Fashion is a form of self-expression, yet for centuries it has been categorised into two distinct forms of gender, namely male and female. Dresses are ‘womenswear’ and trousers, more popularly, ‘menswear’. But as the world breaks away from the shackles of traditional, binary gender distinctions, fashion is also changing its perspective. And in the LGBTQ+ community, fashion plays a far more crucial role. Combined with creative photography, it serves as a bold statement against conformity — an expression of the repression they continue to face, and a release of the restrictions placed upon them.
Muhammad Burhan is one such active individual who’s proudly treading this path. Born and raised in Pakistan, Burhan took fashion and photography as an outlet and a way to express the pain he faced growing up queer. He continues to wear gender-fluid outfits as a way to organically express his identity and to serve as a reminder of the battles this community continues to face. Passionate about the environment, Burhan shares the trials and tribulations of his journey in an exclusive chat with Brown Girl.
Tell us about your journey and how it all started.
Over the course of my life, I have shunned the pessimism and cynicism that came with the adversity I battled to overcome. My optimism became a strength for me in what were otherwise difficult circumstances. I have lived an incredible and transformative journey, from surviving sexual violence to being bullied every day in the middle to eventually making my way up to one of the best high schools in Pakistan on a full scholarship. My life has been a rollercoaster ride and I wouldn’t have chosen it any other way.
“Life is tough, but tougher on some than others.” I realized this very early on in my life, that being born to a lower-class family, my life would be harder, and being trans, queer, and gay was just the cherry on top. My story began at a time when I hadn’t even opened my eyes to this world. Right before my birth, my father moved with my mother from a village in Khanewal, Punjab to Rawalpindi in the hope of a better future and to escape from the daily taunts that my mother had to face for having a darker skin colour. The inability of my mother to work due to cultural norms, even though she wanted to help with household finances, added to my class struggles.
My school fee was an affordable luxury for my father, who survived on a small salary he received from his job. I started my academic journey at a school that did not even have proper furniture to sit on, and changed schools on scholarships, eventually entering one of the best private high schools in Pakistan on a full scholarship. This is when I saw the dream of a world bigger than Pakistan and decided to apply to a US college without knowing anything about US culture.
Coming to the US after having lived a life in Pakistan where I was never accepted for being feminine and queer, I struggled with imposter syndrome. I thought that just me, being in a room with people, can be a burden to others. Therefore, I had a very people-pleasing mindset which I worked hard over the years to unlearn. Many of these social issues were what I inherited from generational trauma — something many of us in the south Asian diaspora can easily relate to.
Where did your interests in creative photography stem from? How did you get your name out in public?
When the pandemic disrupted everyday life, I went back to Pakistan, leaving all my creative gigs in NYC, to live with my family. And during that period of isolation, I got the time to self-reflect for the first time in my life. It was also a time I saw other queer men, who I was romantically involved with, in Pakistan, either getting married or engaged to women but still living their LGBTQ life on the down low. But I wanted an honest life for myself, so I decided to share my identity with my parents. Of course, with my parents being uneducated and lacking exposure to the world outside of Punjab, Pakistan, they didn’t know what terms like gay and queer meant. When I tried to show someone like me to my parents, I couldn’t find anyone on the internet — someone who was born and raised in Pakistan or was from my background. This is when I realised how much we lack in terms of queer Pakistani representation. Today, I fight to create visibility and representation for that 8-year-old Burhan getting bullied somewhere. If I had seen more people like me when I was young, I can’t imagine the wonders it would have done to my self-esteem and confidence in school where I was severely bullied and assaulted on a daily basis.
I decided to challenge these hetero-colonial mindsets with creative photoshoots using makeup and different south Asian clothing/jewellery. I tried to challenge what we have been taught by society to repress and that’s how my online persona was born. Each of my photoshoots highlighted a social issue, like sex education, honour killings, etc and came with well-researched and reflective captions. Unfortunately, all of this was lost when my main Instagram got deleted by the Pakistani government. The creative photoshoots helped me to unlearn generational trauma and deconstruct this socially-constructed gender binary that has been a source of oppression for women and LGBTQ+ community for centuries. The rest is history. All I know is that I transitioned (without hormones or surgery) to be myself and if it wasn’t for the creative photoshoots I did, I might not have unleashed my true powers.
