By Abby Jeffers
Alok Vaid-Menon has always been an artist.
“I think that’s kind of like, for me, ‘How did you realize that you needed to breathe?’” said Vaid-Menon when I asked how they got started with activism and art.
For Vaid-Menon, whose name is often stylized as ALOK, performance and activism have always felt like second nature. With the identities they hold as an Indian-American, gender non-conforming, transfeminine performance artist, their existence has always been highly politicized.
Vaid-Menon grew up in a small Texas town where queer people and people like them weren’t visible. They spent years making themselves smaller to make other people comfortable. But as a college student at Stanford University, Vaid-Menon began to understand that there were others who understood their story, and they got involved in student activism. They could finally project their voice as well as understand that there were political and social power structures that had kept them, as a transgender person of color, silenced for so long.
“So many of the things I needed just weren’t made there for me,” said Vaid-Menon. “I had to demand that.”
But the landscape for queer people and activism has evolved enormously since Vaid-Menon began their work. When they began as a student activist in college, they didn’t really believe that someone like them was possible. Now, the cultural landscape is evolving, creating more of a space for young queer activists.
These days, Vaid-Menon spends their time writing poetry, designing fashion, performing art and working as an LGBTQ+ activist, specifically for transgender people of color. Their work deals with a range of topics, but ideas that continue to surface are themes of shame, bodies and self-ownership.
“I think that we live in a world that, at every level, regulates and polices us and teaches us from a very young age that we don’t get to define ourselves for ourselves,” said Vaid-Menon.
This societal restriction is precisely what drives Vaid-Menon to design their own clothes. The ability to self-create and self-narrate stems from the trans-feminist idea that the patriarchy is invested in ownership of feminine people’s bodies and experiences, but once they realized that ownership can mean power, Vaid-Menon began to create.
Their third and most recent fashion line, titled “Natural Bodies,” focuses on terms that are currently used to police transgender women. Pieces of clothing are named things like “Biological” or “Innate” and allow Vaid-Menon to interrogate the modes through which cisgender womanhood is seen as the norm and transgender womanhood is seen as “superficial” or “counterfeit” in comparison.
“I wanted to actually make outfits that seem, like, over-the-top, and actually say, ‘This is my natural,’” said Vaid-Menon. “That, actually, when I put on makeup and when I put on a gown, I am my most natural self.”
With this, Vaid-Menon aims to critique ideas of “natural” and proclaim that, as humans, we do not get to decide what is natural for other people. In fact, the conservative rhetoric surrounding the LGBTQ+ community in modern times is that queerness unnatural, but the truth is that queerness is natural, and cisgender, heterosexual people cannot define nature for the queer community.
Vaid-Menon wants to challenge the idea of the gender binary on its most basic level. Western culture teaches that people must be either/or – in this case, either man or woman – but gender is both fluid and a spectrum.
One of the simplest manifestations of the gender binary is through gendered pronouns, like “he” and “she.” Recently, the celebration of the second International Pronouns Day on October 16 helped continue to normalize the idea of asking for someone’s pronouns – and this idea rests on the assumption that we cannot assume a person’s identity based simply on the way they look.
“When we’re saying, ‘Respect my pronouns,’ we’re not just talking about shifting language,” said Vaid-Menon. “We’re actually calling for a different shift in a worldview, and that worldview is, like, don’t assume that you know my gender and my sex on the basis of what I look like.”
But though Vaid-Menon’s sense of fashion is vibrant – exemplified best through their hot pink heels and the orange and purple cheetah-print fur coat they pulled off the rack of the vintage store where we talked – they don’t want to simply normalize their mode of transgression.
“There’s as many ways to be nonbinary as there are nonbinary people,” said Vaid-Menon.
Sometimes, it’s easier for cisgender people to understand the idea of nonbinary or gender non-conforming identities if they see a person who looks flamboyant and who presents far outside of the binary. But normalizing one way of dressing only hurts the people who believe that they’re not trans enough or not nonbinary enough.
Vaid-Menon began to write poetry because, like so many other queer people who have been repressed in their creative ability, they originally lacked the language needed to communicate their pain and struggle.
