Pooya Mohseni, the trans actor and activist that is here to stay

Pooya Mohseni is an Iranian/American actor, writer and activist. When we recently saw her in The Sex Party where she has a protagonist role – one of the key trans roles we have ever seen on the theatre, we realised that we need more people like her. She succeeds in educating the audience about trans human rights and about gender and identity, and she proves effortlessly that trans roles should be played by trans actors.

Pooya was born and raised in Tehran, Iran, but is based in New York City. She moved to New York in her teens, where she studied design at Fashion Institute of Technology, and after joining the FIT theatre ensemble, she discovered my love of acting and story telling. She is a graduate from the esteemed Maggie Flanigan Studio and seeks stories that speak to herself, with rich, three dimensional characters, good and bad, while exploring their humanity and fragility.
is fluent in Persian(Farsi) , a Transgender advocate, as well as a voice for immigrants’ and women’s issues. She is also involved in writing and co-writing original LGBT stories to shed light on an otherwise under represented community.

The Sex Party by Terry Johnson at Menier Chocolate Factory in London promises to surprise, perhaps shock, and most certainly entertain. There are only 6 performances left until the 7 Jan 2023 when the play is wrapping up. And as for the plot, get ready to see four couples gather in a suburban London home for an evening of wine, cheese, and more intimate pleasures. Some are curious, some are more familiar, and one is rather unexpected. Thus a promising evening is poised to go beyond anyone’s expectations.

How has been your experience as a trans woman coming from a middle eastern background? Do you think you have faced specific challenges that might be different to other people? 

This is a complicated question as there is no blanket answer, but I will do my best. As a queer person from west Asia, Iran to be exact, the kind of life you have is very much dependent on what socioeconomic background you come from, what part of the country you live in and the level of education or religious adherence exists in your immediate surroundings. I was born in Tehran which is a very cosmopolitan city, with a lot of western influence, to an educated family who had been around the world and was not particularly religious. While this gave me certain privileges, including having a mother who was observant and curious as to why her second child was different from her first one, I still lived in a world where the word “trans” or “queer” was not uttered unless it was a slur or an insult. I survived bullying through school, assault, suicide attempts, arrests and ever present fear, but ultimately what made the difference was my family, and specifically my mother, who, decades before being trans was publicly talked about, took it upon herself to leave her home, her culture, her comforts and her family to find a life for her trans child. Yes, as a trans person, who is also an immigrant from a muslim country in that part of the world, my life was probably more difficult than an average transgender individual in the west, within similar surroundings, but compared to many others who do no have family support and love, my journey was definitely much less tragic than many of my queer contemporaries from the west Asian and north African countries.

There is a big moment right now in Iran regarding the rights of women, with protests in the streets and people being punished. How do you see, as an Iranian woman, the situation of the country right now? Do you think things will change? 

What is happening in Iran right now, and by that I mean the cruelty, the punishments and the executions, is not new. The protests have been slowly building over the past 15-20 years, with resentment growing over many aspects of society, from imploding economy, joblessness, oppression, legalised misogyny, lack of social freedoms, blatant corruption and lack of transparency of the ruling class. The main chant has been “woman-life-freedom” which signifies what the people are fighting for. This regime came to power with slogans of equality and freedom in1979 and it has held onto power through fear and brute force. The younger generation has access to the internet and has its own ideas of what life can be like and as they have been forced to feel that they have nothing to lose, including their lives, they’re putting everything on the line to achieve a better life. This is a revolution and while I don’t know how it will evolve, it is definitely going to change many things in Iran and around the world, as every young individual is watching the protests and the savagery with which the Islamic Republic is hitting back. Will the Islamic Regime be toppled this year or next? I can’t say with certainty, but what I can say is that the regime has been shaken to its core and they are aware that as the resentment builds, their time at the helm is growing closer to its end. Change is inevitable and every autocracy has had an ugly end. The timeline of this growing revolution is something we will just have to watch and see as it evolves.

How is life in Iran for the LGBTQ+ community at the moment? 

Being gay, lesbian or bi is punishable by death in Iran. It is actually illegal to have relations with someone of the same sex, or even someone of the opposite sex outside of marriage, and while the T part is tolerated, somewhat allowed even, being different has no place in the open. In many cases, gay and lesbian individuals are persuaded or more accurately forced to undergo gender reassignment surgery, as a corrective measure to change a homosexual individual with one body to a straight individual with a different body! This is how primitive the understanding of sexuality and gender is within the Iranian government.  The LGBTQ community mostly lives in fear. There is a huge underground world where people meet and have relations, but at best it’s reminiscent of the lives of queer individuals a 100 or so years ago in Europe, if even that. That’s not life, but mere existence. As I had also mentioned earlier, your “class” and socioeconomic status play huge roles in what kind of life you can have and how protected you may be if you are found out or arrested. Money talks, like anywhere else, and if you are an LGBTQ+ individual with privilege and influence to buy the protection you need, then you may be able to have something of a life, while still being a taboo, an outcast and one whose presence is not mentioned in “polite” society. Queer Iranians usually hide or escape to a safe haven to seek asylum, because there is no third option available to us in Iran. 

How did you become part of the project of The Sex Party? It is very important that trans characters are finally given to trans actors, do you think representation is getting better?

