With pride festivities set to peak, we spotlight the activists, artists and leaders who have transformed the way we think about gender, race, safety, the family and our city in 2016
VIVEK SHRAYA part of That’s So Gay at the Gladstone (1214 Queen West, 416-531-4635, gladstonehotel.com), to August 17, reception Thursday (June 30), 7 pm part of the duo Too Attached, playing on the Pride Village Stage (77 Wellesely East), Saturday (July 2), 4:15 pm leading the Pride Parade as a Grand Marshal Sunday (July 3), from 2 pm. pridetoronto.com.
When Vivek Shraya appears at the door of her rented Parkdale condo, she’s glowing. Her hair is streaked with golden strands, pendulum earrings dangle, the pink nail polish on her perfectly manicured nails is buffed. Her lips are layered with deep red lipstick.
I barely recognize the person whose novel She Of The Mountains I helped launch over a year ago. At that time, she wasn’t just using the pronoun “he,” she was a spectacular specimen of masculinity – bulked up, muscular, bearded.
She was at the peak of her masculinity and, says the singer/writer/poet/visual artist, it was one of her most successful performances.
“Learning to be a boy meant learning how to perform masculinity,” says Shraya, who this year has been named one of Pride Toronto’s Grand Marshals. “It was constant work and it was tied to safety. To be assigned male and to act feminine in North America often led to violence for me. So I learned how to be a boy.”
But it didn’t make her any happier.
“I didn’t feel safer. I just felt exhausted by having to eat chicken breasts and protein bars. When I came out as trans on my 35th birthday, I felt light. I don’t have to take up space, drop my voice. It’s been a gift that I never felt I could give myself.”
One thing that hasn’t changed in her life is her commitment to artistic fluidity. Consider this tiny sample of her work. As a musician – she sings with an exquisitely clear tenor – she’ll perform at Pride this year with her brother in a band called Too Attached. Their music is a mashup of electronica and soul, and they open for Tegan & Sara here in the fall.
Her double-stranded, gorgeously poetic novel She Of The Mountains – which reimagines Hindu mythologies and tells a contemporary story about a young bisexual – was nominated for the Lambda fiction prize. Her new book of poetry, Even This Page Is White, came out from Arsenal Pulp last spring. And an exhibit of photos called Trisha hangs as part of the Gladstone’s Pride At The Gaystone festival.
No matter the genre, Shraya consistently honours her South Asian heritage, fearlessly explores issues of gender and sexuality, and is breathtakingly open about her own life. Nothing comes out of thin air. All of it celebrates political complexity and links the elements of her identity.
The Trisha project – a recreation of nine vintage photos of her mother in which Shraya portrays her – emerged from their ever-changing relationship. Shraya made a film about her two years ago and then expanded the subject into a project that would both pay homage to her and delve deeply into issues of gender.
“We did the photos in a day, nine shots, and then I wrote the essay . It starts with, ‘My story has always been bound to your desire to have two boys.’
“My mom, because of the misogyny in Indian culture and the pressure her mother felt to marry her off, said, ‘No more girls.’ So, what does it mean to have a parent who really wanted a boy and who ended up with me?”
Not that Shraya’s Indian roots were always a barrier to self-discovery when it came to gender. In fact, the opposite is true. While growing up in Edmonton, Shraya saw her religious organization, where she sang in the choir, as a safe haven.
“Gender was seen differently there,” she recalls. “To be a dancing, prancing, devoted, mom-loving boy in the context of Hinduism was seen as something special.
“In the iconography, male gods are very beautiful – Krishna plays the flute and often carries flowers. In the absence of queer role models, kids have to be creative to find them. So Hinduism was something I turned to, and this religious organization was my safe space. What I was harassed for at school was treasured there.”
As part of her commitment to expanding children’s perceptions of what they can become, Shraya’s written a book for kids, The Boy & The Bindi, the first children’s book from Arsenal Pulp Press. She got the idea after sitting on a children’s book jury.
“I was distressed by the lack of diversity in just about everything I was reading,” she says. “People are always talking about the changes in children’s books, but a New York Times survey revealed that only 9 per cent featured a person of colour.”
That refers to any character, not just protagonists. And when those protagonists are featured, Shraya says, children’s books tend to present them in metaphors that have become very tiresome.
“The way they talk about differences is still all about vegetables of different colours,” she says, barely hiding her derision. “Is it that hard to create a brown protagonist?”
The idea for the book came when Shraya, still identifying as he, began wearing a bindi, the red dot worn by Hindu and Jain women on their foreheads.
“As part of my gender revolution, I noticed how something so innocuous got so much attention. I wasn’t wearing makeup a lot, I was wearing masculine clothing, and I thought, ‘Wow, even a small dot is gendered, and it’s considered bizarre.'”
The book is about a boy fascinated with his mum’s bindi. Instead of chastising him, she gives him hers, which allows him to explore his true self.
“What I love about it is that it’s about brownness, spirituality and gender. So it has that intersectionality.”
Shraya churns out this voluminous output while holding down a 9-to-5 job as a positive space coordinator and human rights advisor at George Brown College. She facilitates anti-homophobia/transphobia training for college faculty and staff (and increasingly students). She’s also responsible for all the queer/trans programming on campus.
She’s’s worked full-time for 14 years, since she was 21.
“Having immigrant parents meant art wasn’t going to be the job. It was pounded into me: ‘Bread and butter, bread and butter, be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Go to university. Art can be what you do on the side.'”
But that makes art-making even more demanding.
“It requires discipline. It means coming home and doing the work and opening up the laptop and being creative. The artists that I admired in my teens, Sheryl Crow and Tori Amos, didn’t have success until they were 35. So for me, it’s always been about the long game.”
