After plodding through Nandini Krishnan’s borderline-offensive Invisible Men, I resolved not to waste my energies on another piece penned by a cis hand. Fascinating accounts by trans individuals across the globe have become instantly accessible in the digital age and deserve our attention.
Vivek Shraya is one such voice. The Canada-born musician, author, visual artist, and professor was a queer rights champion even before she publicly came out as a trans woman in 2016. The 38-year-old Shraya has a wealth of lived experiences which she shares with us in her candid and affecting memoir I’m Afraid of Men.
The book is slim at just under 96 pages but impressively well-rounded, reading as diary writings with intimate reflections on Shraya’s complicated relationship with men, or rather masculinity. It opens with a razor-sharp observation by the author Ursula K. Le Guin on the radicalness of female subjectivity, reminding me of Mahasweta Devi’s piercing short story Draupadi.
Shraya starts off by recounting the myriad ways she lives in the constant ‘fear of men’ in this patriarchal world that sustains itself on misogyny and transphobia. In a chapter titled You, she speaks of her disheartening experiences with various men, from childhood bullies to obnoxious cabbies, her college students, snobbish musicians, and unfaithful lovers. She has been mis-gendered, subjected to male gaze and queer-phobic slurs, been spat on, and threatened with abuse. The sensationalized media reportage of violence against the trans women has only severed her paranoia. Most trans women would identify with her account. We – like cis women – are reminded so often to ‘stay in our limits’, ‘be submissive and “feminine”’ and ‘ignore indiscretions’ or face the risk of violence. What is worse, Shraya notes, is that the cis-dominated society often views us are the very beings we have learned to fear.
Shraya takes us through her childhood years when her ‘budding sashay’ and ‘soprano laughter’ made it tougher for her to ‘assimilate’. Her early attempts at gender variance, trying out her mom’s ‘powder blue Jordache jacket’, were eventually suppressed and she spent her teens and twenties ‘mimicking’ masculinity, largely inspired by Tom Cruise. She picked on the social signifiers of masculinity, from walking with legs apart to taking up physical space and thinning out the wardrobe to select shades. Not shying away from checking misogyny and objectification even within gay male circles, Shraya divulges how her body became both a shield (against cis-male violence) and an ornament (for gay-male infatuation) without ever feeling like her own.
Eventually Shraya ‘reclaims her femininity’, a term which I too use to describe my ‘transitioning’ instead of saying ‘becoming a woman’ which is ridiculous (It is ‘You’ who never let me be one, dammit!). After facing a tearful heartbreak with a man who was almost the textbook ‘good guy’, she asks us to abandon the quest for a ‘good man’ altogether. Instead we must question the society’s idealized and hypocritical gender expectations. Why for instance is the baseline for men so low when it comes to traditionally ‘feminine’ roles? Why does society not teach men to respect others’ spaces as it does (excessively) to women? Why must emotions like sensitivity be regarded ‘feminine’ and ‘unbecoming’ of a man? Most importantly, why must we constantly have to defend our gender to authenticate it?
I’m Afraid of Men is not a book about hating men. Neither does it aim to project women as hapless victims. Rather, the work trenchantly confronts toxic masculine ideals that have made ‘men’ constantly feel inadequate about themselves while simultaneously devaluing the potential in the ‘feminine’. In the end, Shraya says that the ‘gender nonconformity’ which we have come to view as a deviance is in fact an innate part of ourselves that has the potential to set us free.And Vivek Shraya’s life is a living testament to this.
I’m Afraid of Men released in 2018 and is available on Amazon and other leading e-portals.