Growing up in a small town in Karnataka where societal norms were rigid and there was no access to the internet or any other source of information about his identity, Shyam Konnur would have never thought he’d participate in a pageant. But in 2020, he won the title of Mr. Gay India. Today, he runs a foundation that helps people of the LGBTQIA+ community so they don’t face what he went through as a queer coming from a small town. In this conversation with us, he talks about his journey of becoming an activist and an advocate of queer rights.
My journey was not with society in the beginning. It was with myself.
The unconventional appearance of Shyam’s mother due to Alopecia made them outsiders in the community, setting the stage for Shyam's struggles with acceptance. The town's predominantly agrarian culture offered little exposure to diverse perspectives, making it difficult for Shyam to accept his identity, especially in the pre-smartphone era.
His journey to self-acceptance began when he moved to Bangalore for education at the age of 18. Faced with societal judgments and grappling with internalized shame, Shyam took a long time to realize that there were others like him. Venturing into spaces where the queer community gathered, he met supportive friends who helped him embrace his identity and encouraged him to assist others on a similar journey.
Mist started with the aim of creating a safe space for queers who were away from their families.
This commitment led to the creation of the Mist LGBTQ+ Foundation, initially a collective of friends providing a safe space for queer individuals away from their families. Evolving into a registered entity, Mist now actively engages in health initiatives, mental health support, insurance for transgender individuals, and advocacy programs. Things are coming full circle, with the foundation hosting the Mr. Gay India pageant this year.
Shyam's unexpected participation in Mr. Gay India in 2020, driven by friends, revealed the platform's potential to amplify queer voices. Talking about the experience, he says, “I feel this pageant is not just a pageant for beauty. It is about representing your country, bringing out the best of the queerness, and helping the community grow.“ Despite not being a pageant enthusiast, he embraced the opportunity and excelled in various aspects of the competition because of his experience advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community.
Maybe the word marriage is not fundamental, but it brings along with it rights that are fundamental to all human beings.
Reflecting on setbacks like the recent Supreme Court verdict denying the right to marriage for queer individuals, Shyam expressed initial disappointment. While he didn't prioritize marriage rights personally, recognizing marriage as a privilege, he acknowledged potential benefits such as medical access and insurance. However, this setback has strengthened his resolve to shift focus towards anti-discrimination laws and the broader fight for fundamental rights, emphasizing the need to address tangible issues the community faces.
In Shyam Konnur's journey from a small town in Karnataka to an advocate of LGBTQIA+ welfare, his story reflects the intersection of personal struggle, community support, and a relentless pursuit of a more inclusive future. Through Mist LGBTQ Foundation and advocacy efforts, Shyam stands as a pragmatic force, fostering understanding, acceptance, and change within and beyond the queer community.