobe consist of clothes from both cultures. That is what I like best about Toronto. You can be whatever you want to be. The best decision of my life was to stay on. I have no regrets an am indeed living the immigrant dream!”