Reading List

Reading List: I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya

By Brian Oaster

As the world gears up to receive Vivek Shraya’s next book, Death Threat, a graphic novel about the author’s receipt of serial transphobic hate mail, it’s a good time to catch up on what the musician, artist, and University of Calgary writing professor has produced to date.

Last autumn’s I’m Afraid of Men is an intimate account of Shraya’s complicated relationship with masculinity, as a boy, a man, a gay man, and finally, a trans woman of color. She opens with a day in the life, describing in jarring detail how the fear of men informs and governs her decisions from the moment she wakes up.

A Terrifying Day in the Life of Not a Man

Getting dressed, Shraya says she avoids flashy feminine clothing that will draw more than the usual attention. “On the hierarchy of harassment,” she explains, “staring is the least violent consequence for my gender nonconformity that I could hope for.”

Wearing something tight impacts her commute because of the construction workers on the way to her bus stop. On the bus she avoids eye contact with men so they don’t think she’s attracted to them and become violent. If she catches an Uber, she checks to see which way it’s coming and faces the other direction so they don’t drive off upon seeing of her. Then she braces herself for the likelihood of their misogynistic attempts at conversation.

This goes on and on, through every step of her workday, her lunch break, her nightlife, and her commute home, until finally she rounds the corner in her apartment building, terrified of encountering a bro neighbor or a note on her door that says “F*****t”. Until finally, finally, she gets her day’s first and only moment of peace—just before going to sleep and starting it all over again.

None of this fear is unfounded, as she details in the next part of the book. Hatred and aggression from men surround her, as it does all trans women, all women, and all gender nonconforming people. And yet, Shraya points out that she’s one of the luckier ones. Other women suffer far more traumatic horrors than she has. It’s the price one pays for being oneself in a man’s world.

Trying to Be Tom Cruise and Navigating Toxic Gay Bars

From there, Shraya moves into an episodic memoir, with second person passages written to men who have attacked, disappointed, ridiculed and transformed her. She describes forcing herself into a Tom Cruise-based hypermasculine motif in her teen years, only saying, wearing or doing what she could imagine Tom Cruise saying, wearing or doing, despite the heart wrenching sacrifice of abandoning a vibrant wardrobe palette.

Shraya details feeling out of place in gay bars when she was a man, bars she describes as buff man cesspools “no different from straight sports bars” except for the porn, Lady Gaga, and drag. Gay men, as she recounts, are still men. And despite wanting to be desired by them, she’s had to navigate their entitlement with caution.

She notes as well how part of living in a man’s world is being a punching bag for women who have internalized misogyny, or who are themselves transphobic.

Who Owns Our Gender Nonconforming Bodies?

Her memories are poignant and relevant, but the real medicine is when Shraya reflects on the broader questions they elicit. How would her development have changed without male aggression? How was her sexuality shaped by childhood violence from men? How might her body be different if she didn’t desire affection from gay men and protection from straight men? “How do I love a body that was never fully my own?”

I’m Afraid of Men is written as plainly as the title suggests. It’s short, only 85 pocket sized pages. But it packs a punch. And it resolves with purpose. Shraya calls for us to “reimagine masculinity” as something that doesn’t have to be so violent. She points out how the ideal of the “good man” is built on a baseline that assumes men are “bad boys” or “dogs” (or at least, are allowed to be, in ways where a woman would be shamed). By setting the bar so low, idealizing the “good man” archetype enables toxic masculinity. Shraya calls not for “good men,” but for a higher bar, a new standard with blurred gender boundaries, in a world that celebrates gender creativity.

Death Threat comes out in April. Warm yourself up by grabbing a copy of I’m Afraid of Men. It will give you a window into what it’s like to take up space in a man’s world when you’re not one of them. Or it will scream all the terrors and apprehensions you’ve always had, but have seldom expressed.

Brian Oaster

Brian is a Choctaw writer in the Pacific Northwest.