Feminist literary festival Growing Room makes space for all writers, says Lorimer Shenher

The acclaimed author's new memoir, This One Looks Like a Boy, reflects his nuanced approach to gender

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      Discussions of gender identity have become increasingly nuanced over the past few years. Social-media platforms display countless images celebrating those whose gender differs from their biological sex. Trans and genderqueer characters are the focus of film and TV shows, and even the Canadian government has taken steps toward recognizing alternative gender identities, permitting trans or nonbinary individuals to change their gender marker on official documents.

      That open-mindedness, though, wasn’t the case for the majority of writer and former police officer Lorimer Shenher’s life. Born in 1960s Alberta as Lorraine Shenher, he spent much of his time trying to suppress his gender dysphoria by channelling his energy into career pursuits, including his work as a Vancouver Police Department detective and lead investigator assigned to the harrowing case of serial killer Robert Pickton (described in his acclaimed debut book That Lonely Section of Hell). It wasn’t until 2015 that Shenher began his physical transition to male—a process that he documents, along with his life from childhood to the present, in his soon-to-be-released memoir This One Looks Like a Boy.

      More than most, he appreciates why gender is such a slippery concept, and why society carries the expectation that gender and sex should correlate.

      “I think there are a million historical underpinning reasons for it,” Shenher tells the Georgia Straight on the line from his Vancouver home. “But I have an English degree and a communications degree, so I often look at things through the lens of language. And I think sometimes it’s as simple as human beings need[ing] to be able to label things. The first thing we say when we’re talking about someone we met that day is ‘I met this woman,’ or ‘I met this guy.’ It’s such a defining thing for us as humans…I think it’s a need to compartmentalize, and to put things into a context to make them more understandable.”

      Shenher’s nuanced approach to gender is mirrored in by the long-running literary journal Room, which values the ability to express marginalization through language. An unapologetically feminist publication, its pages have featured work from women, trans folks, two-spirit, and non-binary writers over its 44-year history, and it strives to give a platform to wordsmiths often excluded from the literary canon. At the journal’s 10-day-long festival, Growing Room—now in its third year of entertaining Vancouver audiences with panels, readings, and workshops—Shenher will be speaking about writing and surviving in a cis-sexist society; a talk that will give him the opportunity to discuss the importance of trans visibility at literary festivals.

      “I really welcome something like the Growing Room festival because there’s a lot of toxicity right now in some circles around the acceptance of transgender folks,” he says. “And I think it’s unfortunate. I don’t ever understand where hatred comes from—I really don’t—but I can understand why women who have been traumatized or victimized by men historically might have some concern about being safe in female spaces. I think when they try to then have that cross over to exclude trans women from female spaces, I don’t think that’s really very respectful of those trans women’s experiences or identities. It really shouldn’t come down to some idea that trans women aren’t women—only men who want to do is dress up in women’s clothing and victimize women. It just seems so ludicrous.”

      More than anything, however, Shenher celebrates the importance of journals like Room and its Growing Room festival for their ability to create thoughtful dialogue. In a world where opinions are becoming increasing polarized, both, he says, are able to give space—or, quite literally, room—to different perspectives. By welcoming individuals of all stripes to the festival, feminist gatherings like Growing Room allow the opportunity for empathy and learning.

      “For me, everything comes down to intersectionality,” Shenher says. “I think within this feminist space, you can have black voices, you can have women of colour, you can have people who identify as women, you can have trans men, religious diversity—you can bring a lot of voices, and everyone can relate to the experience of not being of the dominant culture. I think for anyone who identifies as female, right away you’re in the non-dominant 50 percent of the world. All those other identities can share that experience, so we find a lot of commonality.

      “I think festivals like this are so important,” he continues. “I find them revitalizing. Again, when I talk about my people, my people are ‘others’, really. So to have a festival like this where people can come together and share that experience of marginality, I think it’s always so positive, and it’s really reaffirming for people to walk away and feel a little less bruised.”

      Lorimer Shenher speaks at Growing Room: A Feminist Literary Festival on March 12 and March 16. The festival takes place at various venues from March 8 to 17. More information is available here.

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays