By Derick Stevens-Jones
"Hi, my name is Alok as in tell me a joke."
I'll never forget the first time I heard that. I'll admit, I laughed. It's hard not to smile when you hear the fluidity of language or see the colorful combinations of clothing, makeup, and hair on Alok Vaid-Menon. They are a gender-nonconforming transfeminine Indian-American performance artist, poet, and queer activist. They've also dabbled in fashion design and trust, it's worth your time.
Photo by Eivind Hansen/Provided by AVM
I discovered Alok in 2015 when I began my own journey with gender identity. Seeing someone contextualize and live what I had been feeling my whole life affirmed that yes, someone else exists like me. And while our narratives were very different, they were very much the same. They understood what it was like to be a part of the South (by way of College Station, Texas), and what that meant as a feminine person exploring their identity.
Growing up in a, how they've said before, "post 9/11 queer body," Alok (who celebrates their 29th birthday July 1) was called everything in the book for being Brown — including a terrorist. Their struggle with gender and their Indian culture, along with being raised in The Bible Belt, propelled them into a world of activism and poetry. It also sent them to New York City, the place they now call home.
Their most recent book Beyond the Gender Binary is simply that — moving past the gender binary. As a society, we have been taught there is only "man" and "woman," but gender is so much more diverse than even we know. This book gives anecdotal tools and information necessary for breaking down those binary barriers. It also gives a few necessary conversations about the harsh reality of our world and how we, as non-binary folx, can thrive in it.
"I am both a man and a woman and neither a man or a woman. I am outside of these entire categories. I think they (the categories) see me and they see me as a failure," they once said in an interview with StyleLikeU, the same first interview I saw of them.
That was five years ago, and while that narrative hasn't changed, the creative has — and flourished. They've traveled around the globe and been on covers of magazines, most recently the cover of GQ India. I was fortunate to secure some time with Alok for Queerport to chat about their new book, finding acceptance within our community, and how we, in smalltown Shreveport, can make this place a little queerer.
QP: In your book, Beyond the Gender Binary, you talk about the day you were 20 and walking outside wearing a dress for the first time. How did that make you feel? Was that the first time you had experimented publicly with other parts of your identity (makeup, hair, shoes, etc.)?
AVM: Growing up I used to wear my sister and mom's clothes all of the time at home. It wasn't a concern for them, but became one when I started to attend public school. So in many ways wearing a dress felt more like coming home, returning to what once was, rather than becoming something "new." It felt both thrilling and terrifying. On the one hand I was genuinely afraid of publicly embracing something I had been made to feel so much shame about my whole life, but on the other hand I had this profound sense of presence and alignment. Like for the first time in a long time I was fully present in myself.
QP: As someone who deals with fashion and dressing people often, I find myself still having hard conversations about clothing not having a gender. How do you navigate those conversations?
AVM: Yes people still have such entrenched traditional ideas about binary gendered fashion. It's so wrong, and ultimately so boring and tragic. I think about how much creativity we're losing because we're too busy trying to conform. What's been helpful for me is learning fashion history to share tidbits with people about how clothes have no gender. Three books that have been particularly helpful to teach me this history are Sex and Suits by Anne Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes by Anne Hollander, and Work! A Queer History of Modeling by Elspeth Brown. What I've found is that people want to dismiss gender neutrality as some "recent fad" or "trend," but when we supplement what we're saying with history they can't deny that this isn't new, what is new is the gendering of fashion!
QP: Since we're on the topic of fashion — what are a few suggestions you can give to people who are interested in introducing unique pieces into their wardrobe?
AVM: Beauty is looking like yourself, not having to disappear yourself to fit into other people's ideas of what you should be. It can feel difficult — impossible even — to reclaim your own self-concept from the vice grip of other peoples' anxieties and projections. But what I can tell you is that on the other side — being able to look at yourself and feel, "damn I created this," there is no joy like that. It's euphoric! It's worth it!
QP: "People judge gender non-conforming people because they are insecure about their own identities. If they weren't, then gender variance wouldn't be so heavily policed." This rings true on so many levels, but to speak about gender identity, what are some of these insecurities you've seen, specifically within our LGBTQIA+ community? From my personal experiences, I've seen our community sometimes police us more than those outside of it.
AVM: Yes I experience so much backlash from cis LGB and even trans communities for my gender non-conformity. It's really upsetting! I understand where it comes from. The way that we get power in a patriarchal system is by upholding the gender binary and distancing ourselves from gender non-conformity. Certainly it's about prejudice, but it's also about power. People who have been dispossessed are looking to recuperate their power. And unfortunately in this world the only way we've been taught to heal is to hurt. So they mistake bringing other people down as bringing themselves up. It's more tragic than anything to me. Because that's not what acceptance, what happiness, what joy looks like. I'd rather have my beauty, my joy, my dignity, then live my life trying to be palatable for other people. So it strikes me that the work we have to do as queers is to show how this form of living — even though it can feel isolating and impossible — how it is transformative, generative, full of delight.
QP: Speaking of our community — let's talk about it. Many letters of the acronym get left off regularly and in fact, I've seen many people just refer to us as "the gay community." Being gender non-conforming, it's already hard to assert ourselves in a heteronormative, cis world, but sometimes it can be even harder within our own community. What are your thoughts on that?
AVM: It's disappointing and continually needs to be addressed. It's also embarrassing for them because once again they just don't know their history. All across the world — gender non-conforming people started this shit! The only reason that cis gay, lesbians, and bisexual people have the acceptance they do today is because of the SCREAMING QUEENS! who destigmatized queerness with their "flamboyance," and their commitment to self-expression despite rampant criminalization. It can feel so isolating and painful to already spend your life being tormented by the straight world, and then continue to experience discrimination in the gay world — which begins to feel like another iteration of the straight world. But! What helps me get through is knowing my legacy, knowing who I come from, what I'm fighting for. It gives my life purpose, meaning, and conviction — that we come from a legacy of people who were always made into the problem because of our appearances, when in actuality the problem was always and is always heteronormativity all along! It's not you baby, it's the cis heteropatriarchy!
QP: One of the things you wrote says "At the time, I thought conforming would make me happier, but instead it just made me more lonely. This is how bullying works: We are afraid of being bullied, so we bully other people." I've been coming to terms with this myself more recently, but I was wondering if you might expand on these experiences. What were some things you found you did in response to your bullying? How were you a bully?
AVM: For years in my life I became my own worst enemy. I wouldn't speak out because I hated my voice. I wouldn't dance because I hated my body. I restricted myself and tried to become invisible because I thought I was fundamentally wrong. "Internalized" homophobia and transphobia feels too passive. I was actively homophobic and transphobic to myself. Embracing my fluidity, moving past my shame, has helped save my life! No — it made my life! It gave me a life worth living. Self-repression is so boring and unambitious and trite. I'd rather be beautiful.
QP: Growing up in the south, we don't have many resources — especially for trans and gender non-conforming folx. How do you suggest we challenge this and make immediate changes? What are some things you've seen in smaller cities?
AVM: The most incredible and dynamic resource is friendship. We can be what we need for each other. It's really about creating intentional, safer spaces where trans and gender non-conforming people can be affirmed, celebrated, centered. There's this pressure to emulate big city infrastructure and while I don't want to under-emphasize the importance of inclusive TGNC healthcare, many of these cities have more isolated and alienated communities than anything. People really need community and that can be created anywhere — even with a small bunch of people. We just need to learn how to better practice interdependence and mutual aid.
Order their book Beyond the Gender Binary now —
Physical Book: www.alokvmenon.com/store