You are obviously a passionate individual with multiple interests including sustainability and public speaking. Tell us a bit more about what all is part of the personality you’ve become.
Apart from my activism work, I currently work as a product manager in the sustainability tech space and co-chair the sustainability team at my company. Being on a visa in the US, there’s only so little that I can do. However, I am constantly striving to incorporate my passion for science, academia, leadership, and activism into my daily life. We have so few queer leaders, let alone any from a Pakistani background. I would love to be that representation for my community.
Back in high school, when I had just gotten admission on a scholarship and some recent graduates were speaking in English there, I looked at my dad, sitting next to me, and said, “Will I be able to speak in English like that in front of so many people?” Two years later, I graduated from high school as a commencement speaker for over 2000 people and the rest is history. I found it quite challenging to make my queer Pakistani voice heard in everyday life in the US, and public speaking allowed me to turn my pain and trauma into passion and purpose. There are countless South Asian queer issues that most people globally are unaware of. Through public speaking, I wish to highlight those issues in mainstream media to raise awareness and request calls for action.
What are some of the hardships you’ve faced in your journey or continue to still face? What is it that you’d like to see a change in society’s response to you and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole?
Who I have sex with or my sexuality is the least of my concerns right now. My biggest concern instead is to be able to walk outside without fearing death. As a non-binary person, you aren’t safe anywhere. When I go out, women love to say “Yaaas Queen, slay mama!” But nobody asks how I am getting home safe. I want to have a day in life when I can go out in public without having any second thoughts.
I want to post beach/bikini pictures without getting punished for it. My parents live in Pakistan and my pictures and videos have brought enormous stress to their life due to unnecessary interference from aunties and the society in general. Just a few days ago, I got a message from my mom crying at 2 a.m. Both my parents couldn’t sleep because of the calls they were getting from relatives about how I have brought shame and dishonour to the family. On one end, I aspire to normalize my existence by creating representation and content. On the other hand, I get threats from my family in Pakistan and am told that my female cousins can’t get the right “rishtas” because of my activism work on social media.
People have issues if I show my skin. They say I am not a good representation of the Pakistani community because I am not modest. People also have issues if I cover my body; they are like, I am disrespecting my own culture because I can’t be both queer and South Asian. As a queer person, this constant exclusion from your own loved ones can be very distressing at times, but it also provides me with the strength to continue fighting for inclusivity and representation so that one day my queer kids don’t have to feel the same.
Trans and queer liberation have the potential to set everyone free, so when people see a queer person being themselves in public, it challenges what people have been suppressing for so long. Their only way to react is to hate unless they do the needful to heal from preconceived mindsets. However, healing requires people to leave their comfort zone and most people are not ready to do that. My content is meant to challenge what people have been taught to fear and suppress. It is shameless, bad, and unapologetic. I don’t let the online hate affect me, but I am a human being too, and being vulnerable in front of hundreds and thousands of people on social media can be draining sometimes.
Most people have known me for my academic and scientific accomplishments but I am a huge history nerd. I love reading and studying how history has impacted the social and cultural life around us. During college, I did a fun project tracing the events that led to the admission of the first women to the Royal Academic Society, the oldest and most prestigious society during the scientific revolution.
I try to use my knowledge about history and culture to educate and raise awareness on social media of beauty norms and gender/sexuality, and how these hetero-patriarchal colonial norms lead to the oppression of women end LGBTQ+ people.
In a country where the LGBTQ+ community is not protected nor accepted, Burhan has fought to keep his identity and to serve as a role model for many Pakistani queer individuals. Over the course of years, Burhan took his struggles and turned them into his strengths, inspiring queer people to be unapologetically open about their identity. Utilising his passion for photography, Burhan paints his pain and his struggles in a new light to further emphasize and advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
An exclusive standing-room-only crowd, dressed in dazzling colors and shimmer, packed SONA — an upscale South Asian restaurant in Manhattan — in February to celebrate queer love and allyship in the desi community.
The event, ‘Pyar is Pyar’ (which translates to “Love is Love”), recognized the landmark bipartisan legislation that President Biden signed into law in December: the Respect for Marriage Act. The event raised $168,000 to support Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, an international nonprofit that provides peer support and resources to LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families.
