Author: Robert Massey, YYC Campus Ministry Team Member
It takes courage to step up onto a stage and perform. It takes determination to perform solo. It takes bravery to perform something heartfelt, honest, and raw, something that tells your real story. This is what Shubhechhya Bhattarai did during the Coming Out in Faith monologues hosted at Hillhurst United Church in April. They stepped up and performed a powerful spoken-word monologue centred on the intersections of their faith and being transgender.
“It’s quite powerful,” Shubhechhya said during a conversation in the Campus Ministry office. “I didn’t really realize the impact this piece was going to have honestly. I still probably won’t even know the full scope of it. But lots of positive attention, which is kind of neat honestly for how hard I had to work on this piece. And kinda change it, like I’m telling someone about myself but I’m also teaching them about Hinduism because this is all content that people won’t understand all the time.”
Shubhechhya was in a unique position at the monologues, presenting as a transgender person of another faith in a Christian church.
“They wanted something different and I mean this (was) very different from any of your traditional narratives or just the content you always get at coming out in faith,” Shubhechhya said. “We’ve never had someone of a Hindu like tradition come forth like this. Scary thing, but well worth it. ... The person who actually did the coming out in faith monologues shared the video and she was like yeah keep telling everyone about you it’s just that amazing. And that said something for content that’s very very different.
"Even the notes I got after the fact, they leave you little performance notes, going through all those notes. People are like 'this is amazing to see these similarities between Hinduism and Christianity,' and the concepts of energies, or just someone being like 'yeah you’re right this is not something that is talked about in Hinduism but it’s so important none the less.' It was so inspiring for people, who even come up to me like 'this was an amazing piece' in tears."
The 7 1/2-minute piece is witty, quick worded poetry that gently massages together humour, heartfelt, and insightful moments that got the crowd in Hillhurst United Church laughing, crying, and thinking all at once. Shubhechhya, a student at the University of Calgary, didn't have the chance to audition for the monologues but the producers loved their work so much that they were accepted based purely on the writing. I am including the link to the video in the blog, please take some time to watch it (and watch it a few times). It is well worth the almost 8-minutes you will spend watching it.
Here, I am going to add the Q&A that we went through with Shubhechhya in the YYCCM office last week, rather than continuing to put my words around Shubhechhya's thoughts. In my belief, this is the best way to get the true sense of Shubhechhya's piece, their thought process behind it, and their true voice. Joining us in the conversation was the Campus Ministry Communication's Assistant Eden Middleton, another student at the University of Calgary and a friend of Shubhechhya's.
Robert: When you found out they responded to you, you didn’t audition but they loved it. What’d that feel [like]?
Shubhechhya: I don’t know. I don’t think I thought much about it. I was like “Cool I’m in. Oh, awesome I get to do another putting myself out there piece.” And then later reality sorta set in as the weeks progressed and we get into rehearsals and stuff like that. ... The day of I was full on, “Okay, this is happening.” I’m actually pretty nervous in the video before I start talking. You can tell, I actually start out the video with a deep breath. ... What people don’t know, because they couldn’t see, was backstage I was restless. For the most part, I just laid in the back on the floor. One, because Hillhurst floors are very creaky so you can't really move much, and if you move everyone in the audience can hear. So I couldn’t do anything! ... This is the most comfortable position at the moment. Wooden floors are actually really, really comfy. Surprisingly.
Robert: Especially when they’ve had so many feet go over them over the years.
Shubhechhya: I wouldn't say it’s soft though, I wouldn't say it’s soft, I was just so comfortable, I was like I’m just going to be right here. And then, when I need to, I will get up and go forth.
Robert: That’s the perfect transition for something I wanted to ask you. So you open that door, you go out. Talk me through that moment.
Shubhechhya: After, who was it? I think it was Pam [Rocker] who was doing the introduction for me. I’m listening to this introduction being like, ‘This is happening, this is happening’.
Introducing. Door opens. I’m like, 'Okay.'
