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Trans Advocacy: You Need to Know Pooya Mohseni
Pooya Mohseni, a trans actress originally from Iran and now living in New York City, says she didn’t set out to be involved in trans advocacy. When The Advocate ran a feature article about her, she says she “didn’t think it was going to be as big of a deal as it turned out to be.” The piece, which explored her experiences both as a trans woman and as an Iranian immigrant, resonated with readers around the world. It brought Pooya newfound recognition and a platform to talk about the issues–transgender and otherwise–that matter to her most.
Even now, Pooya often feels uneasy about her recognition within the trans community and beyond. In our wide-ranging conversation, which stretched for over an hour, she spoke candidly about her desire to make sure she wasn’t simply talking about herself. “I don’t want my same story to get repeated over and over again. It then becomes, ‘Oh poor me, look what I suffered, look what I overcame.’” Instead, she aims to use art and trans advocacy to address larger issues like discrimination within the LGBT community and universal stories of people who are marginalized and denied access.
Trans Advocacy: Speaking for the “Missing Voices”
One of the major topics we discussed was the growing presence of the transgender community in arts and entertainment, a subject that’s important to Pooya as both an artist and a trans advocate. As an actress and a writer, Pooya is quick to admit that there are many trans stories that are not being told.
“In the trans community,” she says, “there are voices that are missing. Outside of celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Carmen Carrera, there aren’t a whole lot of stories that get told.” Mohseni finds herself in the unique position of having both an opportunity and, perhaps, a responsibility to tell stories that might otherwise remain unknown. Trans advocacy has allowed her to speak for some of those missing voices.
“I like to talk about issues that are universal in the trans community,” Pooya says. “Being ousted, being marginalized, feeling you don’t belong, feeling the need to hide, putting up with people who aren’t good for you but feeling like that’s the best you can do or that’s what you deserve. I feel like art and advocacy are moving side by side. In a way, in my advocacy work, I’m also telling stories.”
I like to talk about issues that are universal in the trans community…being marginalized, feeling you don’t belong, feeling the need to hide, putting up with people who aren’t good for you.
In her recently-launched column on theatre website Stage and Candor, Pooya has the opportunity to tell those stories. Her first article, titled The Privilege of Passing, examined what it means to “pass,” both within the transgender community and beyond.
“I didn’t want it to be just about the trans experience,” she says. “I wanted people to see parallels within different communities. It always comes down to the same type of prejudice and assertion of rights—or lack thereof— for people of color, for women, and other minority groups, one of which happens to be the trans community.” The idea of “passing” came up several times in our conversation, and is an important topic for Pooya, who “came out” as transgender in June 2015 while she was appearing in the play The Death of the Persian Prince.
I wanted people to see parallels within different communities. It always comes down to the same type of prejudice and assertion of rights…for people of color, for women, and other minority groups, one of which happens to be the trans community.
“I was working on two gender-related projects, but as I got into them I felt that there was something missing. I was playing these characters who were trying so hard to be accepted based on their truth, and dealing with their identity and how it affected their love lives, their lives, their safety. I felt like I was not being truthful in the way I needed to be, as the artist that was playing these characters.”
For Pooya, the idea of “passing” can be a source of tension within the trans community, since so many of the discussions revolving around what it means to “pass” relate to commonly accepted ideas about beauty, femininity, and the gender binary. “I find myself wanting to kind of open up the trans experience out of this block of what people think it is, or what people think trans people are supposed to look like. People tell me, ‘You don’t have to tell people you’re trans, people wouldn’t know.’ But that’s the whole point!’ Not every person is a movie star, not every trans person has had the opportunity to have any plastic surgery. It becomes more about what you look like than about who you are as a person.
Moving Beyond Tragedy to Trans Advocacy
While the article in The Advocate largely focused on the tragedies that shaped Pooya’s life, she doesn’t want her story to be defined by the negative experiences of her early life. “The value in that article,” she says, “is more in the triumph than the tragedy.”
In the year or so since she came out as transgender, Pooya has certainly experienced her share of both. While the exposure that followed the Advocate article has led to more opportunities to share her story and push for better representation of the trans community, it’s also had some negative impact on her work as a massage therapist.
“I did a Google search,” she says, “and saw that on the first page, there are as many articles about me coming out, the Advocate article, the Medium page, the videos I’ve posted and other things related to my advocacy work, as there are about my massage work, if not more. And I realized I lost a significant part of my clientele because of this.
“I’m trying to shift the focus of my massage practice to my artist circle and cater to the LGBT community. I also offer a discount to artists and the LGBT community, but I just became aware that I’m suffering from a little bit of transphobia.”
Still, Pooya is not showing any signs of slowing down: in the coming months, she has a full schedule as an actress and a writer: “Since coming out, I have this focus about something that is very personal to me. And it’s something that other people have approached me to co-produce projects around. I’m co-writing a feature film, co-writing a full-length play, and continuing with my advocacy articles.”
— Pooya mohseni (@pooyaland) September 29, 2015
What’s Next for Pooya Mohseni
Adjusting to her new role in trans advocacy has given Pooya plenty of new opportunities, but she also finds herself having to navigate an LGBT community with deep divisions and conflicting priorities.
“There are divisions you don’t think about,” she says. “For example, I didn’t know there were ‘LGB’ people who put out a statement that said, ‘We believe that the doctrines of the trans community are in most cases at odds with what the LGB community is trying to accomplish, and in some cases in complete conflict.’ and by transitioning we’re trying to assimilate into heteronormative society.”
Even within the trans community, there are prejudices and ideological conflicts to overcome. “There were people who bashed my [Medium Page] article because they didn’t like that I said ‘I was born a girl in a boy’s body,’ but I don’t know how else to explain it. I’m acknowledging that I was always a girl, and I’m acknowledging the body I was born into. It was a boy’s body. It wasn’t a girl’s body, no matter how much I wanted it to be.”
These are definitely thorny questions about gender and sexuality, but Pooya seems ready–in the roles she takes on, in the articles she writes, and in her attitude toward life–to take on these challenges.
“I know what it’s like to be an outsider, to be laughed at,” she says. “It’s often easier to lash out at the world than to find balance within yourself, but I’d rather be open with anger and things that have happened to me. People can see that and know it happens to other people…that they’re not alone, and that there’s hope.”