London-based comedian and performance artist Krishna Istha, who is happy going by any pronouns, came out as trans masculine around five years ago. Since then he has been hyper-aware of his newfound privilege after going on hormones. That has meant modifying his behaviour in an effort to embrace masculinity while avoiding the sort of toxic dude bro tropes that gets some folks virulently upset by a Gillette ad about being a better man.
“Growing up in India, my mother, my sister and my uncle were all very radical and political, and I was taken to my first protest when I was seven,” he recalls. “I learned, from watching my sister and mother walk through the world, the idea that being a women meant I had to be extra loud, and to always make sure I took up extra space. I was bossy, but I knew I was, and I liked being bossy.”
He’s had to considerably reprogram that approach. “Once the world was seeing me in a very different way, that they read me as a man, I realised that I couldn’t do the stuff I used to do, taking up all that space and being so loud, the things that were fundamental to my life, because suddenly I was just an annoying guy. I had to unlearn everything I knew about how to be in this world.”
It’s given him a unique perspective. “If you are white, you are never going to know what it feels like to be a person of colour, but if you are trans, you’re in this odd position where you are either given power or it is taken away from you, depending on which way you go. I guess we automatically think about it, because we don’t want to be those toxic people, because we’ve seen what it’s like. And that privilege you do get [as a trans man] is at face level.”
This quandary sits at the heart of Istha’s new stand-up comedy show Beast, debuting at and supported by North Melbourne’s Arts House as part of this year’s Midsumma Festival line-up. Directed by the Barry Award-winning Australian comedian Zoë Coombs Marr, who has performed as sexist male alter ego Dave previously and with whom Istha collaborated on Malthouse Theatre production Wild Bore, it unpicks the intricacies of gender through humour.
The collaboration has been rewarding, Istha says. “It’s really easy to work with someone when they get what you’re saying, and Zoë’s really knowledgeable on theatre and comedy. Everything I say and want to try and do, she’s like, ‘yeah, I know exactly what you mean’. We might not have the same identity, but we’ve got the same politics.”
Istha wryly observes that one of the built-in benefits and most awkward adjustments of female-to-male transition is that he leapfrogged over the hoary old misogynist suggestion that women aren’t as funny as men. “So I thought, ‘oh, maybe I can try stand-up comedy now,’ because people just automatically assume you’re smarter or funnier, because that’s how the world is trained to think, which is shit.”
Indeed, but the power of a well-crafted joke helps to cut through all that patriarchal crap. “One of the main reasons I got interested in stand-up specifically is because of how accessible it is for an audience,” Istha says. “Coming from a performance art background, it’s really accessible to get into, and to say whatever you like as a marginalised person, but not so accessible for audiences. Whereas with stand-up, it’s hard to get into if you are marginalised in any way, but the form itself is very accessible. You can say so many intricate things by boiling it down to a joke.”
Laughter also goes a long way towards changing the oft-negative narrative surrounding trans identity, Istha argues. “There’s definitely power in comedy, especially for marginalised people at this time, in this political climate. We need to laugh too. All we see is trauma all the time and our lives are more than that. People should know that harassment and discrimination happens, but also our lives can be funny and exciting. I was really adamant I wanted to make Beast funny from start to finish.”
Heartened by positive change globally, Istha can finally see some of the old beasts being overcome. “We’re starting to see an intersectional feminist pushback across the world, like in America with all the amazing women of colour and queer women who have been appointed to the Senate, and people are suddenly talking about protests in India that have been happening for years. Also, the #MeToo movement across the world. It’s the start of some sort of revolution, and I don’t know what it is, but I feel like there’s more hope right now.”