“Gender-neutral language isn’t about replacing an old norm with a new one. People have the right to self-determine their gender whether it be a man, woman, or a nonbinary gender. The goal of gender-neutral language is to get rid of gender normativity, not everyone’s gender.”
— Alok Vaid-Menon, Beyond the Gender Binary
The future of theatre and performance is queer. Being queer is not only about one’s gender identity and sexuality. It is a vast spectrum of intersecting identities and social power structures such as caste, religion, class, wealth etc. To queer (as a verb) to subvert existing normative narratives. Queer theatre-makers and performers exist but their art is still considered as being on the margins. The role of theatre and art, at any time, is to challenge normativity. So, how do we create a mainstream queer theatrical culture?
Trans-ing the canon
Every year, November is observed as the Transgender Awareness Month across the world to spread awareness and celebrate the trans community – one that is complex, diverse and challenges gender stereotypes.
In a country and society where trans people have to fight daily to occupy space, how can one decentralise power that lies in the hands of cis-gatekeepers of theatre and allow transgender performers and makers to create work that matters to them?
There is a need to trans the canon. Here, the idea of trans-ing comes from transgender scholars like Susan Stryker and it is thinking about trans-ing as a verb i.e. the idea of moving across or beyond the gender one is assigned at birth.
Lazlo Pearlman, a transgender performer, creator and teacher, describes trans-ing as thus, “For me, that act of trans-ing is one of the powerful things about having a transgender experience – The experience of having moved away from the gender I was assigned at birth, but not actually towards anything.”
Creating a mainstream trans theatrical culture is not just about representation. It is about going beyond using transness as an element to showcase diversity without engaging with it. Representation in the plot of a play cannot be enough. Similarly, trans representation in theatre has to be more than casting trans actors for roles. These are definitely crucial milestones, but should not be considered as an end goal.
In contemporary Indian theatre, over the last decade, there has been a greater presence of trans voices and narratives. Bengaluru-based theatre-maker Sharanya Ramprakash directed Nava, a Kannada play featuring an ensemble of nine urban trans women, who are part of the arts collective, Aravani Art Project. In 2014, trans activists Living Smile Vidya, Angel Glady and Gee Imaan Semmalar, founded a trans theatre group, Panmai (diversity in Tamil), in Chennai. The group produced Colour of Trans 2.0, which toured the US as well, traced the experience of the actors themselves through cabaret, clowning, commedia dell’arte, monologues etc.
As we move towards creating more trans-inclusive spaces, one must remember that language matters. To begin with, we must normalise asking one’s pronouns, even when there isn’t a trans or non-binary person in the room. It not only ensures that people use correct pronouns but it reiterates the thought that our pronouns are not fixed and constant; they are fluid. Using the correct language is not about memorizing people’s pronouns, it is about creating a culture of curiosity, empathy and care.
Here is a guidance document that you can use when employing or working with transgender people. It is time we trans the theatre – beyond bathrooms and through organisations and theatre processes.