May 23, 2018

'What I love about being queer'

In international celebration of queerness, English assistant prof Vivek Shraya reminds us there is no 'normal'
Vivek Shraya calls for more conversations about queerness following the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on May 17.

Vivek Shraya calls for more conversations about queerness.

Adam Coish

“I wanted to kill myself when I was 11.” As a four-time Lambda Literary Award finalist with countless honours, several albums, films and books, Vivek Shraya’s first line in her latest short film I Want to Kill Myself may come as a bit of surprise.

But after growing up queer in a world wrought with discrimination, the UCalgary assistant professor in the Department of English has no qualms about using art to speak out about her experiences with sexual identity and mental health. 

Simply put, sexual identity refers to an individual’s sexual desire. While we often assume there is an inevitable link between LGBTQ+ identities and mental health, Shraya, who identifies as queer or bisexual, is quick to set the record straight.

“Mental health and sexual identity don’t really intersect,” she says. “It’s not my queerness or my bisexuality that affect my mental health, but homophobia, biphobia, and people’s inability to support, accept, or celebrate who I am.”

Adding weight to Shraya’s view, the federal government reports that people who self-identify as homosexual or bisexual are three times more likely to be victims of violence, compared to heterosexuals. More alarmingly, hate crimes targeting sexual orientation are more violent than all other forms of hate crimes nationwide according to Statistics Canada reports starting in 2010 and continuing through the latest report in 2016.  

With such shocking levels of violence plaguing the LGBTQ+ community, there’s no wonder that members experience higher rates of mental health issues, including mood and anxiety disorders.    

“Most queer people grow up in a world where we’re told we aren’t loved. That we’re abnormal. We’re taught that queerness is never something of value — it’s something to denounce,” Shraya explains. “When you receive constant messages telling you that your identity is wrong, of course you feel awful about yourself.”

Recognizing a need to flip the script, Shraya used her artistic talents to start celebrating queerness through What I LOVE About Being QUEER, her internationally renowned project which shows how being queer is beautiful, while reminding the world that heterosexuality isn’t the best and only way to be.

“My experience of queerness, especially growing up, was inextricably tied to other people’s responses,” Shraya says. “I often conflated wanting to kill myself and feeling depressed with queerness, but had I grown up in an environment where gender non-conformity was celebrated rather than attacked, I don’t think I would feel that way.”

International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia was on May 17. Shraya reminds us that the battle for equality is far from over. “One of the challenges we face in more liberal environments like post-secondary is the idea that forms of oppression like homophobia don’t exist anymore,” says Shraya.

“They may not exist in the ways I experienced as a student, like being called ‘fag’ every day, but even something as innocuous as thinking that we need to learn to accept queerness is oppressive.”

While seeking help from on-campus resources is a good first step for anyone experiencing mental health challenges related to sexual identity, Shraya urges the campus community as a whole to stop staring and start talking.

“We have to work together, have conversations and create an environment on campus where queer people don’t need to access services to feel safe, comfortable, seen and respected,” she says. “We talk a lot about acceptance and tolerance, but acceptance and tolerance set the bar so low for what we can aspire to. We need to start celebrating.”