Transgender author Vivek Shraya: Allow kids to be gender creative

Vivek Shraya

Vivek Shraya, Indian-origin Canadian musician, visual artist and author of children’s book The Boy & the Bindi, who recently came out as transgender, talks about issues of gender fluidity.

What prompted the story The Boy & the Bindi? And why did you choose to tell it as a children’s book?

I had noticed the ways that wearing a bindi in public in Toronto would often result in me being stared at. I was fascinated by the ways that even a colourful dot on the forehead of someone who is seen as male is uncomfortable. It was this fascination that led to The Boy & the Bindi. I chose the medium of a children’s book largely because of the lack of diversity in this genre.

What was it like growing up as a transgender child? What advice do you have for parents of children who may be going through such a struggle?

I don’t know that I was a transgender child. I certainly didn’t have this kind of knowledge or language. I did know that I wasn’t like the other boys, that I was drawn to the feminine. Often it’s not the child that is struggling with their gender but rather the adults around who are struggling with their child’s gender non-conformity. Or the child is struggling, again not with their gender, but with the possibility of disappointing the adults around them. I was lucky to have a mother who never disciplined me for my feminine curiosity or behaviour, who created the space for me to grow into who I was. This would be my advice to parents of gender creative children—let your children grow into who they are, listen to them when they tell you who they are, and support them in their growth.

The Boy & The Bindi, childrens book The Boy & The Bindi

How can one start the conversation on gender with kids? During interactions for your book, were there any conversations that struck a chord?

I think children’s books are definitely an entry point into having a conversation with children about gender and difference more broadly. In one school visit, after reading The Boy & the Bindi, I asked the elementary school students if they could name an object in their life that keeps them “safe and true”—the way that the mother in the book states her bindi keeps her safe and true. A young Sikh boy put up his hand and said, “My turban keeps me safe and true.” This was a significant moment for me as I remember the Sikh kids in my class being taunted when I was in school, and this boy standing proudly and owning his turban was a reminder of how by opening the conversation around difference, whatever that might be, it creates room for others, who embody other differences, to do so as well.

What does the bindi signify to you? How was it when you first started wearing one?

For me, a bindi is a fun (and necessary) fashion accessory. I started wearing them two or three years before I came out as trans, as it was a way to honour my femininity in what I thought was an innocuous way. Of course, I discovered this wasn’t the case.

Vivek Shraya

Were you aware of why you were different? You only made the transition to being a woman a couple of years ago, in your mid-30s. What took so long? 

I don’t think the world felt safe enough for me to come out earlier. I am not sure it’s much safer now, but I am fortunate to have many protective mechanisms in place including a close group of people who love and see me for who I am.

You have written a book on why you’re scared of men, and why they may be scared of you. What role do men play in conversations around gender? 

My gender has been largely shaped and modified by the harassment I have experienced from men. Moving forward, I would love for men to challenge their own discomforts with femininity.

Im Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya

How have the conversations around your own coming out been with your family? 

My brother who I am also in a band with (Too Attached) is incredibly supportive. He told me that he and his girlfriend used to practice my new pronouns at home when I wasn’t around, just to let it sink in. The journey with my parents is slow, has always been slow. We don’t use words like “transgender” with each other but my mom will come Indian jewellery shopping with me when I am in town to help bargain for the best deals! I try to find solace in these informal gestures of support.