It almost felt surreal. I am being very, very vulnerable now. Because the reality of having done the interview with Global [News] really hit me as well. Like, what is this impact? What does it mean? And I knew I had friends out in the audience, so I was like, 'Oh wow, this friend is going to see this whole different side of me that they haven't experienced before. What is this going to be like? How am I going to connect with them? And how will they see me now?' And it was...it was sort of an almost nerve-racking moment.
Then, 'no, stop. I can’t think right now.' Focus. Yes, I know my piece, I KNOW I know my piece. I’ve been going through this over and over again, I know I have it down. And then just go through it.
So, hence the whole stop, find my footing, my grounding, and taking a deep breath and just speaking. Before I spoke I had to quickly ground myself like “Okay. Let’s go. It’s showtime!”
Robert: Okay. There are a couple of things I want to ask you about. One of the lines that I really love that you wrote in there is, “All that is unnatural is also natural," and you said, but I don’t know what language you were speaking
Shubhechhya: It’s Sanskrit.
Robert: Thank you
Shubhechhya: That was interesting when I found that that line out. The funny part is I can’t find this anywhere except for a couple articles and I don’t know where it is in the text. Google hasn’t been helpful at all its kind of like, 'Wow I don’t know who else would know if I say these words where it falls I just know it’s in the Vedas.' Why? Because the articles I’ve read tell me it’s in the Vedas, they just don’t tell me where. So it’s kind of frustrating when you’re like oh my god there’s something that actually says it’s normal, that says it’s totally okay. What? What does it even mean? Let’s question. ...
Because when I first heard it, it just threw me off guard. This is exactly it. Everything I keep hearing that it’s not supposed to be. Even though I overthink it a lot as well, like oh no it can’t be this way, things have to be this or that but to hear a line that's, 'It’s totally fine. All that is unnatural is also natural all that is, even if it isn’t it is.' ... Sanskrit has that as well I think it’s like "therefore art thou." You just are. So read that and be like, 'Okay this is something else that people just pick and choose what they feel comfortable with.' But nowhere I have found that says that being queer is wrong. Quite the opposite. There are so many stories about it. But people are still like “no we don’t wanna--” but it’s there!
Literally, it’s there! It doesn’t say it’s wrong, it’s just misunderstood. At least it feels like it’s misunderstood.
Robert: Another line I wanted to ask you about, "The boxes of masculine and feminine cannot contain all of me. Neither one can hold all of me."
Shubhechhya: We’re laughing because that’s the line I messed up on actually.
Robert: Oh really!
Shubhechhya: It’s supposed to be the boxes of male and female cannot contain all of me, neither one can hold all of me. Nerves.
Shubhechhya: It’s still the same though, it's still the exact same meaning. The boxes of masculine and feminine cannot contain all of me. Neither one can hold all of me. ... The way my mind works, I guess this also happens for a lot of people, I need to compartmentalize things to try and understand it. I need to put things in groups. ... So to have come across that, the boxes. They gave two boxes, they put me into one box. For some reason that I’m still figuring out, it’s not a box I could feel comfortable in. There’s this other box that, as much as I want to encompass, I still don’t feel like I fit into it. No matter how many values I may uphold, what it is about it. So there’s this middle ground of, 'Where am I?'
I don’t consider myself being gender non-conforming though, or non-binary, because I don’t resonate with those terms as much. But it’s just this in-between-line of 'I don’t reject everything that’s feminine. But that doesn’t mean I’m fully 100% masculine in any way.'
There’s just so many things about it, because at the end of the day, what is feminine and what is masculine? Besides these traits that they attribute to it. It’s very different. So you keep going down to, 'What are these boxes?'
"Effeminate and infamous, masculine and quintessential." There are already these two opposing viewpoints of what is. Effeminate is like the softness, infamous is like I’m all-encompassing. Whereas quintessential is like the ‘most important thing!' But I’m held to this high standard of masculine above all else. That’s not what quintessential is, so sort of this opposing viewpoint of, 'What box fits me?'
