Drag queens and TikTokers: Fijian queer influencers challenge traditional notions of masculinity | Fiji

Sevuloni Lule, a professional dancer from the town of Lautoka in western Fiji, is making a splash on the club scene in Shenzen, China.

Or rather, his drag alter ego – Savanaah Marco LaVulva – is.

By day, Lule performs Pacific dances at Window of the World, a kitschy theme park in Shenzhen’s Nanshan district. At night, he dons a wig and makeup to transform into LaVulva, a fierce drag queen who lip-syncs with Rihanna and Beyoncé at LGBTQ+ bars and nightclubs around town.

“She’s a music video vixen brought to life, she brings a powerful energy to the scene,” says Lule, 29, of LaVulva, who draws inspiration from ’90s and early ’00s divas.

It’s a far cry from life in Fiji four years ago, where he once stepped out in drag to hit a club with friends in Suva. “At the time, I thought of Savannah as a unique thing and it was fun, but I didn’t take it seriously like I do now.”

Lule was taunted and bullied for most of his school years in Fiji. The boys called him by all the names, so he learned to “hide my emotions and lock things up.”

He didn’t think his devout Methodist family would understand his identity, and so music and dancing became a safe haven. At 21, he joined the first Fijian dance company, Vou Dance, which took him to China six years later, with three other Fijian dancers.

Sevuloni Lule didn’t think his family in Fiji, who have very traditional notions of masculinity, would accept his identity. Photography: Paul/Instituto Marangoni

“In Shenzhen, I found the freedom to be myself,” he said, “and I found community.”

Lule plans to return to Fiji next year and share what he has learned about the art of drag with the local LGBTQ+ community.

He is one of a growing number of queer artists and influencers whose Fijian heritage defies gender norms.

Many of them, like Lule, are now based outside Fiji, but their work and stories are closely followed by those back home.

Shaneel Lal, a Fijian LGBTQ+ rights activist, model and writer, has been a key figure in the movement to ban conversion therapy in New Zealand.

Ellia Green, who represented Australia in women’s rugby sevens at the Rio Olympics, winning gold, came out as a transgender man in August.

It was a great moment, said Abdul Mufeez Shaheed, program manager for Rainbow Pride Foundation Fiji.

Fiji-born Ellia Green, one of the stars of Australia's women's rugby sevens team that won gold at the 2016 Olympics, has announced he has made the switch to men.
Fiji-born Ellia Green, one of the stars of Australia’s women’s rugby sevens team that won gold at the 2016 Olympics, has announced he has made the switch to men. Photograph: Mark Baker/AP

“Rugby is an integral part of Fijian culture and seeing Ellia Green publicly affirming her gender identity…is a huge step forward in working around LGBTQ+ rights for the Pacific. We need champions like Green in different sectors who can help move the diversity dialogue forward.

And then there’s Shaheel Sanil Prasad, a 24-year-old LGBTQ+ influencer, who stars as Shaheel Shermont Flair.

Prasad, from the outskirts of Fiji’s capital Suva, became an international viral sensation after posting a fashion show video on TikTok in July. In the video titled “Fashion Shows Look Like”, Prasad pokes fun at high-design fashion shows.

The video, which garnered over 30 million likes and international media coverage, made Flair a minor celebrity in Fiji. But it also drew hatred.

“The hate has always been there since I started because of my sexuality,” said Prasad, who is openly gay and an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights.

For now, he is focusing on the positives. “There are so many great comments that I can respond to and appreciate instead,” he said.

A sign of changing times, Prasad has taken advantage of fame to pay for gigs with Fijian brands and businesses that have historically not embraced the LGBTQ+ community.

According to the Rainbow Pride Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights in Fiji, homophobia is still rampant in the country.

Although Fiji’s 2013 constitution provides broad protection to the LGBTQ+ community, they continue to face unequal treatment in many areas, including denial of access to sexual and reproductive health services, ban on adoption and the inability to pass on inheritances and make medical choices for their partners.

Shaheed of the Rainbow Pride Foundation says the popularity of LGBTQ+ artists often masks the challenges faced by the community.

“Fiji’s LGBTQ+ creators are tolerated as long as they produce entertaining content and nothing serious about their rights,” Shaheed said.

“The value of an LGBTQ+ person in Fiji is tied to how well they fit into the boxes in which society places them. She is considered an artist. They are part of dance groups, choirs and entertainment at weddings and events, as well as in the tourism and fashion industries. LGBTQ+ validation therefore comes from within these professions and sectors. Although this can help socio-economically, they are still supervised and limited. »

But Lule says that as the number of influential queer artists grows, perceptions of LGBTQ+ people and discussions about their rights are changing.

“I think a change is already underway. There are very influential LGBTQ+ artists in Fiji who are championing community issues, but we still have a long way to go,” Lule said.

After years away, he is reluctant to return to Fiji and be able to continue speaking. But he remains optimistic.

“I feel like coming back and sharing my experiences could help inspire change. I remain positive about that.

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