Maneesh Goyal, founder and partner of SONA, organized the event with Shamina Singh, the founder and president of Mastercard’s Center for Inclusive Growth. Both Goyal and Singh are openly queer South Asian leaders and thanked the crowd that evening for their support of other LGBTQ+ desis.
Opal Vadhan and Gautam Raghavan from the Biden/Harris Administration read a letter from President Biden to commemorate the event.
“Jill and I — and Kamala and Doug — hope you have a wonderful night celebrating our nation at our best,” Biden wrote. “May we all carry forth that American promise of freedom together. May we also know that love is love — and pyar is pyar.”
“The work that you do to become visible and powerful, to form narratives, to change minds, and to make people feel something about a cause for equality — that is incredibly important,” Raghavan added, before introducing Vaibhav Jain and Parag Mehta, a same-sex Indian couple that got married in 2019 in Texas.
“They denied us because we are a same-sex couple,” said Jain, who grew up in New Delhi. “This is a violation of the Indian constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex; so we filed suit.”
“Parag and I are hopeful for a positive verdict. If our case wins, it would bring marriage equality to nearly 1.4 billion people across India,” he continued. “Just to put that in perspective, the total number of people today who live in a country with marriage equality is about 1.4 billion. That means our cases together could double the global population of places who live in a place with marriage equality.”
“We need a mechanism to help build allies in our community and to help provide the support that LGBTQ people need,” Mehta added, encouraging people to donate to Desi Rainbow.
Rayman Kaur Mathoda, Desi Rainbow’s board chair, challenged allies to put their dollars behind their vocal support. Her family announced a $50,000 donation to the organization’s ongoing work.
Founded and led by Aruna Rao, a straight cisgender mother of a transgender adult, the nonprofit has served more than 2,000 LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families since 2020. The goal is to serve 10,000 in three years; a million in the next 10 years.
Mathoda, a wife and mother of four, recalled how painful the lack of family and community support can be.
“For most of us who come out in the desi community…coming out is still a negative experience,” she said. “It is not a moment of pride. It is a moment of shame.”
Mathoda thanked all allies in particular for making the road easier for queer South Asians. To find the love and acceptance they want and need.
“Take what you want//Take everything” reflects on a time with my partner and our cat, Layla. It’s a retelling of the chaotic night I adopted her. I didn’t know why Layla hid from me. When I chased her around, it scared her more. “Take what you want//Take everything” juxtaposes our first night, filled with misunderstanding, with the rest of the time we spent together. My fond memories call back to the loving moments Layla and I shared.
Such memories defined us; they reverberated in my partnership. I wonder if my partner, like Layla, only remembers her fear of me, over our shared moments of love. The title, a Kanye West lyric, is an acknowledgment that their happiness together–without me–destroyed my sense of self. When I see their photos, I wonder if I can see myself reflected in their eyes. I wonder if they still keep kind moments of our time together.
I remember when she would look at me from behind a laundry basket.
A small simple cat with green owl eyes. She was afraid of her new home and its owner. Shit, I remember the night I got her, she hid under my bed, in the middle just out of my reach for maybe 6 hours, watching me. She didn’t eat anything the entire day. When the night fell I was afraid she’d starve or come out and attack me. I was just scared. I didn’t have a childhood pet, I’m not white, I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the whole bed and yelled that she needed to move. I chased her into the closet with a vacuum cleaner. When she ran in, I called my lover and yelled to her that she wasn’t helping enough, she needed to be there to help me. That was our first day together, me and that cat. No one will ever have that memory but me and maybe her.
It was during Ramadan, my first year fasting.
Our problems had already begun by then. Enough so that I decided to fast and show retribution. I’d try to change into a more patient and understanding self. Like the Prophet (SAW) I guess. To become someone that my lover could feel safe around. Somehow, getting a cat felt like it fit into that picture. I’d be a cat dad, you know, gentle. We’d raise her. I’d fast and become New Again. Maybe I’d wrap an inked tasbih around myself and show I’m a man of God.
I don’t know how a cat remembers fear any more than I know how a lover does.
