Fluid gender roles. Chosen family. And, of course, the doin’ it.
These are some of the answers Vivek Shraya teased out of the subjects for his documentary short What I LOVE About Being QUEER, screening this Thursday at the Idylwylde Library. Coming from a community that usually focuses on uphill battles, it’s a surprisingly brazen, honest celebration. It’s also (maybe necessarily) incomplete.
“The main inspiration, I think, was the work that I do with queer youth,” says the Toronto-based musician, writer and filmmaker. Through Shraya’s day job as a Positive Space Coordinator and Human Rights Advisor at Toronto’s George Brown College and in his work as an artist, he says he was moved by conversations he had with kids about struggling with being queer, and how that gets digested into a form of self-hate.
“’My parents are going to disown me,’” he cites, “which then turns into ‘I hate this part of myself,’ or ‘I hate myself,’ and wanting to come up with some kind of immediate response to that kind of self-hate. Especially as someone who struggled with the same kinds of feelings when I was coming out in Edmonton, actually.”
“I never want to diminish the reality of what someone is going through. I guess with the film I wanted to offer a different perspective.”
That impulse drove Shraya to film the 34 people’s responses that make up the 20-minute film What I LOVE About Being QUEER. He says it was mostly a breeze to get people to participate, though they often told him they’d never thought about the question before. Some faces might be recognizable: Tegan and Sara’s Sara Quinn, novelist and psychotherapist Farzana Doctor, and activist and educator Tim McCaskell all make funny, thoughtful appearances. The interviewees stand in for a huge scoop of the real jambalaya of fat, skinny, brown, black, trans and older people in the queer community.
Some people Shraya approached reacted negatively to the concept of the film. “My understanding of that reaction,” he says, “is feeling that if we talk about celebrating queerness, then we’re somehow taking away from the struggle.”
“I respectfully disagree with that criticism. I think the fact that you have to even ask what you love about being queer implies struggle.”
The answers vary as widely as the bodies, ranging from the sense of community to one man feeling less pressure than his straight brothers to tell his family about his plans for kids and marriage. The plethora of academic responses about sites of celebration and struggle almost make you itch for moments like the guy who croons about the sensual joy of admiring patterns of hair on someone’s back. And a great butt.
It seems obvious that a celebration of queer sexuality would celebrate sex, but Shraya says those answers were the toughest to get at.
“The conversations around sex were easily the hardest to capture on film,” he says. “I feel like a lot of people, when I approached them about the project, they would informally say, ‘Oh I’m gonna talk about sex,’ or ‘I’m gonna talk about boobs’ or whatever, which is great. But the moment the camera came on, people were talking about fighting the heteronormative patriarchy.”
Shraya suspects that’s partly because it’s hard to talk about sex in front of a camera, but also because queers carry a lot of shame about their desire, and are worried about perpetuating a myth that queer people only care about sex. He’s glad those conversations are in the film, but he says including them was a tough decision, because he knew it would be screened for younger audiences.
“I was really stressed about that, because the way we talk about sex and sexuality… we talk about sexuality as a sort of vague umbrella term, but once we start being really specific about what aspects of sex we enjoy, it can be really hard for people to manage, or it can create discomfort.”
In the end, some of the interviews about the joys of queer sex are a bit over-romanticized. Several people mention the freedom they feel to try out things with their partners without the expectations and rules that straight partners feel. There is an ever-developing queer canon, though. Films like this one expand it, nurture it, and point to it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some discussions need a little pre-heating.
Vivek Shraya and Edmonton’s Exposure Festival present What I LOVE About Being QUEER. The film screens at the Idylwylde Library (8310 88 Avenue) at 6:30 PM on Thursday, November 29, followed by a Q&A.
Chris Chang-Yen Phillips is a writer, radio producer, and science nerd. He can be found at his day job with the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation, roaming the streets of Old Strathcona with the Shareable Neighbourhood group, and on the bus with a good Murakami book.