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A behind-the-scenes look at Fiona Mantha

Quiet queerleading

COMMUNITY BUILDER. Crafter, freegan & Venus Envy staffer Fiona Mantha. Credit: Paul Galipeau

Queer is exploding helicopters, toothy cunts, and cross-dressing dance parties. Queer is knitting your own frilly underwear, drama-free sex, and a curriculum of Canadian women authors. Queer is radical, geeky, and stainless steel orgasms.

Perhaps best known for her day job at Venus Envy, Fiona Mantha has spent a lot of time thinking about the term.

“Queer is about challenging hegemonic heterosexuality and homonormativity — that’s Lisa Duggan’s term, not mine. I think of being queer as a politically charged action — one that aims towards sexual liberation and not sexual assimilation,” says Mantha.

Mantha hails from a small town north of Toronto with a population equivalent to an Ottawa high school. Despite the glasses and bookish nature that could have earned her prejudiced nerd-targeted bullying, the worst she got from her teenaged peers was jabs about her wardrobe.

Mohawk-sporting activists and the funky art class regulars surrounded Fiona. She went to parties, served on social committees, and made regular road trips with her friends to Toronto for protests.

“Besides,” Fiona syas wryly, “nobody wanted to make enemies with the school brain if you wanted any help with your homework.”

After four years of undergraduate Political Science at Carleton University, being brainy recently landed Fiona an acceptance into a Masters Program on Canadian Studies with a specialization in Women Studies—she insists she would have taken Queer Studies if it existed.

Her heroes include the likes of Carol Queen, Pat Califia, Joan Nestle, Judith Butler, and John Waters.

Mantha frequents burlesque shows and has a favorite line of dildos, completely solid metallic beauties that look more like a 30th century spacecraft or extraterrestrial than something you stick into an eagerly awaiting orifice.

Yet Fiona also has a drive to build community around the transformation of gender roles and economic consumption. Getting involved with DIY fairs such as Ravenswing and movements such as freeganism (an anti-consumerist food movement) is tied up in Fiona’s ideas of recycling, reusing, and rethinking trash. That’s why she supports and helps create spaces where people can bring stuff to swap and take freely.

That’s also why she makes and sells her own tote bags, panties, and magnets. However, her ideas on what building community is range beyond just co-organizing Ottawa’s first Freegan Festival back in 2007:

“Building a strong community means working to ensure that members — or newcomers —  are not alienated and that within the community. Welcoming, openness and warmth are important values,” she says. “It also means ensuring that the work of sustaining the community doesn’t fall on too few people, and that every member is encouraged to contribute to the community building process-be that organizing, hosting, attending, fundraising for, and enjoying community-based events.”

Fiona Mantha isn’t about being a paradox or inconsistent. She’s what queering is all about: diversity, reconstruction, moving and thinking beyond straight lines and small boxes. And she’s not alone. She’s got the support and participation of her community, her friends, and her girlfriend of one and a half years —  a PhD sociology student who was looking for porn when she first met Fiona.

The best place to find Fiona Mantha, besides your local Imax, book reading, indie café, or queer potluck? Well, her place of employment, of course. If you’re a newcomer to Venus Envy, you’ll probably be overwhelmed by the bookshelves containing health, erotica, DIY crafting, and feminist theory; the scarlet walls sporting phalluses of every color and texture; and the billboard of community, sex-positive, and queer events. Bewildered, you might wonder if you can find someone knowledgeable and experienced enough to give you the low-down.

And there she is, laid-back, smiling, pierced, and bespectacled.

“Hi, my name is Fiona. Can I help you?”