On Being HIR

In my freshman orientation group this year, the question of name and pronouns was asked really, really often. I’d always answer the same way: “Hi, my name is Victoria, but also Abbas, and my pronouns are a little complicated, sorry. I use she/her and he/him.” It’s not that I dreaded the question or was ashamed of my gender, it was that I wanted to make it abundantly clear and easy for other people to understand the only genderqueer person in their orientation group, and as I later found out, the only genderqueer freshman in the dorm, and the only genderqueer person in the hall. I wasn’t sorry about who I was, I was sorry that it wasn’t easy.

Easy or not, being genderqueer has its pitfalls. At some point, I was discussing my dismay with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This wasn’t because I didn’t like the play or how it was carried out I didbut because, like most shows, there wasn’t a clear role for somebody like me. I could have auditioned as a woman, but then I’d have to sing soprano (and that was definitely not going to happen). I could have auditioned as a man, but then I’d have to deal with the issues of passing; if not externally, then internally. Putnam did end up having a nonbinary actor playing Mitch Mahoney (Lee Gelpi), but for me, there didn’t seem to be a place.

In discussing this, Joy George ‘20a leader in my orientation groupmentioned auditions for the Senior Company production of HIR. On the poster, the audition called for one male actor, one female actor, and one genderqueer actor, assigned female at birth.

I knew I had to audition. That Saturday night when I came home half drunk from Pubnite and read the email that I had gotten the part, I was shocked. I knew that this would be a huge responsibility - not only as a time commitment, but as a commitment to an important character.

Max, a genderqueer, transmasculine, radical leftist, was close to my heart initially for our similarities, which is why I auditioned. But after giving the script an initial read-through, it became clear that Max was more than an edgy queer teenager.

For those unaware, HIR chronicles the return home of a young veteran, Isaac (played by Oliver Lipton ‘18), from Afghanistan. When he arrives, he finds that his father, Arnold (Jack McManus ‘21) has had a debilitating stroke, and this his mother Paige (Alex Kingsley ‘20) has taken up arms against patriarchal society at large. Isaac’s sibling, Max, has begun taking testosterone and now uses the pronouns ze/hir. Isaac, who is likely suffering from PTSD related to his time in Mortuary Affairs (“pick[ing] up guts, exploded guts”), struggles to come to terms with all of this, in addition to the now entropic state of the house.

Pictured (from left to right): Oliver Lipton ‘18 as Isaac, Victoria/Abbas Lee-A-Yong ‘21 as Max, Director Wesley Han ‘18, Alex Kingsley ‘20 as Paige, and Jack McManus ‘21 as Arnold. Photograph provided by Lee-A-Yong.

Pictured (from left to right): Oliver Lipton ‘18 as Isaac, Victoria/Abbas Lee-A-Yong ‘21 as Max, Director Wesley Han ‘18, Alex Kingsley ‘20 as Paige, and Jack McManus ‘21 as Arnold. Photograph provided by Lee-A-Yong.

Each of these characters represents something. Paige says in one of her monologues that Max is “the root of who we are and the cusp of the new.” Max is referenced by Paige as someone who “saved” her, and ze is made out to be “a revolutionary,” and “an innovator.” Max’s entrance is even dramaticized, as ze is called after for the entire first half of the first act, and has hir presence reacted to drastically. Max’s gender is discussed and thought of by other characters as a massive deal - as a major difference between Max pre- and post-Isaac’s deployment, and between Max and the other characters on stage.

As many other genderqueer students can attest, it can often feel this way. My director, Wesley Han ‘18, writes in their director’s note:

“Trans people, like any other marginalized group, are so often held up as martyrs, whose struggles are beautiful and poignant through their suffering. Our existences are talking points, catchy slogans for campaigns towards a progressive, utopian future. But the truth is that trans people such as myself are no more nor less complicated than our cis-gendered counterparts. Max, in spite of all hir personal intricacies, ultimately just wants to be an average teenager left alone to masturbate in peace.”

They’re right. Being trans comes with contrarians, but it also comes with Paiges. It comes with people who see trans before they see person. Sure, these people will believe that they’re allies because, after all, they don’t hate trans people. They love trans people! So much, in fact, that the person’s transness becomes the center of conversation time and time again, without the trans person’s wishing for the conversation to be led in that direction.

Before HIR, I felt that my queerness was something outrageous that needed to have a disclaimer attached to it. I felt the need to apologize for making others uncomfortable with the complexity of my pronouns and my names. I put it into the forefront of the conversation myself in fear of having someone else take that choice away from me. My queerness made me a bit uncomfortable, and I could only shake it by trying to grab a hold of it before anyone else could.

Then I began rehearsing. Twelve hours a week spent in the lonely dark room we call the Frear with my cast, my director, and my stage manager. As I grew into Max’s character, I could find our motivations aligning. Of course, I too only want nothing more than to “jerk off and be quiet,” but hir desire to be considered “old,” and to not have to be the driving force into the future, resonates. Max doesn’t want or need the burden of being the revolutionary pioneer of gender and art that Paige wants hir to be. As ze says, “Gender isn’t radical. It’s not even progressive. It’s an everyday occurrence.” Max is an everyday teenager. Trans people are everyday people.

Max was a character I was afraid to portray. I was afraid of misrepresenting the queer community, and not doing justice to the struggles we face. When I accepted the part, I realized that Max is a character Swatties relate to, but also a character they can learn from. Now that the show has closed, and the set struck, the takeaway for me is that, as a genderqueer student, I don’t have to lead the charge. I can, if I want to, but I am in no way obligated to be a leader into the future for the gender movement. Max and HIR have taught me that I am entitled to my personhood, and entitled to jerk off every so often.