I know her body stored it. My cat’s must have stored it too. That first night, I wish I could tell her that I was afraid too. It doesn’t make sense that I was afraid really — I’m bigger, more threatening. We don’t speak the same language anyway, so how could I ever tell her? She learned to trust me though, in her own way. Her small bean paws would press on my chest in the mornings. She’d meow to berate me for locking her out some nights, or when I was away from home too long.
She lives with my lover now. They share photos with me, they’re happy together.
I saw my lover once, it was on 55th and 7th, Broadway shined blue performance lights over us. She wore a red sacral dress. She said her mental health has never been better. I think she was trying to tell me that she’s doing well, because she knows I care for her. I don’t think she was trying to say she’s happier without me. We don’t speak the same language. I actually think they are happier with just each other. And I loved them both, so it hurts. Sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn’t always hurt that bad. Other times it does get pretty bad, though. I probably owe it to myself to say that.
I look back at the photos, the ones of our life together, and the ones of their new life.
Two green owl eyes, and two brown moonlit eyes. I look for myself in them.
Passion is something many claim to have, but few truly possess. Whether it’s hobbies, professions or romances, it’s the secret ingredient we all crave but is quite difficult to come by. But on meeting Chef Devan Rajkumar — aka Chef Dev — it takes just a few moments to understand true passion. For the Indo Guyanese chef from Toronto, passion has always been food and its power to connect, nourish, excite and represent.
Whatever the outlet, Rajkumar feeds his mission to bean ambassador for modern, West and East Indian cuisine. I recently sat down with him to talk about this and the experience of bringing Indo Caribbean flavors to South Asia and beyond.
Feeding a passion for food
“The sights, the sounds, the aromatics. The excitement of the kitchen has just always appealed to me,” he began. “Food moves me in a certain way. I want to nurture and nourish. I’ve just always wanted to do for others.”
As he sat back in a ‘Guyana vs. the world’ tank top, Rajkumar’s energy was palpable.
“I’ve always lived and breathed food, all day, all night. Like I’m talking about food right now. I’m constantly talking about food.”
To Rajkumar, food is education — one of the best (and most enjoyable) ways to learn, teach and explore the world — and he credits his older brother Jai for inspiring this mindset. Jai was the first to introduce him to different cuisines, teach him to be curious about the world and show him how to challenge the norms of a “typical brown kid.”
Despite this encouragement, however, a culinary career wasn’t Rajkumar’s first instinct. The son of a businessman, he initially jumped around universities and career paths. He also struggled with substance abuse and grief after Jai’s passing. Through all the challenges, food remained a constant, and the sense of community it created was a powerful draw.
“At a very young age, I recognized how food made me feel if I was in a bad mood and how it made others feel,” he shared.
He’s always looked forward to sitting around a table with friends and family, enjoying a nice meal, and how everybody could share their stories or just forget their troubles.
“Food is a very powerful vehicle for transporting someone.”
In 2009, Rajkumar finally followed his passion and joined a culinary school. He realized he had a knack for creating this experience for others.
“I realized I had the power and the gift to nourish and nurture someone else in this way,” and it became irresistible.
A cook with no boundaries, Rajkumar didn’t want to limit the number of people he reached to just those in Canada.
For many, success in the culinary world is having a thriving restaurant, but after spending six months opening one with The Food Dudes in 2015, Rajkumar realized this route wasn’t for him.
“I wanted more culture,” he explained. “I wanted to learn and not so much get my ass kicked, but to be a sponge. I knew I needed to travel to broaden my horizons.”
So he did. Rajkumar spent months cooking in India, London, Peru and Dubai. He shared his experiences on social media and people back home took note.
“When I returned to Toronto,” he continued, “that trip had established me as a cook who had no boundaries. As someone who wasn’t afraid to explore and get out of their comfort zone.”
And get out of his comfort zone he did.
“From catering to a pop-up abroad to filming ‘Cityline’ and speaking engagements, every day is different,” he explained. “I’ve had my bouts with imposter syndrome, but ultimately, I’ve gotten to make more of an impact than just opening a restaurant.”
That impact has especially been prominent in South Asia.
Rajkumar embraces not only his Caribbean culture, but his South Asian roots as well.
The temple he grew up in was a blend of Guyanese and East Indians, so he knew foods from a typical Guyanese household like alu curry and saijan but also East Indian favorites like dhokla and malai kofta.
