From the Classroom

Defying all odds: Saneel Sharma shines a light during dark times for the queer community

Even as Republicans across the country attempt to restrict drag, the show goes on for Ra Oblivion.

Saneel Sharma

Every individual holds within them a significant moment that leaves a lasting impression. For Saneel Sharma, that moment occurred during his sophomore year of high school when he was performing drag in his room, feeling his best. It also turned out to be one of the worst moments in his life, when his mother walked in on him mid-transformation.

“It was pretty traumatic for everybody. For a while, some of us thought that we would probably have to take Saneel in,” said Carrie King, Sharma’s high school art teacher.

After that incident, the aspiring performer led a double life — one as Saneel Sharma, a gay man whose parents were still struggling to accept him, and another as Ra Oblivion, a drag queen who could only come to life while away from home. Drag became Sharma’s refuge as his family failed to provide him with the freedom he needed.

The performer describes his drag as “spicy.” A fusion of his Indian background and “sex appeal” from western cultures, Sharma’s identity exudes through their alter ego.

“Drag for me feels less of a persona. It’s more of an extension of my identity,” he said.

However, his way of expression is now a target of right-wing legislation attempting to restrict safe spaces for the queer youth, specifically, drag queens. While laws such as the Tennessee bill do not directly affect Sharma, a California native, they force others among the LGBTQ+ community to either go back into the closet, or in some instances, end their life.

According to a survey from the Trevor Project, nearly half of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year — at least one queer child attempts suicide every 45 seconds.

Now, as Sharma recalls his own battle of coming out to his parents five years ago and dealing with the intersectionality of being queer and Indian, he finds these laws as an abrupt wake up call in a “progressive times” like 2023.

Growing up in Hayward, California, Sharma had a hard time fitting in. He was raised in what he described as a “liberal leftie” family — they agreed with all political views except those regarding gender identity.

Despite being known as the heart of America’s first annual gay prom, Hayward only had two openly gay men, according to Sharma.

“You weren’t going to get bullied for it, you were just going to get shit-talked,” he said.

Even in an environment this tense, Sharma found “his person.” It wasn’t a friend, a family member or even a romantic partner, it was his high school art teacher, Carrie King.

“A gay mom,” he called her. “She gave me a space in that classroom to express myself.”

Sharma had been performing drag for a long time before he found King, at least in secret. Whether it was in his bathroom right before showering or in his art teacher’s office.

“I wanted to give her a safe space, but I also wanted to make sure that she was safe,” King said.

Sharma recalled Halloween of 2019 with a mix of pride and disappointment. It was the first time he decided to dress as a drag queen. Fearing his parents finding out, Shamra turned the most unconventional of places into his dressing room — a computer lab.

With black pants, a sheer black top, “feminine” makeup, black stilettos and a blonde beehive wig, Ra Oblivion made her first public appearance, even if it was just for a night.

“I felt power in what I was wearing,” he said. “You’re in your own element and nothing can destroy you.”

Drag is a safe space for Sharma and others like him. However, their safety and freedom are threatened in several states throughout the U.S. Bills in at least eight states seek to restrict drag performances as part of a broader rightwing attack against LGBTQ+ rights.

“It gets to you, he said. “It makes me sad to think that some other Indian kid in Tennessee doesn’t have the same resources as me.”

King, a drag performer and mother of a queer child herself, shares the same view as Sharma.

“Fear and misunderstanding about drag, transness and femininity is a contributor to the hate,” King said.

This wave of drag show restrictions comes as Republican-led statehouses push other legislation targeting the transgender community.

In fact, such laws lead to an increase in violence against the queer community.

LGBT individuals are nearly four times more likely to be victims of violent victimization, such as rape, sexual assault, aggravated or simple assault, compared to non-LGBT individuals, according to a study by the UCLA Williams Institute. Furthermore, LGBT individuals are more likely to experience violence from both acquaintances and strangers.

“Drag show access is crucial for young trans kids and other gender queer kids to feel seen,” Sharma said. “We need an outlet.”

As someone who grew up in a space with no drag shows, Sharma’s journey in finding Ra Oblivion was filled with challenges — “I had no reference point.”

As a queer Indian American, his sole exposure to drag came from a popular Indian comedy show called Comedy Nights with Kapil. However, this show perpetuated the ridicule of its only queer character, Guthi, leaving him with limited options for representation.

This negative portrayal in combination with conservative politics surrounding LGBTQ+ rights has made it hard for individuals like Sharma as well as those who are considering drag as a form of self expression.

Angel Ocamposa, a close friend of Sharma, was introduced to drag through the performance of Ra Oblivion.

Although Oscamposa was still grappling with his gay identity, he discovered a drag sister in Sharma.

“He helped me develop the skills to drag by myself,” Oscamposa said, about to cry. “It just really helped me be more comfortable with who I was not comfortable with before, specifically with my femininity.”

Aside from drag, the duo grew a deeper bond — now they confide with each other with problems both personal and professional.

“We’re like annoying siblings,” he said, with a smile from ear to ear.

Sharma feels happiest when performing in drag and helping others like Oscamposa come to terms with their form of expression, but he still lives a double life. Sharma’s parents are oblivious to Ra Oblivion.

He believes the intersectionality of being Indian and queer makes it twice as hard for both his parents to fully accept him, and for him to be able to express himself to them.

“It’s always been the cultural backlash of being queer in the Indian community,” he added.

In what one could describe as a tear-jerker, Sharma relived the moment he came out to his parents as a gay, in his sophomore year of high school.

“It led to so many questions being asked and being invalidated immediately,” he said. “It was nerve-racking.”

These experiences, among others, have shaped Sharma’s life and are reflected in the way his well-wishers describe him: “Bold, unapologetic and real.”

Sharma is still in touch with King, his high school teacher, crediting her for much of his early queer experience. King has reciprocated the same love for Sharma and hangs much of his art work in her classes to date.

“I have hope for the future because of people like Saneel,” King said. “Their Willingness to stand up for what you believe in and just be fabulous.”

As a resident of California, Sharma seeks to leverage the states’ freedoms to create a safe space and raise awareness through his drag performances. He aims to do so by combining his study of design and passion for drag.

Ra Oblivion and Saneel Sharma continue their journey despite having to perform drag in secrecy from his family and experiencing hostility as members of the LGBTQ community. The question that arises is, what motivates him to keep going?

“Seeing how happy the kid [Saneel] was in drag reminds me of why I started,” he said.