After weeks – months, even –of preparation and trepidation, Alok Vaid-Menon, one of the most recognizable faces on social media of the gender non-conforming movement and LGBTQIA+ rights activism finally touched down in France for our scheduled photoshoot on one of the hottest days to date in the City of No Air-Conditioning, Paris. Unbothered, the Texas-born, NYC-resident artist is accustomed to being at the center of heated… debates. Their feat of arms? Turning the societal status quo over its head while conjuring a life worth living (not merely existing) for themselves and for others, through beautifully crafted and sharply delivered essays, poems, and speeches. Still on a very successful, ever-growing world tour with a comedy-poetry show that keeps them away from home, ALOK cultivates wonder like their favorite house plants, challenging what society deems normal, always curious, and eager to deconstruct how we came to be, how it can be harmful to us, and how we can collectively change things for ourselves and future generations. Born in the early nineties to Malayali and Punjabi immigrant parents from Malaysia and India, with the late Indian-born American LGBTQIA+ rights activist, lawyer, and writer Urvashi Vaid as an aunt, the NBC’s Pride 50, and Out Magazine’s OUT 100’s honoree’s upbringing in the Lone Star state mirrors the regrettably, immutable trope of ostracization and bullying because of their race and gender expression. From this battle ground, however, they made a field of blooming art, transcending shame, grief, and pain into self-affirmation and authentic expression, first in the safe space of the Internet, before being able to present their work at 500 venues in more than 40 countries – and counting. “In a world that’s committed to making trans and gender non-conforming individuals’ life miserable, there’s something audacious and beautiful about insisting on maintaining humor and delight”, says the author of Femme in Public (2017), Beyond the Gender Binary (2020), and Your Wound/My Garden (2021). Our encounter was nothing but delightful, whilst they shared a testimony of resilience colored with joy that has the power to bring comfort and hope to the most parched soul.
Mixte. As an acclaimed transfeminine, gender non-conforming artist whose work reframes gender norms in fashion and beauty, how did you first explore gender non-conformity in its most trivial and pure expression as a child?
Alok Vaid-Menon. The truth is, as a young person, I was free. I didn’t know — or even cared — about society’s gender norms. I was born with two lungs, one heart, and no shame. So, I wore what I felt like wearing and expressed myself how I felt like expressing myself. My freedom quickly became a problem for other people who would tell me that “boys” shouldn’t care about how they dress. That “boys” shouldn’t care about art. I didn’t cross the gender binary; the gender binary crossed me. I learned gender through other people’s shame. Ever since, I’ve been trying to return to that sense of freedom.
M. Quite a challenge in the binary world we live in! How was your journey into reconciling the outside world — your family, friends, people who matter to you, strangers even — to your authentic self?
AVM. From a young age I was made to feel that the more I expressed myself on my own terms, the more I would be punished for it. I was made to barter my creativity, my authenticity, and my dignity for legitimacy and safety. It left me feeling hollow and empty. I don’t remember much from growing up because I wasn’t really there. The fiction I wrote about who other people wanted me to be was. It wasn’t my lack of self-acceptance that kept me from expressing myself, it was the constant threats to my safety. I often wonder how much sooner, how much freer, I would be if people just left me alone, just allowed me to exist.
M. Sadly, most people still believe that trans is what you look like, and not who you are. What does the nuance between the two imply for the well-being, safety, and overall dignity of transgender non-conforming people in our society?
AVM. Right. It’s important to understand that there are as many ways to look trans as there are trans people. Yet so much of medical and legislative policy is obsessed with the idea that there is only a certain way to be and look like a woman, man, and trans. This leads to a stressful scenario where we are constantly required to “prove” ourselves to be acknowledged, let alone respected. Why should we have to prove who we already are? Why should we have to argue for what already is? To be trans is to constantly have to convince other people of what is. This takes a devastating toll on our mental and physical health. There is this pervasive sense that we don’t belong, that we’re a problem, that we have to “correct” ourselves in order to have access to recognition. If society just believed trans people for who they – we – said that we were, that would significantly improve the wellbeing of our community.