But I don’t want to create that box for myself. I want to fit into a box that’s already there and expand from there rather than, “Here’s my bubble that I live in.” 'Cause if you just live in a bubble where does that go? You don’t go very far. It’s about breaking past that bubble. For me, it’s like I want to break my bubble, but also I want to hold on to what I know and what makes sense to me. ... This is something I thought I could do but I couldn’t. But this other thing is not something I can do at the same time. Because it just feels weird. Expectations. What are the expectations that come of me from someone who doesn’t look like your typical binary? Like the expectation of what is it supposed to be. Well, I’ve been read very masculine by a lot of people, but sometimes people will still like point me out, “Oh, no, that’s female." There’s just something about it. But, the amount of confusion you get is kind of interesting. Hence that middle ground. No one can pinpoint what I am, where I’m supposed to be.
Robert: Those were the two lines I really wanted to ask you about. Because I really, really loved those two lines in particular. I want you to talk about the end of it now. So you finished it off with “I exist." And then you kind of sigh and bow your head. It’s almost this perfect ending note of relief and also like saying you are there. Can you just reflect on what it was like to finish and what went through your mind?
Shubhechhya: Yeah, I guess I have to say there was that sigh of relief, that sense of relief, of 'Oh my god, this is done.' And it’s sort of like a softness like you don’t say “I'm here!” Right, it feels forceful. I didn’t know how it was going to end, there were so many possibilities of what this ending could be. ... It ended up being let’s gauge how I feel. Whatever happens at the end happens, as long as it’s just as powerful as I want it to be. And it was. Kind of like, a realization moment. Yeah. I’m here. Oh my gosh, I’m here.
So it’s just...yeah. The sense of, “I did it. I made it through 7 ½ minutes.” How did I memorize a 7 ½ minute piece? I will never know. And just be,
“Oh okay. I’ve just done this.” And that’s one of the hardest things you can ever do, especially when you’re scared of just putting yourself out there and how you’re going to be seen by other people. And think, what is the impact? What am I going to walk away with? For me, part of this piece is which person will it reach? Will I be able to actually help someone else? It's also the reason why I’m sort of interested in storytelling even though I’m not fully involved in it still. A narrative I can relate to.
There are many narratives out there, but not many that I can relate to as being a third culture kid, as being someone of colour, a person of colour and a person of faith. Or there’s not enough representation for transmasculine people. Where is that? So it’s sort of to put myself out there, “Here’s my experience. Take it as you will, or take it with a grain of salt, or take it at face value, however, you want to take it." But I hope maybe that this can reach someone who’s probably also struggling to find a story that they can relate to, and what that means to this person. Because that can be hard. That can be really hard, finding stories that you can relate to growing up. ... At the end of the day, even if there’s nothing else, I have a really awesome piece that came out of this. Even if it affected no one. I just worked so hard on this, and I love it. Honestly, I have this awesome piece that came out of it if nothing else comes out of this.
Eden: I’m curious. You talk a lot about it being hard and scary to stand up there and be vulnerable, which like, I hear you, and I’m wondering where did you find the courage to decide to do this despite that fear and that hardness?
Shubhechhya:...tough question. So, despite feeling vulnerable and being like ‘oh my god this is so hard’ to fight through and be like, 'No, I’m doing it.' Um. Do what scares you the most? That’s the best I got.
Eden: Solid life philosophy.
Shubhechhya : You just gotta do what scares you the most. Part of me just felt like this was important and that this was something I should do. I didn’t have to. There was no obligation for me to continue through. But I just felt like at the end of the day, I want to really break through me being, 'I’m an introvert, I don’t want to do this, I don’t like public speaking' all that stuff, anxiety, all that. No. I felt like this was something, a story I felt like I couldn't just keep for myself. It was a story I felt needed to be shared.
Robert: I want to ask you a couple of questions about how you were saying at the beginning [of the piece] you learned about this in a class, a religious studies class.