“Ultimately, we came from India,” he declared. “I embrace the culture and I am very comfortable leaning back and forth into it. It’s in me. It’s who I am.”
In fact, Rajkumar noted his career became much more defined and successful when he really began to identify as not just a chef, but as an Indo Guyanese Canadian chef.
Hearing this, it was no surprise that Guyana, India and Pakistan stand out as some of his favorite destinations.
“Guyana is hugely impactful for me,” he shared, having visited his parents’ homeland frequently. “As soon as that door opens [at the airport], you smell Guyana. You smell the sugarcane burning from rum factories. I have all these wonderful sights, sounds, smells and flavors from those trips.”
His sentiments for India are similar.
“Incredible India is incredible India,” he referred to the country’s tourism slogan. “Every 100-200 kilometers, the menus can change completely. I can live in India for the rest of my life and never see it all.”
Rajkumar’s first trip in 2020 was only nine days long, but its impact stayed with him.
He couldn’t have been more excited to return for a month, earlier this year, and host what his friends there dubbed the “Mad Love Pop-Up,” after one of his signature sayings.
He filled the menu for the 18-day event with global dishes like ceviche and scotch eggs but infused them with West and East Indian flavors like masala, jerk and cassareep — a rich extract of the bitter cassava native to Guyana. Before he left, he even prepared Guyana’s national dish of pepper pot, a hearty meat stew, for the staff meal.
“My whole thought process was ‘let me give these people — my family there — an experience they’ve never had before,” he detailed. “Any time I give someone pepper pot or cassareep, they’re just so shocked. It’s so unique.”
Rajkumar is always excited to share the flavors and culture of Guyana with new people, but with his roots in South Asia, bringing them to Pakistan was that much more profound.
“In India, maybe it’s different, but in Lahore, most people don’t know about Guyana or where it is. That’s another reason why I did this. That’s why I do all the things I do. That’s why I’m wearing this tank top — to raise awareness about my culture and how beautiful it is,” he said.
Time in South Asia has also helped Rajkumar gain a deeper appreciation for the origins of many Indo Caribbean dishes and reinforced his love for them.
“Guyanese cuisine doesn’t just have Indian influence, but so many dishes in some way, shape, or form come from there. Like when I’m eating sada roti, I can tie it back to which type of flatbread it came from in India. I feel like a better-equipped chef at the end of the day. I’m more connected to my Guyanese roots and to the culture overall.”
Rajkumar wants to foster a deeper understanding and relationship between both heritages. He wants his food to build connections, not disparity.
Bringing the world back home
Rajkumar has visited over 20 countries, but Pakistan remains one place he’ll cherish his entire life. He is grateful not only for the opportunities he’s had there, but also for the chance to offer a fresh, alternative view of the country from what is often shown by the media.
“When people saw me posting content from Lahore, they were like, ‘Oh my God, this is Pakistan?’ This is not what we expected. This is not what we thought we’d see.’ They were shocked at how beautiful, kind, and welcoming everyone was.”
Reactions like these are Rajkumar’s ultimate goal.
A cookbook is due next year. He has aspirations of launching merchandise and cookware, traveling to South East Asia, and continuing his pop-ups, but ultimately, he concludes,
“I just want to stand for something. I want to continue to learn, remain humble, represent my Western and Eastern cultures and spread mad love. I want to be an ambassador to that world and be someone who’s dedicated to his craft, bettering himself and those around him.”
“I just want to continue to grow as a person,” he added with sincerity as he touched on his sobriety and what it’s taught him about achieving your goals.
“That might sound cliche, but it’s new to me. I’ve spent the last two years learning about myself and being vulnerable about how I feel, my healing journey and what I’m going through. If I excel and continue to invest time and discipline in that arena, everything else around me will flourish. I believe that goes for anyone.”
Rajkumar is going far literally and figuratively, but no matter where he lands, you can be sure he’ll bring something back for his supporters, whether it be a new view of the world or a concoction like a ceviche pani puri on one of his menus.
“That’s my travels to India, Pakistan and Peru all in one bite!” he exclaimed.
Chef Dev’s journey has not always been an easy one, but it’s a powerful example of the success one can taste with hard work, embracing authenticity and following true passion.