The transfeminine, gender non-conforming writer, activist, public speaker, and mixed-media performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon explores the themes of gender, race, trauma, and belonging through thought-provoking, powerful, and healing artistry.

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.

M. In your book Beyond the Gender Binary (2020), you acutely point out that what is never questioned is whose standards of authenticity we are being held up to in the first place. Can you elaborate on the distinction between “normative” and “normal”?
AVM. Growing up, I was continually told that femininity equaled hairlessness. But, as a South-Asian person, I grew up around hairy women. This didn’t disqualify or invalidate their femininity and womanhood. This is one example – of so many – of a particular racist aesthetic being standardized as the universal way to be a woman and feminine. When it should not be. So many mistake what other people tell us we “should” be as what indisputably is. I hope that with my work I can teach people to continually interrogate what postures itself as “natural.” Most of the time, it’s the particular choices of people with power who weaponize the language of “natural,” to conceal the origin of their choices and make them seem like this has always been the way things have been.

M. It very much sounds like the path to acceptance and liberation starts with decolonizing our collective minds…
AVM. Absolutely. We hear this narrative all over the Western world that “nonbinary is new,” or that “gender fluid people are a trend that comes from the Internet”. But the truth is people have lived and thrived outside of the Western gender binary for thousands of years! It’s just that colonialism has – and continues to – disappeared non-Western gender systems and divided billions of complex souls into one of two genders.

M. Which leads to entire communities upholding antiquated and inauthentic notions of who their ancestors were, who they are, and who they are supposed to be…
AVM. This hurts us all. We all need more options. We all deserve choice. One of the paradoxes of Western society is that we are told that we are “free,” but so often what that means is the freedom to select from pre-determined options. Extinguishing right then and there any other way of imagining and interacting with the world.

M. Your plea for people to come to terms with the realization that the gender binary hurts everyone — not just trans people — on the « Man Enough » podcast became viral last year. Why do you think it was such a bombshell moment?
AVM. I often hear from people that I’m just advancing a minority interest because “the gender binary is working fine for everyone else, except for nonbinary people,” and I’m incredulous. The gender binary is the reason why we have harmful and regressive gender norms. We are told that man and woman – and by extension masculinity and femininity – have to be separate and oppositional. There is an antagonism written into it. When we say that masculinity is everything that is not feminine, we lead to the toxic gender norms which encourage and celebrate misogyny, homophobia, and violence as the predominant ways to signal masculinity. This leads to incredible rates of domestic and all forms of violence. More broadly, this leads to everyone being made to feel as if they aren’t ever “man enough,” or “woman enough,” like they are only worth of love and consideration if they appeal to some arbitrary standard that has already been pre-set. People spend so much time trying to contour their lives into that standard that they are unable to accept themselves. This leads to bitterness and resentment which feeds back into this cycle of violence. Moving beyond the gender binary will create a world where people are just allowed to exist. Where they have nothing to prove.

Gucci Soul Scene Pre-fall 2017

M. And there precisely lie your advocacy and activism towards the #DeGenderFashion movement…
AVM. Yes. For example, it used to be illegal and considered “cross-dressing” for women to wear pants. It was only through the continual campaigning of feminists that we began to see pants as a gender-neutral garment. #DeGenderFashion is a continuation of this campaign for society to affirm the fact that clothes don’t have an inherent gender, they become gendered as part of a political process of social control. There are no “women’s clothes,” or “men’s clothes,” because clothes are just inanimate objects that anyone can wear. People can wear whatever they want.

M. Yet fashion and self-expression through style are highly political. Why does challenging the sartorial status quo matter?
AVM. How tragic and devastating it is that we live in a world where people are punished for expressing themselves. Since people’s appearances continue to be policed and regulated, fashion becomes politicized. We are told to dress in a certain way; and if we don’t, then we receive backlash. In response, fashion can be redeployed as a helpful tool to question and challenge how ridiculous and arbitrary these norms are. Why do we care about what people look like, and not who they actually are as people?

M. Would you say that sexism has a big part to play in the pushback against the #DeGenderFashion movement?
AVM. It does usually boil down to sexism. We live in a society that believes that femininity is disgusting, weak, futile, excessive, and a distraction. It is seen as absurd and foolish that “men” would want to wear dresses because in our patriarchal society people can’t fathom someone choosing femininity over masculinity. I believe that femininity is powerful, serious, important. That is one of the many reasons that I champion to degender fashion.

M. We can’t help but be reminded of the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle’s powerful words, “Women don’t need to find their voice. They have a voice. They need to be empowered to use it; and people should be encouraged to listen.” Why can’t society just listen to trans and non-conforming voices more?
AVM. Ironically, we live in the best of times; and in other ways, it is the worst of times. On the one hand, we have more media representation than ever before. For centuries, we have been erased, reduced to a secret. Now, more and more people know that we exist and have access to representation of our lives. Trans people are more easily able to connect with one another and obtain life-saving resources. On the other hand, we have more anti-trans discrimination, legislation, and reports of violence than ever before. We are in the midst of a backlash. We are being scapegoated and used as cheap shots for political and financial gain. The everyday experience of trans people is a testament to the fact that visibility does not translate into safety. We need dignity. We need support. We need infrastructure. We deserve protection.

M. Yet, against all odds, you remain a positive force for change who “needs hope to survive”. As the title of your latest book Your Wound/My Garden states, can you truly make a garden from a wound?
AVM. Yes, absolutely! Poets resurrect the dead things, like hope. My life is a testament to the fact that it is not only possible to make a garden from a wound, but beautiful. Now, more than ever, I believe that healing is possible.

M. Collectively? Do you think people are finally ready to heal themselves?
AVM. And here is the tragedy. By and large, no. People have become so familiar with anguish, torment, and discontent that they associate these sensations with their identity, their entire sense of who they are. Healing requires us to recognize that we may not know who we actually are. It requires living in a realm of uncertainty and vulnerability. So many would rather stay in pain because it is familiar. So, the question becomes, how do we get people to believe that they are worth more than their pain? No policy will make that happen. But art can. No, it will!

This article is taken from the Mixte Ewpowerment issue, published in september 2022. 

Photos : Yann Morrison / Makeup : Anita Jolles @ Artists Unit