Alok Vaid-Menon, artist and intersectional activist: « We change people by loving them more than they hate us »

Article publié le 11 novembre 2022

Text: Henri Delebarre. Photo: Camila Falquez.

From a childhood in Texas to an adult life in New York City and a gender studies degree from Stanford University in California, trans and non-binary artist and activist Alok Vaid-Menon has learned to gradually deconstruct gender stereotypes and move beyond them. Conscious of being different from an early age but lacking the language to express themselves fully despite their family’s support, they now devote all their energy to this cause through several initiatives aimed at changing people’s ways of thinking and promoting more kindness and tolerance, despite the current anxiety-inducing and reactionary political climate.

Activist, author, poet, influencer, designer, and performer, Alok Vaid-Menon – who works under the name ALOK – wears almost as many hats as their hair counts colors. Transgender and non-binary, the American of Indian descent has made it their prerogative for the past several years to deconstruct the gender binary stereotypes that still loom large in our society. Operating on multiple fronts at once, whether through books – such as the poetry collection, Femme in Public (2017), or the essay « Beyond the Gender Binary » (2020) – informative and poetic Instagram posts or talks and performances that straddle the line between lecture and entertainment, they fight relentlessly for the world to finally see gender not in black in white, but in Technicolor. 
Using humor to disarm the slightest hint of LGBTphobia directed at them, overturn stigmas, and dispel shame, ALOK went to a good school. Their aunt and mentor, the lesbian activist Urvashi Vaid, who passed away in May 2022, instilled in them from a young age the desire to dismantle the cis-hetereopatriarchy and claim the right to be themselves. 
On the occasion of their show in Paris, organized as part of an ambitious international tour, Antidote met with this figure who has turned their hairy body and multicolored hair into emblems of the values they defend: love, tolerance, and kindness.
In the dressing room of the Apollo Theater, a few blocks from the Place de la République, ALOK welcomed us before going on stage. An eloquent master of the art of rhetoric, they are well versed in this exercise, sharing with us their structured thinking, their experiences as a child growing up in a country in the midst of a complete conservative turn, their journey toward self-acceptance, as well as their thoughts on the need to make the fashion and beauty industries fully gender neutral. Having been immersed in queer stereotypes upon arriving to California to pursue gender studies, ALOK, who is now New York-based, uses a didactic discourse to help us deconstruct and understand the connections between how our appearances are controlled through the gender binary, racism, colonialism, and white supremacy. « Even though they’re constantly trying to bring you down, you have to figure out how to always stay on top, » they say. Their one million Instagram followers have grown accustomed to their unwavering hope, which is also reflected in the episode « Can We Say Bye-Bye to the Binary? » from the series Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness, they appeared in, with the tagline, « The future is bright and non-binary. »
ANTIDOTE: You’re from Texas. What was it like growing up in this conservative state?
ALOK: Pretty rough. Unfortunately, the town I grew up in, College Station, confirms every stereotype French people have about Texas. From a very young age, because I wasn’t Christian, white, straight, or cisgender, I was made to feel like I was a problem, like the world would be better off without me. People constantly cast doubt on who I was, so early on, I had to ask myself, « Who am I? » At the same time, this allowed me to gain a very strong self-awareness and to gradually accept my difference. I had no choice because there wasn’t a single person like me. Looking back, I’m grateful to have grown up there. I feel like it gave me a lot of strength to do what I do today.
While you didn’t have any role models as a child, things seem to have improved for today’s children, haven’t they?
Totally. And despite all the attempts by homophobes and transphobes to get rid of us. But they can’t do it, we’re too fabulous [laughs]! At the beginning of the pandemic, I went back to College Station for ten months and met a lot of queer people there. It was very moving to see how much things have changed. Sure, there are horrible policies in place, but the queer community remains strong. That’s why I regularly go back to Texas to perform. On this tour, I did three shows in Houston and Austin and most of the queer Texans I met said they didn’t want to move to the East or West Coasts. It’s so sad that some people feel like they have to move to San Francisco, Los Angeles, or some other more progressive city. Most people would say to me, « I’m from here, I don’t want to have to run away. » That resilience is beautiful and powerful. 
Photo : Alok Vaid-Menon at the Maison Valentino SS23 Fashion Show.
Did you realize early on that you were trans and non-binary?
Yes. Even before I had the language to express it, I did so by refusing to wear « boy » clothes, which I found boring. I wasn’t unhappy about being a boy, I just wanted to have fun with fashion, to wear what my sisters were wearing. I was very « effeminate » in my manners. People were always calling me a fairy, a fag, a faggot… No one ever asked me about myself, they just told me what I was. Many homosexuals and trans people only come to know themselves, at first, by way of the insults they receive.
When I was 7 years old, while my mother was tucking me in, I told her, « Mom, I’m queer. » I had just learned the word. I knew it meant « weird » or « different. » But in Texas, there is no education about LGBTQIA+ issues. So, I didn’t know what I really was. I knew what it meant to be lesbian or gay, but I didn’t even know that being trans was possible. At first, I used the word « gay » because it was the only word available to me. When I was about 19 and I found out about non-binary people and people like me, it was so therapeutic! It wasn’t until my early twenties that I really understood who I was. I think that’s the case for a lot of trans people, because we aren’t given the opportunity to learn about ourselves on our own terms. 
When I was in college, I found out that in India, where I’m from, trans and non-binary people have been around for thousands of years. So, I get frustrated when people say that there are a lot more trans kids today, as if it’s contagious or we are recruiting them. It’s just that we now have language to express what we’ve always felt.

