Vivek Shraya is the ultimate multihyphenate—an author, a musician, an artist and most recently, a creative writing teacher at the University of Calgary. In her timely new book, I’m Afraid Of Men (out August 28), Shraya uses an unconventional poetry-meets-memoir structure to explore and interrogate notions of masculinity. In this exclusive excerpt, she considers the complicated interplay of gender and power from her perspective as a trans woman.
In my thirties I began to work with a therapist to address my childhood trauma. In one of our visualization exercises, I recalled the incident of being spat on. When my therapist asked me to talk about what I noticed in my recollection, I was surprised that my focus wasn’t entirely on the boy. Instead, it was partly on his girlfriend, who laughed throughout the experience.
Those giggles reverberate in my ears as permanently as the boy’s spit blemished my mother’s jacket. Why did she encourage him with her laughter? Why didn’t she—or anyone who witnessed what was happening—tell him to stop? Why did my friend call my high school crush a “sweetheart” after he’d threatened to hurt me? Why hadn’t she told him that his intentions were vicious? Why didn’t my other friend tell me it was not okay for a stranger to grab me in the bar? Why hadn’t she tried to see who it was so she could tell him to stop on my behalf, or even just walk out of the bar with me?
And so, I’m also afraid of women. I’m afraid of women who’ve either emboldened or defended the men who have harmed me, or have watched in silence. I’m afraid of women who adopt masculine traits and then feel compelled to dominate or silence me at dinner parties. I’m afraid of women who see me as a predator and whose comfort I consequently put before my own by using male locker rooms. I’m afraid of women who have internalized their experiences of misogyny so deeply that they make me their punching bag. I’m afraid of the women who, like men, reject my pronouns and refuse to see my femininity, or who comment on or criticize my appearance, down to my chipped nail polish, to reiterate that I am not one of them. I’m afraid of women who, when I share my experiences of being trans, try to console me by announcing “welcome to being a woman,” refusing to recognize the ways in which our experiences fundamentally differ. But I’m especially afraid of women because my history has taught me that I can’t fully rely upon other women for sisterhood, or allyship, or protection from men.
Out of this fear comes a desire not only to reimagine masculinity but to blur gendered boundaries altogether and celebrate gender creativity. It’s not enough to let go of the misplaced hope for a good or a better man. It’s not enough to honour femininity. Both of these options might offer a momentary respite from the dangers of masculinity, but in the end they only perpetuate a binary and the pressure that bears down when we live at different ends of the spectrum.
I wonder what my life might have been like if my so-called feminine tendencies, such as being sensitive, or my interests, such as wearing my mother’s clothing, or even my body had not been gendered or designated as either feminine or masculine at all. Despite the ways in which my gender felt enforced, I sometimes miss elements of my masculine past, like the thickness of my beard or the once impressive width of my biceps. Maybe this missing is actually mourning in disguise, for having to surrender aspects of my appearance I worked hard to achieve. Or maybe I’m mourning a life that I still don’t get to fully live because it’s one I continue to have to defend and authenticate. What if I didn’t have to give up any characteristics, especially ones I like, to outwardly prove I am a girl? What if living my truth now didn’t immediately render everything that came before, namely my manhood, a lie?
As a girl, I’ve grown to appreciate my chest hair—a black flame rising from my bra—more than I ever did when I was boy who regularly waxed and trimmed to adhere to the ’90s standard. Unfortunately, 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.
Excerpted from I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya. Copyright © 2018 by Vivek Shraya. Published by Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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