Mt. A student Oorja Gonepavaram is the first undergraduate student to be invited to speak at University of California, Riverside’s 2022 Conference on Queer and Transgender Studies in Religion this upcoming February.
Gonepavaram is a fourth year commerce student with minors in economics and Japanese studies. Her children’s book began like many projects do: with an assignment for a class. In the Winter 2021 semester, she audited children’s books from the Sackville pre-school under Dr. Susan Andrews’ superversion. The project focused on exploring how diverse and inclusive the books were, prompting Gonepavaram to create one herself.
In Dr. Barbra Clayton’s course on Buddhism, Gonepavaram chose to write a children’s book exploring Buddhist views of sexuality. In her words, Buddhism is typically seen as a “peaceful religion” that “goes with the flow,” but it also denounces all kinds of sex. Wondering how Buddhism’s strict rules for men and women translate into other sexualities and genders, Gonepavaram strived to understand just how inclusive the tradition is.
Titled “As You Are,” Gonepavaram’s book has a two-fold message: an accepting community can be found within the Buddhist tradition, and Buddhist practices can be used for self-acceptance.
Gonepavaram’s book follows two children, Daniel and Natasha, who are from two different familial and religious backgrounds but who are both struggling to understand how their sexuality is accepted within their traditions. Guided by Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion and mercy who is also seen as a transgender icon in Buddhism, Daniel and Natasha learn to accept themselves and the new tradition.
The book was written and illustrated by Gonepavaram herself, although Dr. Andrews, Dr. Clayton, and Dr. Dani Dempsey were all key parts of bringing the project to life. Although Gonepavaram enjoyed illustrating the book, her biggest challenge was inclusivity and ensuring that nothing in the book was inadvertently offensive or stereotypical, as she wanted to be accurate without generalizing in a negative light.
Gonepavaram said she felt simply “amazing” when she was first offered a chance to speak at the conference. “It validated all of my hard work,” she said. Speaking at the conference also provides opportunities for networking and to meet academics from all over the world who work in a field she is very passionate about. As an aspiring professor herself, Gonepavaram cherishes this opportunity to be involved in such a welcoming and academically rich community.
At the conference, Gonepavaram will explain the stylistic choices of her illustrations as well as speak about the overall message of her book. Gonepavaram hopes that this conference will give the book the credit it needs to be published afterwards, another dream of hers.
When asked about the overall message of her book, Gonepavaram thought for a moment before saying that “religion is notorious for being homophobic and transphobic but a lot of religions have been bastardized over the years.” She emphasized that many religious texts were not originally so homophobic, so it is time for contemporaries to return to the roots of religious traditions to prove how accepting they truly are. The overall message of the book is that Buddhism is a safe space for people of the LGBTQ+ community, proving the importance of representation in children’s books, especially in religious spaces.