'Oh my God. Ew.'
'They're kissing. Two men are kissing.'
I don't belong to any LGBT communities or organisations. I know enough about Queer history and politics to get me through a casual conversation. I wouldn't identify myself as any part of the well-worn acronym which at one point steadily grew to LGBTQCIAA.
But Pooja Ghai, who is directing The House of In Between at Theatre Royal Stratford East, walked up to me during the interval of our second preview and relayed the conversation of the couple behind her. My immediate reaction was to silently dismiss and judge them for being narrow-minded bigots who thrive in a world that continues to support their outdated thinking.
But they're just another example of something I have said over and over again: We don't make room for the grey areas.
In truth, yes, those two actors kissing on stage are male. But one of the characters is not. She is a Hijra. She is not gay. She is not q/Queer. She is not transgender. She is something that Western societies can't understand or define.
I have spent most of my time as the writer of this play correcting people's assumptions that Hijras are transgender. They learn of men who dress as women and automatically jump to the current hot topic mot de jour. But plainly speaking, Hijras are eunuchs; though to call them that is to suffer the wrath of their deity Bahuchara Mata. Hijras are older than any recorded Western history having thrived in politics, economics, education, and social circles from as far back as 4,000 year ago in ancient Arabia and Asia.
But thanks to the 'well-intentioned' morality and democracy of colonialisation, their community and way of life was quickly destroyed sending them tumbling down the caste ladder to live as people without political or social identity or standing. Until a couple of years ago they could hold no passports, vote, or leave their country with any assurances of being let back in.
And then something changed in our world. 'Transgender' became the next hot button issue. A very hidden and insular community was finally given a voice and many faces. And perhaps not coincidentally, Hijras were allowed passports and given a box to tick on forms that made them visible: Third Gender.
I suppose this is one of very very few instances when the West's ignorance of anything beyond binary oppositions worked in the favour of the East. Hijras were, illogically, lumped onto the Transgender platform, but they were finally starting to regain some level of status and recognition.
I say 'illogically' because being a Hijra is not about gender identity dysmorphia. For me, Hijras are post-gender; arguably even un-gender. They lack any sexual organs of any kind having gone through the nirvaan process which is a complete castration. And while they present as women, they sometimes refer to one another as men in private. Their dressing in saris and make-up is a way to negotiate a patriarchal world where their worth as men is destroyed, so they find solace in the strength of sisterhood. But they are neither male nor female. They do not identify as either.
Hijra communities today do include men who are closeted and likely those who are indeed transgender, but at the core of the tradition and culture is a devotion to the sacred and divine that is expressed through an ascetic life with a body that will not conform to boxes or labels. It's something that is increasingly difficult to uphold in a modern world where we seem to be getting more ignorant and less tolerant the more we learn and the further we are connected with one another. It is a massive contradiction. And it is fascinating and frustrating to no end.
We seem to have lost any recognition and tolerance of the grey areas. Consider that most people still deride bisexuality, especially in men, and dismiss it as a phase and a cover up. In this modern world you can't sit in between two points. You must pick one or the other because how else will people come to know and understand you.
But my play refuses to bow down to that notion. I challenge what we define as 'man' or 'woman'. I defy the need to categorise my characters to make an audience feel comfortable. I refuse to make apologies for a community that was around long before and will be around long after the hipsters die out. Because to do any of those things would be a lie.
I celebrate and revel in the grey areas as an artist and as a person because that is where true humanity can sometimes be found; where truth and honesty lives unguarded but unprotected. We live in a more fascinating world than we give credit for but we're too busy hashtagging movements and moments to actually stop and look at what is sometimes right in front of our faces. I am by no means a Hijra expert, but I hope audiences leave the show (re)learning something and perhaps walk into the world with a little more empathy to the variety of life in our species.
And as for the couple who found themselves so disgusted - well - despite their rather hackneyed response they came back to watch the second act. Maybe they let the guard down on their humanity. If even a little.