Moving Beyond Bathroom Talk 

This artist, musician, professor and author has had a red-letter year, snagging spots in Avenue magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 and the Calgary Herald’s annual roundup of Compelling Calgarians

by Deb Cummings

It may be clutchpurse-size, but UCalgary Prof. Vivek Shraya’s book, I’m Afraid of Men, punches far above its brief 85-page count. 

From the frontlines of a life as a queer artist and trans woman of colour, Shraya’s non-fiction book of vignettes sparks a series of questions — likely why singers Tegan and Sara Quin have endorsed the book, saying it is “essential reading for everyone.”

With no tidy conclusion, the book is really a conversation-starter. We asked the English professor to conjure a dinner party where we might chat about a non-binary world and “the myth of a good man” — some of the hot topics covered in her book that’s really about masculinity in crisis.

Who would you invite to such a dinner?
Some of my heroes — Tori Amos, Beyoncé, Michael Stipe and my mom. 

Why your mom?
She’s been my No.1 behind-the-scenes person for me for my entire life. I think it’s important to remember the people behind the stage who allow people like me to do the job they love to do. Plus, whenever I wanted to borrow one of her jackets, she never said, “No, that’s for girls.” 

Speaking of dinners and food, what is your kryptonite?
I love making my own chips: a melange of Doritos, popcorn and Miss Vickie’s salt and vinegar variety. 

If the conversation veered away from your book to others, which would you discuss?
Three books have recently given me pause: The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman (a memoir of the AIDS years). Another by the same author that I really enjoyed is called Conflict is Not Abuse. And I’ve just finished Andrea Warner’s biography on Buffy Sainte-Marie, which is so well-written.

And, if you talked about movies, where would you start?
I have so many loves . . . the Harry Potter movies, a Netflix documentary on Nina Simone [What Happened, Miss Simone?], A Simple Plan and I am prepared to love The Female Persuasion, which hasn’t come out yet, but the book [by Meg Wolitzer] was excellent. 

If the dinner conversation turned to children and age-appropriate gender-identification, what would you say?
Why is it that we can make career changes but, when it comes to gender, you are the gender you were assigned at birth and that’s it? The definitions are very narrow. And, really, what’s the hurry? 

I do think children as young as eight often know and that children change their minds and that they should be allowed to. I think the bigger issue is not giving children the room to be uncertain . . . to be confused. When it comes to gender, there’s so much pressure to be decisive. Take your time.

Talk to the people you love. I didn’t come out publicly until I was 35, but I started to have slow conversations with people I cared about one or two years prior. Give yourself the freedom to be whoever you are.

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