March 29, 2019

The shoe that fits: Finding the right words as a trans person of colour

Transmasculine student makes sense of identity through art and faith
Fourth-year drama student Shubhechhya Bhattarai shares personal journey of finding the right words to express their identity as a transmasculine person.
Fourth-year drama student Shubhechhya Bhattarai shares personal journey of finding the right words t Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

When Shubhechhya Bhattarai was in middle school, they heard the word transgender for the first time on National Geographic. It resonated immediately.   

For the trans community, finding the right words to express identity can be challenging, especially for Bhattarai, who didn’t see themself represented in public spaces.

“Even after I knew I was transgender, it took a while to find words that fit because I didn’t see many trans people of colour like myself,” says Bhattarai, fourth-year drama student and club executive of Queers on Campus.

“Using the wrong word feels like you’re wearing a shoe on the wrong foot — it’s uncomfortable and unnatural. When I first came out about five years ago, I came out as queer, but once I discovered the word transmasculine a few years ago, I really came into myself.”

Pronouns are a simple way to help create safe spaces

Although Bhattarai has found words that work, that doesn’t always translate to being accepted by others. To make everyday spaces more inclusive, they suggest pronouns as a simple first step.

While the idea may seem uncomfortable to some, Bhattarai points out that in addition to being inclusive of all gender identities, using pronouns is nowhere near the discomfort of being misgendered.

“It takes a blow to my confidence because it tells me I’m not being seen the way I want to be in the world,” they say. “Usually I speak up if I’m misgendered, but if I’m not comfortable in a space or if I feel unsafe, it causes me a lot of anxiety.

“Asking what someone’s pronouns are is a simple step that takes away assumptions. For me, it’s about being seen in a space and knowing I can express my authentic self.”

Art and faith aid transmasculine student in expressing identity

Originally from Nepal, Bhattarai has delved into faith to better understand their identity.

“I don’t fit in the binary model, so identifying through energies makes more sense to me,” they explain. “In Hindu faith, the body is the vehicle for the soul. I was assigned female at birth but have a masculine energy, meaning my body appears feminine but my soul is masculine. It took me a long time to express myself, but making connections between my different identities helped me find the language that works.”

Another avenue that has been instrumental for Bhattarai is the arts. “Sometimes I’m not as articulate vocally, but through poetry or performance arts, it just comes out,” they say.

“A few years ago, I performed a monologue in Coming Out YYC. Putting myself out there on stage was scary — I was terrified to talk about my identity and I didn’t know how people would react, but it was a really powerful moment.”

With the International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31, Bhattarai hopes to continue creating visibility for the trans community through art.

“We need to be willing to understand different perspectives, work collaboratively to be informed and make it easier for people to show up as they are,” they say.

“As an artist, I try to create more visibility for trans people, especially trans folks of colour, so others can see my story and feel represented. When I share any part of myself, it’s with the hope that someone else will relate to it, whether that’s helping them describe what they’re experiencing, bridging gaps between people or challenging assumptions about what it means to be trans.”