I was asked to read the script for “the Sex Party” back in August, while I was doing a very queer themed project in New York. After reading it, I found it intriguing and very unique, as it was not a queer play, but had a main queer character and that is not something that happens often. I auditioned over zoom with Terry Johnson(the writer/director) and the artistic team at the Menier Chocolate Factory and the rest is history. I believe it is very important for authenticity to be the norm in storytelling, and not a novelty. We don’t just entertain, we educate and inspire. If a trans character is played by a non-trans actor, it still gives the impression that being transgender is just a facade, something you wear. But when I get to play a trans character, the audience sees the character and the actor, and when they walk out, they’ve seen a trans individual in flesh and hopefully that will prompt them to ask questions of themselves and be more receptive the next time they come across someone who is different from them. This is why good, authentic representation matters: it makes it harder to demonize others when you view and connect with their humanity. As for representation getting better, well, yes, but it has a long way to go. More varied characters, of different colors and identities, need to be shown. The day of the generic defaults is gone and if we want a society that is more inclusive, what we watch needs to reflect that. Change is inevitable, as I repeat myself, but unfortunately, it never happens as fast as we want it to.

Do you find it is still difficult to find roles for trans actors?

I think there are not enough good “trans” roles for trans actors, and most trans actors are rarely hired for other roles that are not trans. It’s definitely better than 10 years ago, but we still live in the margins of storytelling and outside of shows like “Pose” or “Transparent” or “The Strange Loop” on Broadway, there are not that many transgender characters that are part of the main storyline of a show, film or series. That is not something to be disheartened by, but a call to keep fighting for better, more equal and more inclusive representation. I want the younger generation to be able to see themselves and their experiences in what they watch and feel that they belong. I work and fight for a world that is better, kinder and more varied than the one I grew up in, because I believe that is the right of all young people, queer or not.

In the play, you character has to face several reactions from the other cis characters, from openly homophobic comments to various levels of misunderstanding regarding what a trans person is. And your character is given the time to explain and respond to their various reactions. Do you think that still people have misconceptions about what is trans reality?

As you mentioned, there are varied reactions to my character in the play, and unfortunately, they are not fiction. If you go on twitter or read articles about legislations in the USA, policing the experiences of trans youth in schools or even gender affirming care for young people, or reactions to trans presence in society in general, you will see that many people still believe that trans people are homosexuals or even worse, perverts, using the facade of their “perceived” gender to “fool” others or gain access to exclusive spaces, to commit some horrendous act against women and children. What I find interesting is that trans masculinity does not even come into the discussion, as trans men are less visible in society and seem to be less of a threat to heteronormative mores. So when people are talking about transgender individuals and are fuming over the end of civilisation because people can now self identify, they are really threatened by the concept of “a man in a dress”, which is not only hurtful as a complete eradication of gender variance and its validity, but also dangerous as it paints the trans community as insidious predators whose intent is to violate women and children, which has galvanised the anti trans movement to attack the trans community and the gender revolution, as it’s being called. There is nothing new about gender variance and identities beyond the binary male and female. The only new thing is that people are having the courage and the science to talk about it on a larger scale than ever before. We, the trans and non-binary community, are still being forced to ask permission to exist and that is unacceptable. We are people just like anyone else and have the right to live and benefit from society like everyone else.

At some moments the play gets very tense and triggering, since some of the lines are very harsh, how do we get to educate cis people about the trans reality?

We can’t educate those who don’t want to be educated, but there are many who do. Families of trans individuals want to understand and support. That is true about friends, co-workers and beyond. Teaching people about difference is being labeled as indoctrination, whereas teaching people about inclusivity is the foundation of society where all its members can feel safe and part of the larger picture. All minorites have gone through this, from people of color, immigrants, gays and lesbians and now the trans community. Visibility can break down prejudices, but presence without protection is not possible. Laws set guidelines for how society can behave and what is acceptable and what is not. Regulation that protects all people, that is inclusive, may be perceived by some as oppressive, as its taking away their assumed superiority and supposed entitlement, but in fact, it’s creating a more equal society, where everyone is respected for who they are, and they are judged by their actions, not their identities.

Various of the other female characters in the play express, one or another, how they feel they are the “real ” women, while addressing your character. How do we educate people that trans women are women?

I’m not a scientist, nor do I claim to be, but I defy anyone who says I’m not real. I don’t hide my transness and I’m proud of the journey I’ve taken to get to where I am and who I am is a direct result of that. There are medical articles and documentaries that can explain the genetic variation and the expansive spectrum of chromosomes beyond the xx and txy. Some people want to hold on to the binary narrative and that is their choice, but for those who want to understand how there is nothing binary about the human body, whether it’s the sex organs, both internal and external, or the concept of gender and how our brain perceives and responds to it, there are resources. If that’s too difficult, then just follow people who share their own experiences and try to understand them. The same way that cis women do not want to be told by men what it means to be women, trans people will not accept being told by cis people whether they are real or not and if they are worthy of respect that everyone else takes for granted. Human beings are not just the sum of their parts, and by that same logic, neither are trans individuals. Telling others whether they are “real” or not is plain “gate keeping” and exertion of superiority between cis and trans people. It’s no different than any other perceived supremacy and it should have no place in a modern “civilized” society.

Do you think people will learn by watching this play? Will they feel more empathy?

I know that people have learned things, or at least have thought and questioned things, because of the play as I’ve received many messages from very different and sometimes surprising audiences. Different people walk away with different thoughts, based on their age, identity, personal beliefs and alike, but everyone walks away thinking about what they watched and for some people it feels more personal and for others, it’s just a passing thought. I feel and hope that after seeing our play, and others like it, at the very least, people will be persuaded to think, question their prejudices and maybe even be more open to change. I believe that as more shows like the Sex Party will reach different audiences of different age groups and identities, we can have more bridges across communities that can create a safe and inclusive space, coloured with respect and understanding, for all of us, not just some. That is my hope and why I feel privileged to be a storyteller and an activist.


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