Author: Circuit Gay
“I can’t do anything! I don’t understand, this is who I am!” exclaims the main character Nitya, played by Nitya Vakil, in the intro video for UCSD Zor’s 2020 routine. Nitya has just made the brave decision to come out to her parents as gay, but faced with her parents’ anger and refusal to accept her sexuality, she finds herself on the defensive before eventually being kicked out. Storylines that revolve around LGBTQ+ characters, though not new to the fusion circuit, still feel somewhat rare. Looking through the past ten years, sets that center queer experiences such as GT Qurbani 2013 or Northwestern Anubhav 2014 seem to be the only ones that come to mind. However, despite the fact that these storylines remain few and far between, the addition of UCSD Zor’s 2020 to this canon of queer-centric sets points to a larger trend in what kinds of stories are being told onstage within our circuit.
2013 and 2014 felt like breakout years in terms of LGBTQ+ representation in fusion circuit storylines. GT Qurbani performed their routine, which focused on a main character who must deal with his best friend and roommate reacting with disgust and homophobia to his coming out, at Bollywood America in Miami in 2013, and Northwestern Anubhav’s set, which depicted a protagonist who must gather the courage to come out to his mother and defy community expectations, won them first place at all but one competition that season and helped them secure a well-deserved victory at Bollywood America in San Francisco in 2014.
Not all of this representation was positive, however; UC Dhadak’s routine based around the unbelievably caricature and trope-filled movie Dostana, won first place at Bollywood America 2013 on the same stage where GT Qurbani had shown how harmful the stigmas that queer people face after coming out can be. Adopting an effeminate affect while portraying a gay “love story”, playing up a stage kiss between straight men for comedic effect, and even the notion of straight people taking up gay personas to some personal benefit all reinforce ideas that queer men are inherently “feminine”, their love is innately comically unrelatable to straight people, and that there’s a chance that queer people are just straight people who are pretending or being dishonest. But perhaps this explains why there seemed to be such a dearth of queer-centered story lines in the years following: for better or for worse, routines that featured LGBTQ+ main characters were so prominent during these two years that to some extent, it felt like there wasn’t much left to tell. A growing emphasis on allowing queer dancers to tell their own stories (as opposed to their stories being created and portrayed by cis-het dancers) and a seeming lack of unseen queer stories yet to be told, combined with a general trend in the fusion circuit away from original storylines towards ones based on already existing movies and tv shows, created the conditions under which sets featuring explicitly queer characters and struggles fizzled out. That is, until UCSD Zor 2020.
What makes UCSD Zor’s 2020 set unique is how it differs so much from previous storylines about queer issues, while still conveying a message universal to queer people. Nitya doesn’t struggle through the routine to come out to her parents; that happens in the intro video. Unlike other storylines, Nitya is not conflicted between a life that the community expects of her and a love she wants to experience; she doesn’t worry about the validation of anyone except her parents, and does not hide her love. But perhaps most notably, Nitya’s resolution does not come in the form of acceptance from any other person; her revelation comes in the form of a monologue, accompanied by an interpretive dance surrounded by dancers in white: “It doesn’t matter who can’t love me for me, because I can love me for myself.” Nitya does not need acceptance from anyone else, her parents included, to feel whole because we, as queer South Asians, do not need acceptance from anyone else, our parents included, to feel whole. The nourishing of self-love and chosen family is a shared foundational theme to the stories of queer people. Centering this narrative in the context of South Asian diaspora communities feels particularly radical.
As children in the South Asian diaspora, we are led to believe that a life our parents accept, and hopefully support, is the ideal we should strive for, oftentimes out of a sense of gratitude for the sacrifices they have made for us or fear of community reprisal. And for many queer South Asians, this is still the goal: parents who accept and love us for who we are, sexuality/gender identity and all. But what happens when our mothers don’t embrace us and tell us that they love us? What if they never come around and apologize for their behavior? What happens when we realize that that unconditional love was actually pretty conditional? UCSD Zor’s 2020 set reminds us that acceptance from those around us, including and even especially our parents, was never the end goal in the first place. In fact, in a version performed at A-Town Showdown, their routine ends with Nitya walking past and ignoring her parents at a Diwali celebration 10 years later, a defiant look on her face.
Furthermore, it is not just the struggle faced by the main character that sets Zor’s 2020 from those that came before it; by decoupling Nitya’s happiness from anyone else but herself, her rich inner life is able to be shown in more depth. For example, she battles it out with a female coworker for a promotion and even goes on dates with her, before they eventually fall in love under the stars to a mix of “Adhoore Tum Adhoore Hum” and “Rather Be”, warming even the most cynical of hearts in the audience.
These aspects of the lives of queer characters are noticeably missing from previous storylines including Anubhav 2014 and GT Qurbani 2013; in the former, the protagonist and his same-sex love interest are together from the start of the routine, and in the latter, whenever the queer protagonist is not agonizing over not being accepted by his best friend, he’s just hanging out. True, in 2013 and 2014 Qurbani and Anubhav played essential roles in highlighting that queer stories are worthy enough to be shown onstage and relatable enough to become memorable. But they largely did that within the coming out narrative that straight audience-goers had largely come to expect. UCSD Zor’s 2020 routine represents an important step forward in the way not only queer struggles, but also queer characters, are portrayed: our lives are not defined by and our stories do not end at coming out.
About the Author: Just a gay in the circuit who realized way too late that there’s ANOTHER definition of “circuit gay”