For Vivek Shraya, coming to terms with her sexuality was never easy. Growing up in the Canadian city of Edmonton, where there were few brown faces, it was tough for her to identify the reason she was being bullied.
“There was no a-ha moment for me,” she said. “I kept getting called gaylord or faggot every day. I didn’t know what it meant. I just thought it meant loser or nerd, until a friend explained to me – it means you like boys. And I thought maybe those are words for me.” Shraya continued: “It’s very strange to learn who you are through hatred, essentially. The first thing that you learn about yourself, you learn that it’s actually something that’s hated and abhorred. And so a lot of my journey has been working through that hatred.”
This year, in many ways, has been exceptional for Shraya. She came out as a transwoman on her 35th birthday in February, asking people to refer to her by the pronouns she and her, and wrote a song about it. Already the author of four books, she released a book of poetry Even This Page Is White in April. She was one of two Grand Marshals at the Toronto Pride Parade in May. In May too, her photo essay Trisha, where Shraya recreates images of her mother, got plaudits in the media. And on September 29, Shraya launched her children’s book The Boy & The Bindi.
Yet, even today, Shraya grapples with the idea of being queer and proud. When Trisha images were released, Shraya wrote an accompanying essay in the form of a letter to her mother. It read:
“I don’t believe in God anymore, but sometimes I still have the same prayer. Then I remind myself that the discomfort I feel is less about my body and more about what it means to be feminine in a world that is intent on crushing femininity in any form.”
Racism or homophobia?
Years ago, when she first learnt about her sexuality, her first response was to turn that knowledge into self-hate.
“I was getting called a fag every day, so my response became, Yes! I am a fag,” she said. “I started coming out to friends in high school. I was about 17 or 18. At the same time, I had desire for women. And I was being told by my gay friends that I am confused. There was a constant push and pull.”
As Shraya says, the lines between racism and homophobia were blurred.
“It was hard to say, because I have lighter skin than my brother. He was the one who got called Paki,” she said. “I’d say I had to deal with genderphobia. When a boy starts acting feminine in North America, it’s a cardinal sin. People recognised that something about my gender was not normative.”
Then, when Shraya started visiting gay bars in Edmonton, she began noticing subtle hints of racism. “The ways gay people treated brownness as exotic or foreign... for me, layering of queerness and race became complicated.”
Her way to deal with it was to perform masculinity. For 15 years, she “wore a permanent scowl”, spoke in a lower register, and dressed in black all the time because that’s how masculinity is perceived in North America. At some point, she even asked a male friend to show her how he walked, in order to shield herself from constant harassment.
Shraya spent most of her 20s trying to figure out who she was, while also struggling with bi-phobia – feeling hatred from both straight and gay people. She also came to out her mother when was 21, leaving it to her mother to tell her father. Her parents eventually accepted her, in their own way. “The nice thing about having religious Hindu parents is that it forced them to love me, in a way. Because we are all God’s children.”
It wasn’t until Shraya turned 27 that she heard the term queer, and discovered a sense of belonging. Her thought process around the word also led her to put together a collection of essays titled What I Love About Being Queer.
“I had heard the word in my teens, but as an insult,” she said. “I had not known about reclaiming the word until I met some people who identified as queer. The word left a lot of room for my sexuality, and for my gender. Something about queerness allowed me to be feminine.”
Even so, Shraya knew there was something missing. She had heard the term trans in her 20s, but thought that the moment to explore what being trans meant had passed for her. Then she turned 30.
“I don’t know why, but it was like suddenly I did not feel the same pressure,” she said. “I cared less what people thought about me. I started wearing more feminine clothing, started wearing leggings and nail polish. I started wearing colour again. It seems like a silly thing to say, but being a guy means wearing grey, white and black. Even colour is beaten out of you.”
While Shraya has been overwhelmed with the positive response to her public announcement of coming out as a transwoman, the process hasn’t been without its challenges.
“It wasn’t as if people started calling me ‘she’ right away and... sometimes I felt weird,” she said. “I wasn’t used to it. After 35 years of being called ‘he’ or ‘him’, it is still an adjustment. But when I listened to what they were saying, when I paid attention, there were beautiful moments. It was like an invisible hand reaching the most tender part of me, and caressing it gently.”