Naming FearsVivek Shraya on Vulnerability as a Tool for Transformation

Vivek Shraya (Photo credit: Adam Coish)

Poet, singer/songwriter, musician, filmmaker, children’s book editor, and Canadian trans iconoclast Vivek Shraya is a fearless performer, and yet, in her new book, I’m Afraid of Men, she reveals her daily fears of negotiating the world as a trans woman. Since coming out as trans, she writes that this fear “governs many of the choices I make from the beginning of my day to the end.” This is not the standard story of trans empowerment, and it’s heartbreaking to witness the lengths that Shraya goes to in order to conceal her femininity and “the extraordinary parts of myself” on a daily basis. But Shraya is not in search of pity; instead, she wants to reveal the mechanisms of structural violence, internalized oppression, and self-erasure that compound communal harm.

“I’m afraid of men because it was men who taught me fear,” Shraya begins this remarkably trim book-length essay, and, through pared-down anecdotes, she indicts not just typical macho posturing, but also the complicity of women, queer people, and trans people in sometimes furthering this tyranny. Shraya wants to end not just the violence of the aggressor, but the complicity of the bystander, and in doing so, she searches through her own participation as well. I’m Afraid of Men is spare, elegant, raw, meticulous, intimate, and direct. Here I talk with Shraya about gender nonconformity, trauma and disclosure, gay racism and transphobia, problems with the language of transition, vulnerability as a tool for transformation, and the power of posing unanswerable questions.

For so many queer and trans people who experience routine violence just existing in the world, we survive by learning how to project invulnerability. Yet, you bravely reveal all your fears. Do you think this is one way that transformation on a communal level takes place?

Recently, a queer woman told me that the title of the book gave her permission to name her own fears. I have thought about permission a lot in my 30s, the strength and power I have felt for admitting “I’m afraid” or “I’m lonely” or “I’m jealous,” as opposed to denying or suppressing these so-called ugly feelings. So yes, I am curious [about] what would happen on a communal level if queer and trans people didn’t constantly have to bear the burden of claiming to be resilient on top of experiencing oppression. What if saying “I’m afraid” was just as much of a statement of resilience as “I’m not afraid?”

You talk about your fear that your experiences of transphobia are not only common, but mild in comparison to many, and you also talk about how the humanity of trans people is only respected when trans people share stories of trauma. Your writing throughout the book is streamlined and pared down. How did you negotiate what you wanted to disclose?

Truthfully, I felt a kind of pressure to disclose a singular traumatic event, as this is likely the assumption from readers when they see the book title. I worried that many of my day-to-day experiences of hatred, on their own, wouldn’t be satisfying enough. And in realizing how fucked up this need for sensationalism is, especially from marginalized bodies, I opted to stick to my plan of showing a slow erosion that takes place over a lifetime.

Instead of offering answers, in many places you offer questions, some of which might be unanswerable, such as “What might desire feel like if the construction of sexuality didn’t take place in tandem with childhood experiences of violence from men?” Do you think anyone knows the answer to this question?

Often the power of asking “unanswerable” questions is less about arriving at an answer and more about forcing us to imagine new possibilities and alternatives.

I love your description of your chest hair as “a black flame rising from my bra,” and I think that here you are, in a way, answering an unanswerable question from earlier in the book, where you write, “How do I love a body that was never fully my own?” Do you think that embracing nonconformity might be part of the answer?

Yes, but embracing my nonconformity extends beyond loving just myself and my body. Transness has often felt painfully synonymous with undesirability, but when I examine my own desires, they are often tied to cis bodies. My desires are therefore complicit in this cycle of trans undesirability, so appreciating my chest hair and my other gender conforming features and gestures has also become a process of undoing my conditioning of cis attraction and supremacy, and liberating my desires.

I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya (Photo credit: Zachary Ayotte)

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When you write that, “assimilation into manhood is my true transition,” you are talking about the pressure, as someone socialized male, to conform to masculine norms, and I think you are also flipping the common narrative that the transition is from one gender to another. Instead you are saying that for you, the normative path was the transition into violence, and that part of coming into a trans identity was to reject that transition in order to claim your selfhood. Do you think we need new language to talk about trans self-determination?

Yes, please, to new language. But also the subversion of language you are referencing feels equally important. My response to my exhaustion around the limitations of the word “transition” and the way it’s understood is by regularly using it in expected settings and situations and thereby complicating it. This is something I have loved about your work, especially around the word “faggot.”

Speaking of faggots, you eloquently show the intersections between gay male racism and transphobia when you say that “My brownness turns out to be a form of queerness in and of itself, and makes me too queer for gay men,” and also note that there is “a sharp correlation between the rise in my feminine expression and the decline in my desirability.” Why do you think gay male sexual culture has become so rigid and exclusionary in its adherence to hyper-masculine, racist norms, and is there any way out of this gross hypocrisy?

Gay hyper-masculinity is tied to misogyny, of course, and I don’t know that I see a way out of this adherence, given that gay men are still regularly taught that the path to acceptance is by rejecting one’s femininity and embracing sameness/blandness, like in the movie Love, Simon, where the gay protagonist’s motto is “I’m just like everyone else!” In my life, I have been shocked to witness the allure of heterosexual acceptance by the most “radical” of queers in my circle. But I also feel sympathetic to this desire for acceptance, as someone who has often conflated “being normal” with safety.

But my sympathy obviously doesn’t extend to the racism in gay culture, and again, I don’t see a way out of white people desiring white people. Do you? Power and desirability go hand in hand, and white people aren’t invested in giving up their power. Instead they are invested in self-affirmation and nothing is more self-affirming or powerful for a white person than having another white person desire you. And I know this from experience, as a Brown person who was also trained to seek affirmation from white men. Not surprisingly, the most cruelty I have experienced in so-called queer communities has been when I dated a Brown woman.

You also talk about the pressure you experience, as a trans woman, to be more feminine, when you write, “How cruel it is to have endured two decades of being punished for being too girly, only to now be told I’m not girly enough.” And then, at the end of the book, you describe the spaces beyond binary categories of gender and identity when you say that “any ambiguity or nonconformity, especially in relation to gender, conjures terror. This is precisely why men are afraid of me. Why women are afraid of me too.” Are you invoking this terror in order to move the world beyond these fears?

Again, I am not sure I believe in a world that isn’t afraid of gender nonconformity. But if I can make a lot of people uncomfortable, then maybe that’s something, maybe that’s enough.

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by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
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Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is most recently the author of The End of San Francisco, winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Her new novel, Sketchtasy, will be out in October.