Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Michael V Smith’s memoir on body shame and gay masculinity

Canadian author shares candid story of pain, effeminacy, transgression and growth

To the cautious, Michael V Smith’s candid, courageous and challenging memoir may seem like a dangerous volume of dirty laundry. Credit: David Ellingsen

Candid to the core and profoundly wrongheaded (in some circles, at least), My Body Is Yours instantly brings to mind a political debate that’s been playing out communally for decades and usually reaches a fever pitch at Pride.

On that debate’s conservative side: those who see the parade as a terrific public relations event, a unique opportunity to showcase accomplishments, respectability, and virtual normalcy (while keeping certain fringe elements — the Fisting Dyke Granny collective, the Polyamorous Anarchist Genderqueer cell — deep in the shadows and far from curious cameras).

The opposition’s position: celebrate the rainbow’s colours and let all of our freak flags fly high.

If Michael V Smith’s memoir gets distributed widely and read — and, really, it should — I’m guessing its contents will prove as divisive.

For the cautious demographic that views Modern Family’s cheek-kissing Cameron and Mitchell as a wise political strategy of selling gay as safer than teddy bears, Smith’s Body will seem reckless, a dangerous volume of dirty laundry.

To their eyes, the memoir can only help cement the community’s bad reputation.

Why? Well, although there’s plenty of soul-searching and cultural analysis, its pages also include a detailed recollection of alcohol and hard drug consumption, and compulsive years of promiscuity.

“I’ve taken or given a dick in either an upper or lower hole with more than a couple thousand men. I think. I stopped counting when I reached around 1,500. It’s all hubris after that,” writes the 40-something Smith, now a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.

Smith recalls many, many nights of cruising busy park trails and an equal number trolling the internet and meeting strangers in dangerous locations for high-risk sex.

He also shares his heartfelt commitment to drag, radical fairy gender experimentation, and anti-porn porn-making. There’s even a paean to his most intimate sexual experience, fisting: “Love is never more acute,” he writes, “than when your interior is in the hands of another.”

He offers advice too: “No matter how good it feels at the time, never penetrate yourself with a bar of soap.”

Setting aside these scandalous, sound bite-grabbing experiences, Smith’s memoir is unflinching, a sobering document about family, manhood, love, striving and failing, and the lengthy quest toward self-discovery that began with a young man with a “coat-rack figure” who was “a poor excuse for a man by the measure of masculinity” in his unwelcoming Ontario hometown.

The thoughtful book we read is not the book Smith set out to write — “an angry finger-wag at the world, telling most men how to behave, showing them how to live by counterexample, and offering a whole lot of advice about what fuckups they have been.”

Of the book’s evolution, Smith says, “Despite my intentions, a book chooses me. A book lets me know what it wants to be, through gut and intuition and feeling it through. In the end, I guess my heart was much more interested in a book that was vulnerable than judgmental. I’d rather live that way in the world, which is sometimes easy to do, and sometimes requires great work.”

“I hope this book isn’t offering critiques,” he says. “I had wanted it to offer suggestions, and invitations.”

As for its evocative title, Smith explains, “I hope the title speaks to the commonality of experience — simply being in a body — as well as biology, like being my father’s son. It references that I was promiscuous, and, more simply, generous with my body, as a lover, a performer, a friend. The book is offering the reader my body’s narrative. Here’s the story of my body, and my relationship to it.”

With the exposing rawness of the book’s revelations, Smith can sense his vulnerability. “My greatest fear about this memoir,” he says, “is the same I’ve sometimes had as a performer — that people will only look at the surface of things. The sensationalism, rather than the heart.

“All books are about otherness,” he says. “If a reader’s only approach is to be a voyeur, then the book and reader haven’t succeeded in putting her in another person’s skin. You can be a farm girl in southeast Asia and relate to my big city Western queer life.

“This book is about my relationship to my father dying, and coping with stress —coping poorly, I mean — and body image and living with a constant thought that I’m an outsider. Anyone can recognize those intimacies.”

Looking back at the societal norms and values he battled with for so much of his life, Smith gets philosophical. “I guess I’m more angry at myself for having given them weight,” he says. “In many ways this is a book that tries to articulate other perspectives. I’m trying to give voice to other versions of being a human, some of them I’ve had to borrow, some I simply dreamed up.”

One result of this dreaming is gender viewed as a “conscious, live response.”

“I don’t think I’m representative of any kind of maleness,” Smith says. “That’s some of the point of the book. What is a man? That’s too broad to be defined. Genders are far more pluralistic and kaleidoscopic and slippery than any representation can account for.”

Though My Body Is Yours ends with upbeat words, Smith understands his evolution isn’t over. “I can’t imagine I’ll reach an end,” he says. “The end will reach me. If the book sounds like it ends on a happy note, it’s because I’ve done a great deal of work, and experimenting, to come to gratitude. Gratitude is the conjoined twin of happiness — if you get friendly with one, you’re bound to know the other.”