One Friday night earlier this year, a nervous but meticulously made-up crowd of transgender women sat in the upper circle of the smart Al Hamra Arts complex in Lahore, Pakistan. Bored with waiting for the performance to begin, one and then all of them stood up to take in a better view of the surroundings.
The rest of the audience gawked at the sight before them: Pakistani transgender women are ordinarily found at the grubbier end of the entertainment market, dancing at tawdry wedding parties or turning tricks. Certainly never as patrons at an upscale theatre.
That night, however, they were to be centre stage, performing "Theesri Dhun" ("Third Tune"), a rare and unique dramatization of real-life transgender stories. With harrowing tales of rape, police brutality and social stigma, it made for sombre viewing.
It also shed a light on Pakistan's complicated and disturbing LGBT rights landscape, where trans people technically enjoy better rights than in many places around the world, but in practice face violence and stigma. Even so, they are worlds ahead of Pakistani gay men, who are outlawed, brutalized and even murdered with no recourse to protection.
Neeli Rana, one of the principal trans actresses in Teesri Dhun, saw the play as a lifeline. "People on the street only ever make fun of us or hoot their car horns, thinking that the only thing we are fit to do is perform at functions or beg," she said. "But this play has put us in the spotlight, and allowed us to show the things that happen to us in society."
Khawaja Sara — as transgender women are known in Pakistan — have been part of South Asian society for centuries. During the relatively progressive era of the Mughals in the 1500 and 1600s, they were army generals, harem managers and Royal Court officials. But gender non-conformity was plunged into darkness with the arrival of the British Raj and staunch conservative Christian laws, and the rights and privileges transgender women once enjoyed were swept away.
Under the British, Khawaja Sara were seen as a breach of public decency and placed under the Criminal Tribes Act (1871) which subjected them to compulsory registration, strict monitoring and a deep-rooted social stigma which continues to this day.
Some legal progress has been made in recent years however. In 2009 Pakistan's Supreme Court recognised the "third gender" and gave trans people a separate gender marker on their national ID cards. Soon after Khawaja Sara won the right to vote and a handful of the community even stood in the general election of 2013. These steps went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, and remain a success that few other countries have matched.
While trans women are the success story amongst LGBT Pakistanis, their counterparts, transgender men — people born biologically female but who identify as male — barely register on the national conscience. Technically they should also be able to register as third gender but none has ever attempted it.
In 2007, Pakistan was forced to confront the plight of trans men in the case of Shumail Raj and Shahzina Tariq. Shumail, a transgender man, and his wife had sought protection from the courts from family violence, but were then charged with perjury for "lying" about his gender identity. The case dissolved into a media circus and as soon as they were able the pair disappeared into obscurity with the help of local and international NGOs.
Since then a handful of transmen and intersex people have appeared in the news, as objects of novelty but little else.
'I don't go to public bathrooms, I have such anxiety'
VICE News tracked down one twenty-one-year-old transgender man living in Sindh province. Daanish (not his real name) is biologically female and pre-medical transition. He wears his hair cropped and boy's clothes.
"I come from a conservative town," he said. "Boys and girls are separated once they reach puberty; it's confusing. Girls are always asking me about when I am going to grow my hair and start acting like a girl. That kind of conversation hurts me".
While public changing rooms and toilets are the bane of transgender lives around the world, in Pakistan gender segregation is inviolable and the issue is particularly acute.
Daanish related a typical experience at an airport toilet. "The female janitor had gone and I was relieved that I wouldn't have to explain my gender," he said. "But when I stepped out of the stall, she was there shouting at me that I should get out and we started arguing about what I was, and my male clothing. This whole event traumatized me in such a way that even today I don't go to public bathrooms, I have such anxiety."
There are currently no resources for transgender men, making them almost invisible in the LGBT Pakistani spectrum. But they are not alone in this regard: lesbian women, aside from playing a predictable part in male fantasy, go largely unnoticed too.
'Please take me away with you! I don't know what to do with the way I'm feeling'
Beenish (not her real name) is an artist who lives in one of the bigger cities — facts that allow her to live comfortably outside social margins, somewhat. Talking to VICE News, she described how the pressure of heterosexual conformity can build up and erupt spectacularly.
"I was in a cafe and this teenage girl slumped into the chair in front of me, drunk," she said. "Looking at my short hair she said 'I'm so glad, finally, someone I can talk to'. She started touching my arm saying, 'Please take me away with you! I don't know what to do with the way I'm feeling'. I had to ask the manager to sit her outside with some water and fresh air. When I left, she shouted over to me "Oh please kiss me, please kiss me!" I felt very sorry for her."
While the teenager in Beenish's story could be arrested for drinking alcohol, technically she would have nothing to fear if she were a lesbian. Pakistan's penal code was inherited from Victorian Britain which famously disregarded female homosexuality and to this day romantic relationships between women remain legally irrelevant.
Societal pressure, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely and can often be more powerful in practical terms.
Falak Chaudhry runs Neengar, a small non-profit organisation in Punjab province for what are euphemistically called "sexual minorities."
The cases he deals with are harrowing. "There was a gay man who came to our office around midnight," he recounted. "He had gone on a blind date but the date called a bunch of his friends who then beat him up, stole his phone and threw bricks at him when he tried to run away."
Incidents like this happen often and are carried out with impunity: any report to the police would result in the victim being prosecuted under article 377 of the Pakistani penal code which makes homosexual acts illegal and punishable by up to ten years in prison and/or 100 lashes if punished under sharia law.
Neengar itself has been under attack. "In 2012 our office was robbed and ransacked to send out a clear message that we should stop working," said Falak. "And then last year some unknown people attacked my house, broke my car window and tried to set it on fire."
Again, society and police sympathy are far from forthcoming. "Unfortunately, when you try to raise voice against violence, everyone blames you for working for LGBT rights," he said.
There have been attempts by outside influences, however, to promote LGBT equality in Pakistan.
In 2011, the US Embassy held an event in Islamabad to mark Gay Pride. While this may have been meant as gesture of solidarity, it caused friction with Pakistan's religious and conservative establishment. Ominous banners sprang up across the country and the United States was accused of "cultural terrorism."
Pakistani LGBT activists say they were forced to curtail their activities to avoid association. Undeterred, the US Embassy this year toured a one-woman show by a lesbian performer across Pakistan which saw members of one audience walk out.
The prospects for LGBT Pakistan are bleak by all accounts and the community — such as it is — will almost certainly remain underground. But as lacking as transgender women's rights have been in recent years, they may be the only glimmer of hope for the rest of the spectrum.
Follow Faizan Fiaz on Twitter: @Faizan_Fiaz
All photos by Iram Sana