It's the sixth night of Lautoka, Fiji's annual Sugar Festival, and they're crowning the queen. Not the Sugar Queen -- that's tomorrow night -- but the Priscilla Queen, the winner of a series of competitions by transgender contestants to raise awareness about the transgender and gay community, at what is known widely in Fiji as Priscilla Night.
Hundreds of festivalgoers gathered by the stage at Lautoka's Churchill Park amidst the screaming glee of children on Ferris wheels and the expertly grilled lamb steak and chow mein combo dinners in the distance to watch these 11 Priscillas compete for the crown of Miss Priscilla 2012. Lautoka's Sugar Festival (held the last week in July to honor the nation's largest export) is the second in a series of three major week-long Fijian festivals, (Bula, Sugar, and Hibiscus) that feature Priscilla Nights, typically held on the last Friday of each festival.
Despite the military-run nation's conservative culture (women rarely wear sleeveless tops or skirts shorter than knee-length, and traditional Methodist, Hindu, and Muslim ideologies dominate), the gay and transgender communities maintain a visible presence throughout the country, and their rights are a frequent source of debate.
Michael Faga (pronounced "Fan-ga"), a charismatic DJ for radio station Mix FM and Sugar Festival emcee, kicked off the festivities with a snarky "Whatchu laughing at, you idiots?" serving to keep the potentially raucous audience in check.
The evening began with "Aishwarya Rai Kumar," a cross-dressing Bollywood dancer whose performance might be regarded by Western audiences as more caricature than character, but was a definite crowd-pleaser. After a kitschy, belly-shaking Bollywood dance, Aish pulled out a bottle of Benzene to perform her version of one of Fiji's time-honored traditions: South Indian firewalking.
Faga then went on to introduce each of the 11 Priscillas, consisting of both Indians and indigenous Fijians, the nation's two largest ethnic groups. Sporting names like Ingrid Sweetness, Jane Piper Halliwell, and Sylvia Underwood, each Priscilla proudly represented one of 11 Fijian cities and competed in three categories: Interview, Ball Gown, and Talent.
While the interviews of each contestant by Faga were inclined to be of the innuendo sort (when asked about their favorite activities, nearly every Priscilla said horse riding or gardening, which led Faga to ask about whether they gardened in the back or front, etc.), several Priscillas spoke about the persecution they face in the community.
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