International Transgender Day of Visibility: Q&A with Vivek Shraya

Mar 31 2022, 1:00 pm

Vivek Shraya is a powerhouse in the world of literature, music, visual art, theatre, and film. A bestselling author and seven-time Lamba Literary Award finalist, Shraya is a director on the board of the Tegan and Sara Foundation and has been an ambassador for MAC Cosmetics and Pantene.

Vivek came out as transgender five years ago, and since then, has been a leading activist and changemaker in Canada and around the world, empowering others through her pop music, visual art, and award-winning books. 

We caught up with Vivek on the phone to talk about International Transgender Day of Visibility, the release of her new book, and what advice she has for those struggling to come to terms with their gender and identity.

Photo by Ariane Laezza

Congratulations on the release of your latest book, People Change. Tell us about it.

I started working on People Change at the beginning of the pandemic. It’s an exploration of how feminine and gender-nonconforming people present ourselves on the outside and how we feel on the inside. I started digging into these connections between external and interior change, and these notions of re-invention. As someone who grew up in the peak of Madonna’s career, she was often referred to as the queen of reinvention, and I remember being so drawn to this idea of constantly changing yourself. 

So the book is essentially about change and reinvention, with themes of friendships and relationships, and with inspiration drawn from my art career. It’s a short read, but I feel like it covers a lot of ground. Madonna was a huge inspiration for the book.

It’s International Transgender Day of Visibility. As a transgender woman. What does the day mean to you? 

I have complicated feelings about any sort of visibility day that highlights a particular group of people. On one hand, I think it’s really important that we have International Trans Day of Visibility to further highlight the inequalities that transgender people face, especially with what’s happening right now in the US. However, at the same time, it’s just one day of the year, so my question is always, how do we support transgender people for the rest of the year? 

You wrote a book called I’m Afraid of Men, detailing the acts of cruelty and aggression you endured growing up and how you felt pressured to act more masculine. What was the reaction to your coming out, and how did you come to terms with it?

I came out as trans two years before I wrote I’m Afraid of Men, so I definitely think the book was me grappling with the coming-out experience, but also looking at my experience of a history of harassment from men and the policing of my gender and the ways that limited my life. 

In terms of coming out, I’ve been very fortunate. I have a really great support network. I have family that is very supportive, and I’ve always felt safe amongst friends and loved ones. I think my parents still struggle with pronouns, so that’s an ongoing challenge. But what’s been interesting is embracing the ways that their acceptance does show up, which isn’t necessarily in the traditional ways. I’ve just had to think differently about acceptance, but I feel very seen and loved by my parents.

 

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We’ve come a long way, but many still struggle with sexuality and gender in today’s society. What advice do you have for people out there, young and old, struggling to come to terms with who they are?

The most important advice I can give is to embrace, experiment, and explore. People are often forced to declare a kind of certainty about their identities. Or people assume that it’s just a phase that they’ll grow out of. I’ve often felt pressure to know for certain who I am, but I think it’s far more beautiful to be given a right to change and evolve just like everyone else. It’s okay to take your time, and I think confusion is okay. The joy of life is evolution. 

For people who want to learn more about gender and the LGBTQ+ community, where should they start?

Social media is a great place to be exposed to a range of different kinds of queerness. I love Instagram because I can go on there and look at all the beautiful trans people, whether they’re non-binary, transfeminine, or transmasculine, and it allows me to relax because there are so many ways to be trans.

Another great resource is books like Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg, which I discovered in my twenties. It was so affirming, life-changing, and inspiring. It made me feel less alone. Art and TV are other good resources. I think representation on TV is just getting so much better and more nuanced. I was watching Dynasty during the pandemic and there’s this queer Latinx character, and I never would have imagined as a kid, turning on the TV and seeing a queer person of colour on a soap like Dynasty.

 

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We’re big fans of your music, Vivek. How do you hope your music, art, and literature touches people? 

For me, one of the things I love about being an artist is being able to make connections through art. I hope that people find comfort in it, but I also hope that it challenges people. You know, I never want to be the kind of artist that doesn’t have an opinion about something. I want to make art that changes perspectives, or shows people how to think or act differently. For example, I released a song last year called “I’m a fag 4 U”, where I took the word “fag”, turned it into a pop song, and reclaimed that word for queer people.

You’ve had success in publishing with more than 10 books and your own publishing imprint, a popular career as a pop star, and an accomplished career in fashion and arts. What’s next for Vivek Shraya? 

Thank you! Honestly, music will always be my number one passion. I’m always looking for ways to incorporate music into my work. I’m excited to be working on my first full-length album in 13 years. I also have my second children’s picture book releasing in the fall, called Revenge of the Raccoons, inspired by my living in Toronto, which is raccoon city. I’m terrified of raccoons! Another thing I’m really excited about is my visual arts practice, and exploring my photography as a form of storytelling.

We feel like we could talk to you all day. Tell us five things you can’t live without. 

Cheese—I’ll never be vegan. Music, I just love music so much. Movie theatres, because I feel like movie theatres are one of the few places in the world we can be without our phones. It’s a different world and a form of escapism for me. I also can’t live without black eyeliner; I feel naked without it. And I definitely can’t live without sex. 

 

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Since chatting with Vivek, she has released a new book, Next Time There’s a Pandemic.

Sean LoughranSean Loughran

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