For years, Vivek Shraya has challenged stereotypes through her art, music, and writing. In her latest book, I’m Afraid of Men, she explores the repressive codes of masculinity imposed on her when she was a child — and how she now experiences them as a woman. TVO.org talked to Shraya about the difference between hatred and fear, why transness has been a gift, and why she avoids the phrase “toxic masculinity.”
I’m Afraid of Men has been well received and critically acclaimed. How do you feel about that?
A range of emotions: thrilled, surprised, and even a little suspicious. The voices of queer and trans people of colour are seldom centred, and despite making art for years, I still have no clear understanding of what connects with people and why. So a part of me wonders what is happening here.
Do you think it has to do with #MeToo?
Of course. But I worry that women are reading this book and are maybe relieved that someone who used to be male is saying things they’ve always said. How many of these women readers “see” me as still male on some level?
With male readers, I have received the predictable, critical responses. Men often mishear the title as “I hate men”— which is what the oppressor often hears when marginalized people try to voice fear. But the book is ultimately about the tension between fear and love — not fear and hate.
There's been a lot of discussion about toxic masculinity. What does that term mean to you?
I avoid the phrase, and I never use it in the book. I’m always suspicious of buzz phrases like “diversity.” The word “diversity” is often currently used to not talk about race and racism. The phrase “toxic masculinity” gives men an out. It allows men to hear that phrase and think, "That’s not me." No man is going to categorize themselves or parts of themselves as “toxic.” My book forces men to consider all of their behaviours and be aware of their effects.
How can men help make women feel more comfortable?
So much of my experience of learning to be male was about asserting space. So for starters, men can take up less space — physically, psychologically, vocally.
Can you talk a bit about the time in your life when you were pursuing masculinity?
It is an impossible project trying to be something you're not. The only way men (who thought I was too feminine) could leave me alone was my making myself large. But queer and trans people have had to be creative as a form of resilience. I tried to turn masculinity into a kind of fun project. I’m a competitive person, and excelling at masculinity was a logical focus given the pressures and harassment I was encountering.
What about your own masculine behaviours toward women?
The gift of transness for me has been understanding, for better or worse, how much my buying into or adopting into masculinity was harmful to women at times — whether it was how I poorly expressed my anger or feeling like women owed me their labour or bodies.
I heard an interview in which you talked about the push for categorization — especially for young people. You should come out queer, bisexual, transgender. There's no time for ambiguity, to figure out who you are. How can people do a better job when it comes to acceptance?
When people say, "They’ll change their mind," it invalidates an individual’s self-determination, the present and future of who they are. It also reinforces a negative connotation to change itself. What if someone changes their mind? Straight and cisgender people change their minds about who they love and how they present themselves in the world as much as anyone else, but when they do, who they are at the core isn’t invalidated or mocked. I remember being 15 and knowing that I was attracted to boys and girls and that I wasn’t a typical boy. But instead of being allowed to hold fast to the beauty of this knowledge, I was constantly told I was behaving incorrectly, that I was confused, and that I needed to choose a side.
Young people, especially young queer and trans people, need to be heard, and their agency needs to be respected. We associate youth and childhood with delicacy, uncertainty, and even stupidity. We do a disservice by thinking we know better, when the capacity for young people to embody difference and see difference is vastly greater than ours.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
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