Style Liaisons: In Conversation With Activist Shaneel Lal

Clothes are innately political for the changemaker with boundless potential

Shaneel Lal understands the significance of representation. Photo / Babiche Martens. Fashion director / Dan Ahwa

Shaneel Lal is a force, not simply in the corny sense of someone to be reckoned with but in the way that they carry an obvious agency: a deep care for many things with a rare tap to a seemingly endless source of resoluteness.

An activist and advocate for Indigenous and LGBTQIA+ communities, the founder of Conversion Therapy Action Group, a student studying a conjoint of Bachelor of Arts and Laws at the University of Auckland, a youth MP, a part-time model and a queer influencer using their platforms on social media to educate, Fijian-born Shaneel has been stretching their wings, and one feels they're only just getting started.

Shaneel's territories of thought ebb and flow in our interview, from defying decorum to colonial patriarchy and when fashion becomes a revolutionary act.

Describe your personal style.

I prefer to wear as little as I can. I love my body, and I love to show it. However, I can be over the top if required. I gravitate towards clothes that hug my body; however, I will make an exception for big glamorous gowns. My personal style tends to reflect how feminine or masculine I feel on a day.

As a trans non-binary person, there are societal expectations on me to serve androgyny. Those expectations are arbitrary, and people shouldn’t live by them.

My personal style is somewhat political. My social media presence means that there are a lot of eyes on me. I will use that attention to progress the fight for trans POC.

What’s one of your earliest fashion memories?

Growing up in conservative Christian Fiji, there were strict rules about what boys were allowed and things that were strictly for girls. I was a femme kid and refused to accept the rules.

As a kid, I would wrap a towel on my head as long hair and folded my T-shirt into a crop top, and that was the beginning of my journey to accepting that I hated clothes made for boys. The look was iconic, and almost every queer person has rocked it.

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But that sadly speaks to the lack of access to affirming wardrobes for queer children. My earliest fashion memories are a product of disobediently and fearfully exploring my queerness in a country where homosexuality was illegal.

Being yourself in a world that isn’t cool with your existence is a revolutionary act  being fashionable was a revolutionary act.

What is an item of clothing or an accessory that has sentimental value to you?

My grandma (Mum’s mum) had plenty old sari and I would wrap them on me. I don’t remember if that made people angry or uncomfortable, but I remember that it brought me a lot of joy in a world that felt very restrictive. Prior to colonisation, queer people were integral to indigenous communities. Colonisation destroyed that. Dancing in a sari is a f*** you to the patriarchy.

I do not have my grandma’s sari with me now, but they are embedded in my memory as something liberating and joyous. Queer people do not want to be remembered as people riddled in pain and suffering, and young queer people deserve stories of happy queer adults. I insist on being the happy queer adult that gives young queer people hope to keep fighting.

The world is a depressing place for trans POC. Dancing in her sari gave me hope that there was an alternative world where queerness is celebrated.

Were you into fashion growing up?

In Fiji, there is usually some space between the ground and the floor of the house. My mum's best friend was a seamstress. Her daughters and I were best friends.

We would build a fort under their home and sew outfits for our dolls with leftover material from their mum's client's clothes. All we needed was a small piece of fabric, a needle and sewing thread. Did I grow up a fashionista? Absolutely.

What fictional character’s sense of style would you say you identify with and why?

Jessica Rabbit as presented in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Sultry but moral!

I have legs longer than a metre. They deserve a magazine cover of their own. And I have a waist smaller than 27 inches. I am confident a corset can take away five more inches. If there is anything I want to put on, it is Jessica Rabbit’s dress. It is sparkly and sexy and hugs the body right.

I want to slip into a sparkly red dress, pad, and cinch my body, paint my face, colour my hair and crawl and dance on wealthy men’s tables. I will sing, “Get out of here and get me some money, too.”

This part of me is entirely inconsistent with my public image. The only thing that’s stopped me is a lack of opportunity and resources. I think our personalities match too. We aren’t bad. We are just drawn that way.

