Naavikaran has her name tattooed on her shoulder. “It is a name I gave myself,” she says. Born Shaun D’ Souza, she is not private about her transition having come out as a nonbinary or trans person.
Growing up in Mumbai and Bangalore, Naavikaran, 25, was a professional swimmer just like her brother Aaron D’Souza, who qualified for the Olympics. Both had some amazing wins.
Besides being a great swimmer, she was also a dancer growing up. “I was always very naturally queer, but it was not something that was necessarily encouraged. My family didn’t stop me from dancing but because I was into swimming and getting results, my brother and I were made to focus on the swimming part.”
The process of realising she was queer was gradual. “It was also a process of decolonisation,” says Naavikran. “Because the more I remember ancestrally, the more I understand, albeit slowly, that we were made to live a certain way according to the British and so we slowly started losing more of our culture. We have existed in many different forms and this notion of gender was put on us as definition. Anyone who stepped out of the box or was different was punished and eradicated from the Indian sub-continent.”
Telling the story of being trans or coming out can be inevitably uncomfortable in a family. So, while she has ‘nice conversations’ with her parents, there are a lot of things they don’t talk about. ”My queerness is also one of those things,” says Naavikaran.
After completing a Bachelor’s degree in Forensics from India, Naavikaran came to Australia to study Master’s in Criminology from Bond University. It is here that she found the freedom to become visible and further explore her queerness, not just as a representative of brown trans people but as the person she is.
However, at the very heart of it all, Naavikaran is a story-teller. She has been writing and telling stories her whole life but started writing proper poetry and performing on stage since she was 17. ”I enjoy it and I also see it as a cultural responsibility,” she says.
Through poetry, choreography and dance (she started learning Kathak last year), Naavikaran creates platforms for storytelling that is accessible and safe for identities of various intersections and communities.
Naavikaran’s sense of the narrative is creating one that trans people exist and there is no need for queer phobia or transphobia. Her stories also focus on black and brown joy and liberation and look at everything that oppresses people of colour.
For all her work, Naavikaran was named as one of the 30 Under 30 LGBTIQ+ Leaders in Australia by Out For Australia in 2019 for their contributions to the community.
What makes Naavikaran’s work popular is the honesty she brings into conversations “by addressing the many debilitating systems that govern my daily life and its consequences”.
“You will be surprised that I experience exclusion every day,” she continues. “There is interpersonal discrimination like people saying something to me, or people rejecting an opportunity for me because I am brown or trans. These things can get real bad, don’t get me wrong, that’s why we need to call out racism. These experiences are an effect of the bigger systemic problem and these are the things we need to start dismantling.”
Even in the western contexts, she believes we are not ready to acknowledge that many community settings, workplaces and systems are still extremely colonised. “I have walked into so many white spaces and have been rejected for my brownness, often quite violently. I have navigated into people-of-colour spaces and felt the inescapable judgement for my queeriosities,” she reveals.
Therefore, the persistent sense of not fitting in has led to a certain sense of loneliness, admits Naavikaran, adding, there is not a great support system in Brisbane where she is based. “That is the reality of being marginalised, that’s what being on the fringe means, I experience discrimination on a daily basis.”
You would think, though, that there is a certain boldness underneath that exterior as her Instagram posts show – specific and telling it like it is! But Naavikaran insists, “I am still quite isolated despite being quite able bodied, self-aware and despite hanging out with a lot of people.”
For the longest time, Naavikaran says she has worked a lot to show the humanity of queer people “just to prove that ‘hey we are human’”.
But she has decided to shift from that this year. “I have decided it’s time to stop that. I am done with humanity or asking people to look at me, let me come to the table or eat with you because we don’t fit diversity and inclusion quotas. It’s time we defined these tables for ourselves and unless we realise what it is that we really want and deserve, we won’t fit within these constructs… I am not interested in making space for myself any more in a world that is built to incessantly erase me.”
There is also the enormous task of grappling with the issue of stigma attached to being Indian and LGBTIQAP+, she says, adding, “Especially with the majority of Indians where the challenge is to also navigate poverty, lack of access to health care, acceptance by family and community, challenges with faith and the lack of healthy representation. I brought these issues with me to Australia in my overweight suitcase. Migrants like me still find it next to impossible to find capacity and strength in often white communities to be safe and come out (in which ever order) and lead a healthy life.”
Naavikaran is open to all questions, so when asked what her sexual orientation is, she candidly replies, “I am attracted to bodies of all genders. I don’t have a framework for my sexuality, I see myself as a person of love and care. But when you think of attraction, there are also constructs of attraction that are euro centrically designed—blond hair, certain body types, these have huge impacts especially in the queer and gay community.”
And she has spent quite a time dismantling these constructs to realise that what she is really attracted to are people’s ability to understand queerness and see her from within all of the multiplicities in which she exists or ”people’s ability to care and love the way I do. It’s been very interesting”.
So do people understand nonbinary people? “It’s OK not to understand,” says Naavikaran. “Genetically, we have lived several generations of not understanding and, therefore, it takes a lot of work because it’s literally in our DNA to discriminate people who are queer, who are nonbinary or gay or whatever. If someone comes to me and says ‘I don’t understand your gender identity and your queerness’, I think that is absolutely fine because you are not designed to understand. That’s what working on acceptance means, spending a good amount of time literally to change the way in which we have been raised. And that can take again a few generations.”
That is why, she says, her work is also for children to give them opportunity to think critically and learn respect. “Love is the answer at the end of the day, but it is also how we support these children to live an existence that is liberating.”
But there is hope and we are in a good place, says Naavikaran. It is a belief grounded in the lived experience of many advocates “who are putting all this level in this work and making our world a safer place.”
She goes on, ”I want people who are not queer to make space for us and let us do what we want to do with that space because that space has been taken away from us.”.
For Naavikaran, the way to persevere is through her work. She is always booked for performances. Importantly, she also uses ‘chai’, her small entrepreneurship, as a way of carrying on a conversation she long started.
(The International Transgender Day of Visibility was celebrated on 31 March)
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Naavikaran has her name tattooed on her shoulder. “It is a name I gave myself,” she says. Born Shaun D’ Souza, she is not private about her transition having come out as a non-binary or trans person. #TheIndianSun #LGBTQIA @indira_laisram @NaaviKaran https://t.co/pNeYjiOUG8
— The Indian Sun (@The_Indian_Sun) April 9, 2021