Well, Shraya’s now 35 herself, the projects keep piling up, and Pride Toronto has noticed. She’ll be leading the parade this year alongside international trans activist Aydian Dowling, philanthropist and entrepreneur Salah Bachir and honoured group Black Lives Matter Toronto.
What was her first reaction when she found out she’d been recognized in this way?
“Well I certainly didn’t respond, ‘Oh, finally,'” she laughs. “My first response was, ‘Did they ask the right person?’ There are so many people in this city who are unsung heroes. But especially standing next to Black Lives Matter, I’m imagining that a brown, bisexual trans person being honoured this way is a gesture of change at Pride, a gesture of recognizing the complexity of LBGTQ cultures.
“Often it’s the L and the G that get the focus. This honour gets people to think more broadly about what our queer and trans communities look like in Toronto.” – Susan G. Cole
Since first being elected to represent Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale) in 2010, Wong-Tam, the only openly queer Toronto city councillor, has consistently served as a voice of conscience when it comes to queerness and the many issues with which it intersects, including race, gender, housing, poverty and immigration.
Even in the context of right-wing mayors, Wong-Tam has effected policies that have concretely improved the lives of the city’s most vulnerable people, establishing a 24-hour drop-in centre for women, winter warming centres for street-involved people and a pair of LGBT youth shelters. The latter grew from her outreach work with Alex Abramovich, whose research revealed the extent of LGBT homelessness. “Now I’m in early-days conversations with other folks about what LGBT long-term care and senior housing looks like,” says Wong-Tam.
What do the politics of Pride mean to you? “I think it’s about solidarity, coalition-building. I came out of the closet as a young feminist, and movements like ACT UP and Queer Nation, those were sort of my early political stomping grounds.” – Jonathan Goldsbie
Robertson deserves a lifetime achievement award for her decades of work building platforms at the intersections of queerness, Blackness and feminism. As a founding member of Blockorama, she helped forge a space for racialized bodies at Pride. And as the former head of Sistering, she helped create space for at-risk and homeless women.
Now, as executive director of the Queen West Central Toronto Community Health Centre, she’s leading the push for safe injection sites, viewing that fight as part of the same continuum as her work with other marginalized groups.
“We feel that advancing the creation of supervised injection services is about building more inclusive communities,” she says.
What do the politics of Pride mean to you? “It’s celebrating LGBTQ presence, visibility, lives, hopes, joys. And it’s also an act of political resistance that is visible against the continuing presence of homophobia, transphobia and its impact on our lives – in community, in family, in policy.” – Jonathan Goldsbie
The most effective activist movement of its generation, Black Lives Matter has reshaped public perceptions of policing and achieved tangible victories that move institutions of justice toward ideals of equity, transparency and accountability. Like those elsewhere, Toronto’s chapter has primarily accomplished this through direct action, whether occupying the Allen Expressway for an evening or police headquarters’ plaza for two weeks. While confronting everything from the obstinacy of carding to the credibility of the Special Investigations Unit to the near-cancellation of Afrofest, BLMTO has steered this city’s and province’s public policy agenda like few radical groups before it.
Led by queer and trans people both locally and internationally, Black Lives Matter is a deeply intersectional movement – because, as BLMTO spokesperson Rodney Diverlus puts it, “When we talk about police brutality, when we talk about police violence, when we talk about state-produced violence, those are queer issues as well.”
What do the politics of Pride mean to you? Diverlus: “There’s a politic to it because our bodies are political and our existence right now is political. So I think that without politics, Pride wouldn’t exist.” – Jonathan Goldsbie
Currently, parentage in Ontario is defined in strictly biological terms, such that a person is – exclusively and by default – the child of his or her “natural parents.” A lesbian mother, for example, still requires a judge’s approval to be recognized as the legal parent of a child to whom her partner gives birth.
But a group of activists is now working through legislative and legal channels to reshape the notion of parentage so that a parent can be any person who serves in that role.
Kirsti and Jennifer Mathers McHenry have collaborated with Cheri DiNovo, the NDP’s LGBTQ critic, on Cy And Ruby’s Act, a private member’s bill named after their children. It would amend relevant laws to recognize that families outside of conventional dual-parent units are equally legitimate and, among other things, would enable more than two people to be certified as a child’s parents.
When DiNovo’s bill began to languish in the legislature, lawyer Joanna Radbord initiated a court challenge on behalf of nine families against whose diverse arrangements – including various combinations of adoptions, donors and one-, two- and four-parent families – the status quo discriminates. Only after the suit was filed did the government announce it would introduce new legislation in the fall, but it may or may not go as far as the applicants want.
“When it comes to LGBTQ family equality,” says Radbord, “it seems as though the government never acts responsibly without being forced by the courts.”
What do the politics of Pride mean to you? Kirsti Mathers McHenry: “Finding and actively creating spaces where people are celebrated for their individuality is deeply political.”
– Jonathan Goldsbie
While pursuing his PhD in social work and gender studies at McMaster, Pyne has become an influential advocate for trans health. Through his work with Trans PULSE and Rainbow Health Ontario, as well as various newspaper op-eds, he has advanced our understanding of how medicine and psychiatry can support trans youth and their parents. His research has been crucial in redefining the complicated relationships between medical institutions like the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and vulnerable individuals.
Asked how he decided to direct his life’s work toward questions of trans identity, he says, “You work on things where you can have an impact, or the things that are pressing and personal.”
What do the politics of Pride mean to you? At Stonewall and its precedents, “it was trans women of colour, sex workers, street queers and queens who had nothing to lose who were the ones who were physically fighting for space. And those people are still fighting. When I think about the politics of Pride, I think about who I want to stand with or who I want to get behind.”
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