How is your relationship with fashion evolving as you get older? And how is your own identity evolving?

I did not grow up loving my body. My struggle to love my body was entangled with the denial and suppression of my queerness. Experiencing conversion therapy associated my queerness with pain, and so accepting I was queer was a punishment itself.

My body screamed queer despite the efforts to erase my queerness  so I learned to hate it. I was constantly reminded that I needed to carry myself conservatively. I tried and failed each time. There was no hiding or cure for me.

"My most authentic self is a person that loves their community." Photo / Katherine Brook

Accepting I am trans non-binary has been the most liberating feeling. It is thrilling, scary, exciting, frustrating, all at the same time. It has freed my body from the shackles of colonial patriarchy. I own my body, not the state, not the streets, not the home and not the church.

I no longer see clothing as means to hide my queerness. It has become a means to express my queerness. The older I get, the more I want to show my body. I am gravitating towards wearing lesser and sexier clothing. All I dream about now is stripping to “I See Red” on Dancing with the Stars.

I’d love to know the story of your tapa, which you’ve worn at Pride.

My tapa was gifted to me by my Tongan friend to wear to a Pride Parade in 2020. It was the same year I foolishly ran for Mr Gay NZ. Pride does not feel like home for me. It feels like a space designed to celebrate white queers and tolerate POC who won’t challenge the status quo or suffer from a serious case of “pick me”. I am constantly battling the queer community to end racism. Showing up in my tapa was symbolic of my fight.

My tapa isn’t just a piece of clothing. It connects me to my land, my ocean, my ancestors, and my people. It is an act of retaliation to the colonial state that tried to eliminate my people and my culture. As a queer POC, I felt an obligation to represent the Pacific community at Pride. I should not have felt that Pacific people needed representation in the queer community, but the fact I did reflects how much anti-racist work the queer community has left to do.

I have serious questions about whether I will wear my tapa at Pride again. If you show up to a Pride Parade in traditional indigenous wear, you are treated like an animal in a cage at the zoo. People want to touch and grab and take pictures without consent. I haven’t felt adored or celebrated. I’ve felt examined. I’ve felt like I was the entertainment.

Many white people at Pride are not used to seeing indigenous people outside the constraints of colonialism. So when we show up as our true selves, they are perplexed, one at our audacity to defy the colonial rules, and two at the beauty of what they’ve denied us and inevitably themselves.

I do not want to take my culture into spaces it isn’t respected, but I demand every space to include my people. It is a dilemma. Do I stay true to myself? That would require me to boycott multiple queer spaces. But if I do not show up to these problematic spaces, there won’t be anyone to continue the fight for young Brown trans immigrants. I compromise my values and continue the fight so no other queer POC will be in my position.

What’s it like for you to marry, in a sense, fashion and activism?

Fashion and activism don’t mix naturally for me. I make deliberate choices to present myself radically  sometimes, that has nothing to do with what I wear but rather what I say and do. My activism has developed strictly outside fashion. I am a poor student  fashion is very low on my list of things to achieve.

I struggle to reconcile fashion with activism. Activism is vital to my survival, while fashion is inaccessible to me. It is naturally challenging to marry two opposite experiences. I would not say that the fashion industry has made a significant contribution to my activism or liberation of marginalised communities, primarily because the fashion industry often has and continues to revolve around elitist and privileged people.

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As a trans model, I have heard designers and brands complain about how ‘difficult’ it is to accommodate trans bodies. I have been misgendered at many of my shoots and interviews. I have been painted darker than I am by makeup artists who aren’t used to working with Brown skin. These experiences accumulate and begin to reek of regress.

Over time I’ve observed that I am called into a shoot if someone is after a Brown face or a trans model, but I am rarely invited into spaces that aren’t specifically looking for and sometimes looking to tokenise trans POC. Some people are trying to change the industry. I would love to see the fashion industry evolve beyond tolerating diversity to celebrating it.

Do you think fashion is political?

Yes. Everything is political. I am often told not to be so political, but politics becomes personal when politics dictates your freedoms and rights.