“[Poetry] is an externalization of a deep interiority in me,” said Vaid-Menon. “It’s like pulling out what I know and feel and surfacing it for the world and being like, ‘This is what I am, and that ‘am’ is contingent on the moment, ‘cause that could change tomorrow.”
They found the language they needed while in college, during the Sunday meetings for a poetry collective they joined. The meetings began with a check-in, and it was there that Vaid-Menon realized that poetry is more expansive than simply structured sonnets and haikus. In fact, poetry revolves around lived experiences and vulnerability, and that openness allows humans to connect and build relationships.
“I think poetry is the new pop, and I think especially now, in these political times, people are kind of bored with a pop that’s just not talking about what’s happening in the world,” said Vaid-Menon. “People really want to get together and talk about real shit.”
As if their fashion and poetry weren’t political or powerful enough, Vaid-Menon’s performance art is nothing short of explosive.
When they performed in Athens, Ohio, after Ohio University art student Moss Nash organized their visit in October, Vaid-Menon read poetry, spit sarcastically about white cis feminists, wove stories of colonizers, cried about dysphoria and not fitting into traditional paradigms of gender and, more than anything else, left the audience contemplating how their individual identities fit into the gender and racial paradigms of American society.
“A lot of what I’m doing is uncharted,” said Vaid-Menon. “People who look like me don’t really get access to the kind of cultural legitimacy that I’ve gotten access to.”
At first, Vaid-Menon believed that they performed because the rates of violence against trans people were so high and they needed to counteract that violence and protect trans people, but then, they realized that they were hurting themselves in the process of performance. The level of emotion they access while performing is so intense that they are often re-traumatized while onstage. That trauma is just one reason why they have performed less in recent months – they have developed a new instinct for self-protection.
When they do perform, Vaid-Menon recovers by calling loved ones after the performance. They need to talk to people who understand because often, the audience to which they are performing is composed of cis and white people. And when nobody in the audience understands, they need to call someone who does.
“Success in a performance context can feel traumatizing because so much of the history of transfeminine people is the history of the freak show,” said Vaid-Menon.
But the members of the audience who do relate are part of the driving force that keeps Vaid-Menon coming back to the stage. They love performing for other transgender people who know how to sit in productive discomfort, and when they’re performing for people who get it, Vaid-Menon feels recognized.
Because of structural inequality, however, those interactions are few and far between. The people who need to be in spaces like these are often left out of the conversation because of systemic barriers. To mediate that, Vaid-Menon often works with local organizations to set aside free or reduced-price tickets for trans people.
So Vaid-Menon continues to perform, despite the trauma and institutional barriers that prevent them from connecting with other trans people. They say that it’s because performance is where they feel most connected to divinity, and where they can be their most honest self.
But above all else, Vaid-Menon wants to emphasize the importance of supporting transgender cultural work.
Anti-trans violence in America today is an urgent crisis; there have been years of genocide against transgender and gender non-conforming people, and in 2019 alone, 20 transgender people have been reported murdered – a conservative estimate by nearly all accounts, given that trans murders are often misreported, undiscovered or unknown. And on top of the interpersonal violence, transgender and gender non-conforming people experience higher rates of homelessness and poverty, and legislatures have been creating or passing anti-trans legislation for years.
Vaid-Menon believes that this violence and hate are distinct from anti-LGB sentiments and that there is a particular crisis of anti-transness in this country. Working toward resolving those cultural attitudes, however, requires all hands on deck.
Because to Vaid-Menon, supporting trans activism means more than just organizing; it means supporting arts and cultural work as activist work and as vital for trans communities because it allows people to see and build an alternative world.
“I believe that what the role of art is is templating what a more just and profound and beautiful future and present could look like,” said Vaid-Menon. “So it’s really important to fund trans artists in this moment and to ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing to invest and sustain the careers and futures of trans artists, visual artists, performance artists, designers, musicians?’ And to recognize that as part of movement work.”
All photos courtesy of alokvmenon.com.
Originally published on Qth Magazine on November 5, 2019.