Shubhechhya: True story!
Robert: Yeah. Dig into that a little more, because it’s like a ten-second chunk [in the piece].
Shubhechhya: Oh man. Yeah it was quite something. Being like, “WHAT DO I DO WITH THIS INFORMATION?” I was literally like I don’t know what to do with this information. Which I really still don’t, honestly, I still don’t. Gods and Goddesses are not fully in their binaries, it’s more like, all energies. That’s all anything is, it’s just energies. There are some people who might be male-identified who might have more feminine energy than someone who’s female-identified who has masculine energy. It’s just a thing. It’s just a balance of energies. Some might have equal balance, some might have more balance, overpowered more. That’s all it is. It’s just kind of interesting.
Robert: Cool. Thank you. I’m going to try and wrap it up here because we’ve been chatting for almost 45 minutes. Eden had a few really important questions, so we are going to cover them. So, the first one, what advice would you give to someone who’s doing the Coming Out in Faith Monologues?
Shubhechhya: Advice for people doing COIFM…I want to say, trust the process and what’s going on. Because sometimes you’ll come up with something like, ‘Oh no this doesn’t make sense’ or ‘this line just does not work.' Experiment with it. Figure out what it is. Taking time to, as much as you get sick of it, go over your story over and over again, taking time to break it apart. Ask what does this mean? The patience that the facilitators have, they took the time to work with me through my pieces and give me the feedback that I needed to make sure I’m hitting on the points that I need to. ... So hands down, don’t be afraid to talk to your peers and your director. That’s the main advice. Also just trusting your gut and your process like will it work, will it not, and it if doesn’t work that’s fine because at least you gave it a shot in terms of the content you’re putting out there.
Robert: Thank you very much for that. Question number two. What advice would you give to someone exploring their own gender identity?
Shubhechhya: [laugh]. Oh wow okay...what advice would I give? Oh my gosh. No one’s made me think about that, honestly...
Robert: You don’t have to answer either by the way.
Shubhechhya: I know. But you know, honestly, for me, I just very awkwardly would talk to people. Talk to people. You might discover something. It might prompt something for you. Sort of trying to be open rather than already having yourself in a box might help. And just be able to have that acceptance about whatever’s going to happen. Because yeah, it takes time. So as awkward as it is, no matter who you are, talk to people. Even if it’s not specifically about gender and sexuality. Just engaging in a conversation about something might help prompt something. Because really that’s what I did. ... Seeking out your mentors. You don’t have to just have one mentor, you can have a mentor for many different aspects of your life. So many different friends can be mentors, you can have an actual mentor, you can go through different things. I think that’s something very valuable to me, is finding people who can be like mentors to me. And just getting information there. It’s exploration. As scary as it is, it’s very rewarding, especially when you’re surrounded by people who understand and empathize, who have empathy for what you’re going through because they’ve gone through the same things. Maybe not in the same capacity, but they get it. And that was very powerful when you feel heard. It’s the most powerful thing ever.
Robert: Thank you. Last one. What support do you wish communities of faith would offer queer people?
Shubhechhya: ...oh my gosh. That’s something I’ve definitely grappled with. To have that openness and to understand that if someone was really grappling with identity. Sometimes, your identity and your self, they’re not two separate things, sometimes they’re ingrained into the same thing. And just being like, don’t tell me it’s wrong. Tell me how this makes sense, the ways this makes sense. Clearly, as my own exploration has told me, these things can exist. It’s where, how does it make sense that they exist?
And just being open to the idea, making sure people have open minds about what it means to be queer. About what it means to not fit into whatever set rules they have. Just being able to say, "Okay well this is what you are, here, what does this mean now?" Honestly, just that sense of openness. And not just someone that’s like ‘no it has to be this.’
No, it’s actually not. That doesn’t help. If you tell me that now, it’s not going to help. It hasn’t helped for somebody else because they might be on the verge of, 'I can’t take it anymore.' What do you do with all this information? So yeah. Just openness.