Vivek Shraya chronicles the pain and beauty of growing up outside gender norms

The artist and writer talks to Shelagh Rogers about her extended essay, I'm Afraid of Men.
I'm Afraid of Men is a book by Vivek Shraya. (Zachary Ayotte/Penguin Canada)
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I'm Afraid of Men is the title of Vivek Shraya's extended essay that outlines her experiences with men, first as a boy attacked for being too feminine, and later in her life for not being feminine enough as a woman. Shraya is a multidisciplinary artist who sings, makes films and visual art, and the author of even this page is white and She of the Mountains. In all of her work, she challenges ideas about race, gender and sexuality.

The problem with masculinity

"Around the age of 10 or 12, I started experimenting more with my mother's clothing. I was fortunate to have a mother who didn't chastise me for my interest in her gender presentation or appearance and she happily lent me her Jordache jacket. I was reading a book at the bus stop and suddenly I start feeling something on my back. Instinctively, I knew not to turn around. By the time I got home, it hits me that I've been spat on repeatedly at the bus stop. The reason I share this anecdote is, looking back, I think a big part of why that happened is because I was wearing a 'women's' jacket. It was one of many actions that took place in those early years that was meant to 'correct' me — to make sure that I wouldn't continue to show interest in feminine gestures, clothing, behaviours, that sort of thing.

"I knew it was a young boy that was spitting. But years later, I was in therapy to work out some of this stuff and I found that one of the people I was most upset with was the girl that was laughing the whole time. Although I've been really lucky in transition to have a lot of feminine support, there have also been ways that women have harmed me. Writing a book called I'm Afraid of Men that simply listed all the terrible things that men had done to me would be kind of easy and lazy; it felt important to write something a little more complicated and show the ways that we're all complicit in... perpetuating the harms of masculinity."

What would Tom Cruise do?

"In the 1990s, Tom Cruise was an interesting mix of strong and muscular, but also had this sensitive quality. As someone who was being coerced into boyhood and looking for role models, Tom felt accessible in some way. He wasn't Arnold Schwarzenegger. He wasn't this robot big guy. There was something about him that seemed 'boy next door.' I developed what I called the Tom Cruise test. I would run it through, 'Would Tom Cruise say this?' Or, 'Would Tom Cruise wear that?' If I couldn't imagine him wearing my mom's Jordache jacket, for instance, I would not wear it. He became an imaginary male role model."

Loving both the male and female parts of yourself

"I feel pressure to hide parts of myself that get read as male. Increasingly in my trans journey, I've been trying to push against notions of masculinity and femininity, period. One of the surprising things that I talk about in the book is that when I was a gay man, I loathed my chest hair. The 1990s look was a shaved chest. But it's interesting now that, as a trans girl, I love the hair on my chest and own it. I realize that's one of the things that makes me not read as female, but at the same time, this is where I want to honour and love the parts of myself, regardless of these categories. That feels more important than trying to prove to someone that I'm a girl."

Looking to the future

"One of the questions I get asked a lot is, 'Do you imagine a better future?' Truthfully, I'm a realist. I don't. I think that for people to be real allies, people with power have to give up power. But most people who have power and privilege don't think they have power and privilege. When they realize they do, they don't want to give it up. I know that feeling too, as someone who has had and continues to have power and privilege in certain ways. It's hard for me to imagine a world where people are willing to embrace gender ambiguity, gender nonconformity. But there's no other reason to wake up in the morning, if not to push back and to hope."

Vivek Shraya's comments have been edited for length and clarity.