Why do people get angry when Billy Porter wears a gown? What he wears as a consenting adult is his choice. However, his choices caused controversy because he, as a Black man, is not allowed to be soft, feminine, and loving instead of being aggressive and dangerous. When Black and Brown queer men express themselves, they are shamed and punished back into the closet.

Over a long time, we have fewer out and proud queer POC in society and inevitably fewer queer POC with authority in queer spaces or society at large. Fashion intersects with politics to dictate who has power. Unsurprisingly, that is not trans or queer POC.

Society creates rules for how people are meant to express themselves based on gender and race. These expectations are ingrained into people. Men and, on a smaller scale, heterosexual women punish men who depart from masculinity. These men internalise the hatred, shame and pain and project it onto trans people who are doing things they feel too scared to do.

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These men feel entitled to living our lives, and when they deny themselves the opportunity to do that, they lash out at us, often resulting in the death of trans people. The problem is amplified in Black and Brown communities. Queerphobia is more prevalent in Black and Brown due to the lasting impacts of colonisation.

Fashion is the expression of one’s identity. If that very expression makes you the target of violence, then fashion has dictated your safety. How trans and queer POC express themselves has often compromised our safety and the quality of our lives.

The question remains, has the fashion industry done enough to break the gendered and racial stereotypes? We desperately need trans and queer POC representation in the fashion industry  as designers, as seamstresses, as writers and editors, as models to break down the grip colonial patriarchy has on society.

As a spokesperson, an educator and an influencer, you’re constantly presenting yourself. How do you keep in touch with your truest self, and that sense of authenticity?

When I founded the Conversion Therapy Action Group, I told myself that I can, I must, and I will end conversion therapy. When I feel lost, I remind myself of my purpose. My service to my people is beyond one cause. It is about healing my community’s intergenerational trauma, and as difficult as it is to accept, that includes queerphobic Indigenous peoples.

My most authentic self is a person that loves their community. That requires me to be unapologetic about our fight for equality. Decision-making spaces weren’t designed for people like me. When I show up, I ruin things for cisgender Pākehā men. These ideas of decorum, respectability, civility and kindness are creations of Pākehā men.

These standards are used to cancel POC who stand up against bigotry. In reality, there was nothing kind or civil about how Pākehā men came into power. I refuse to maintain decorum so bigots can be comfortable. Sometimes it can be lonely and intimidating. On those days, I remind myself that my ancestors did not survive slavery and colonisation for me to reduce myself for the comfort of others.

Clothes bring out something in people. What do they bring out in you?

As a trans person, I have to consider the implications a piece of clothing has for safety when I go out in the streets. That said, I will wear hoops longer than my neck and a shiny crop top and march down Karangahape Rd at midnight.

My university attire brings out the sleep-deprived and exhausted student in me. My meeting clothes bring out the staunch and intelligent advocate in me, and my party clothes exude sex. Sometimes, I mix my work clothes with my party clothes. At age 18, I wore a backless body to a meeting with Hon. Chris Hipkins and I would do it again.

"My tapa isn’t just a piece of clothing. It connects me to my land, my ocean, my ancestors, and my people." Photo / Bianca Leilua of Niu Creative

If fashion is a way of communicating something from afar, what’s your message to the world?

Trans people are the future. Get used to it. We have been generations ahead of yesterday. Homophobic, transphobic, sexist, and racist people are yesterday. It is a shame that trans and queer POC were forced to hide for so many years by the violent bigotry.

We are no longer hiding. We are making up for the years of lost authenticity, autonomy, joy, and excellence. Queer artists and models are revolutionising the fashion industry.

Cis-gender heterosexual men accept everything that has the potential to set them free. If you feel like wearing a dress, wear it. Paint your nails. Wear makeup. Do what your heart desires and let others live their life as they wish. Imagine the possibilities when you let yourself live a life free from societal constraints stemming purely from your gender.

I am no longer asking for permission to be myself. I take that power away from society. I will be who I am, and the world will respect me.

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