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So what if it's a phase? Vivek Shraya stands up for queer uncertainty

Vivek Shraya is fearless about expressing her fears.

'We want an individual to be a fixed object. And anytime someone diverts or strays, it's threatening'

Vivek Shraya says there's a difference between good fear and bad fear, and a way to turn bad fear into something good. (Tanja Tiziana)

Vivek Shraya believes all children should have a right to go through phases — including queer and trans kids who she feels are often robbed of their right to uncertainty.

Shraya made the point while speaking with CBC's Anna Maria Tremonti in the second episode of the new podcast More with Anna Maria Tremonti. In a conversation recorded in front of a live audience at the Hot Docs Podcast Festival, the two explored a range of topics related to fear and hate. And when the conversation turned to the topic of gender non-conforming kids, Shraya spoke up for a child's right to go through what a lot of adults dismiss as "just a phase."

"Think about all of the people that you've been in your life and imagine if every time you made a decision or you were owning a part of yourself people were like, 'Are you sure?'"

So why are we so reluctant to let people be who they are, even if it is "just a phase?" Tremonti and Shraya connect the dots, all the way back to fear.

The following excerpt from their conversation has been condensed for length and clarity. Find the full interview here or on your favourite podcast app. 

Well, it's interesting because then we get into the whole issue of fear again because: what are people afraid of? What is the fear that makes someone say that that's a phase?

I can tell you the answer to that. [Chuckles]

I think that anything that isn't stable, anything that isn't constant, anything that's not fixed, is something that makes people uncomfortable.

We want everyone — and this includes queer people, I've experienced this on many ends of the spectrum — we want an individual to be a fixed object. And anytime someone diverts or strays, it's threatening because it forces outsiders to witness and ask themselves questions about their own quote unquote fixed state or fixed choices. 

And people don't want to do that.

They want to live in the comfort of this is who I am. So, I think that's what people are afraid of. I think that it challenges something about the choices that people have made themselves. 

They want to belong to the bigger group.

Sure. Or to their ideas of what they think is good or bad or whatever sort of like moralistic perspective they've placed on these choices.

So how does that fear turn itself into a hate? 

So I'll tell you a quick anecdote. I was at Yonge and Bloor many years ago and I saw this person who I read as a man, maybe inaccurately. Very tall ... anyway this individual was grocery shopping in a pink tutu. That's what they were wearing. And my immediate reaction was discomfort. I was very, very uncomfortable.

'The range of responses to difference ... starts at the negative end with repulsion and ends at the most positive end with celebration.- Vivek Shraya

And part of my discomfort was, "They're going to get you. Like, cover yourself up." And it took me a little while to sit with that feeling and be like, "Hmm. Why is that where I decided to go?"

I used to be the co-ordinator of the positive space program at George Brown College and we have something called a beyond tolerance continuum. And it sort of talks about how there's a range of responses to difference, or in this particular example, queerness or gender nonconformity. And it took me a second to place my response to pity. I was like, "Oh, I'm feeling sorry for this person."

The continuum ranges, and I'm not doing justice to this continuum at all, but the range of responses to difference or queer people, starts at the negative end with repulsion and ends at the most positive end with celebration. That's where people are when they relate to difference.

And so I was like, "Oh, this is where I am on the continuum. How do I get to celebration?" It took me a second, and I was like, "You know what Yonge and Bloor needs at grocery stores? Beautiful, tall individuals in pink tutus grocery shopping. That's actually what Yonge and Bloor needs."

And so to answer your question, I think the way that we get ... sorry I told you I was gonna go on tangents but I'm going to bring it back ... 

That's okay!

So fear, hate. The problem is, I think a lot of people either don't want to do that internal work, or don't know how, or don't have the tools to do that internal work because I think that's what's required all the time.

When was the last time you challenged a friend on an opinion? Because it's kind of uncomfortable, right?- Vivek Shraya

I think being afraid is a fine response, right. I saw this individual and I was uncomfortable. That was my first response. But it's like: what do you do with that response? And I think most people when they're afraid, when they're uncomfortable, instead of sitting with that response and being like "Mmm, why am I feeling this way?" they immediately go to a place of hate. They immediately go to a place of violence.

And that's been the experience that I've had. People have looked at me. I've made them uncomfortable. They've been afraid instead of challenging how they feel. They just act on it in some way or another. And so I think it's the thinking in between the initial feeling and the reaction that needs to be invested in.

Vivek Shraya and Anna Maria Tremonti spoke live in front of a crowd at the Hot Docs Podcast Festival in Toronto. (Jennifer Moroz/CBC)

And how do we encourage that? 

This podcast. [Laughter]

I mean part of it I think is also the ways that we're all complicit, right. I think part of it is like how many times have you had a conversation with a friend ... you know, you'll be out with friends and people will talk about someone who's different in some way, and we don't actually challenge our friends.

When was the last time you challenged a friend on an opinion? Because it's kind of uncomfortable, right? 

And so I think that's part of it, right? It's the work that we do on ourselves, but it's also like taking the time to also be having a wider conversation with the people around us.

You talk about the person in the tutu ... and it is interesting because, again, you can fear because you're also afraid for what they will face.


Because you know other people's reactions.


And that day, do you remember: did people react badly? Or did you see people actually reacting in a kind way, or ...? 

I think they mostly just left this individual alone. And again, in that instance I don't think my fear was unwarranted.

I just think that by letting my reaction stay at fear, I actually could have done a disservice to the wonderfulness of that individual being there.

Want to hear the full conversation?

Listen for free at cbc.ca/more or on your favourite podcast app — including Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts and Spotify. And if you're new to podcasts entirely, start here

Episode 2: "Vivek Shraya is a Debbie Downer" is available now on the More with Anna Maria Tremonti podcast. (CBC)



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