 

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Une publication partagée par ALOK (@alokvmenon)

In this sense, you’re saying that it’s not the existence of trans and non-binary people that is new, but their politicization and criminalization. Besides the hijras in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, do you have any other examples?
There are the muxes in Mexico, the baklas in the Philippines, the kathoeys in Southeast Asia… In North American Indigenous culture, there are also two-spirited beings. The funny thing is that even in white Western cultures, there are similar identities. In the 1930s, in the United States, we were called « pansies, » « fairies, » « androgynes, » « inverts. » But that history is being erased.
You think it’s related to colonization and white supremacy. How come?
As soon as they arrived in India and the Americas, Europeans began to murder Indigenous people whom they considered backward. One way to justify this was to say, « These people are non-conforming. These women go bare-chested, like the men. And the men have long hair, they wear make-up and dresses. It’s disgusting. » So, because they thought these societies were enabling the « diseases » of homosexuality and gender non-conformity, white people believed they had to colonize them, save them.
The people they killed first were often trans or non-binary. In India, there is evidence that some of the first laws the British put in place criminalized the trans community. They prohibited dressing in a way that was considered gender non-conforming. Previously, in South Asian culture, trans people were considered spiritual leaders with mystical powers. But colonization taught them this was wrong. Unfortunately, this is still the case today: one of the LGBTQIA+ communities is still being scapegoated and blamed for the « collapse of civilization » and the « degeneration of the nation »!

On your Instagram account, you often talk about the harassment you face. What does it look like, in day-to-day life, to just be yourself on the street?
It’s frustrating. As a kid, I thought moving to New York would mean being safe. Sure, it’s a much safer place than some. But when you’re trans or non-binary, it’s a whole different story. People go out of their way to make your life miserable. They comment on our bodies constantly, take pictures of us without our consent, make fun of us as if we weren’t there, treat us like objects, like a spectacle.
My art practice developed in response to these questions: « Why are people so obsessed with me? »; « Why can’t I exist in public without being stared at? »; and « Why can’t I wear whatever I want to run errands without it being a problem? » It makes me angry when people say we’re asking for special rights when all we want is to be able to exist in public without the fear of being attacked. This is what I am fighting for more than anything else. The United States and France claim to be more progressive on LGBTQIA+ issues than they actually are.
As-tu vu les regards changer au fil des années ?
Je pense que c’est de pire en pire, à cause de la situation politique aux États-Unis. L’élection de Trump a montré aux gens qu’ils·elles étaient autorisé·e·s à se comporter comme ça. Ça les a encouragés à nous interpeller. Ça me fait très peur, car ça se produit même au sein de la communauté LGBTQIA+. Certain·e·s gays et lesbiennes sont ouvertement anti-trans.

Alok Vaid-Menon : « You can’t change people by making them feel ashamed or discredited. You change them by loving them more than they hate you. »

How did you develop a rhetoric centered on love despite all the hate you face? Has being a target bolstered your desire to be kind?
There was a time when I believed all the things people said to me – that I was ugly, that the world would be better off without me, that I was disgusting. And then I learned to love myself and realized that the reason I had believed those things was because I was afraid of my own power.
Today, when people harass me, I know it’s because they don’t accept themselves. Growing up, they were told they had to conform, fit into this or that box. So, when they meet people who are free from all that, instead of asking us to teach them how to do the same, they get upset because they don’t understand what it means to be free and to express themselves.
One day, in the elevator, a woman said to me, « Oh my god! Are you going to a Lady Gaga concert? You look ridiculous! » I said, « No, I’m just living my life. But you have the right to express yourself. » She looked at me, flabbergasted, and I continued, « You know, we don’t need a special occasion, our lives are the main event, and I’m sorry if no one ever told you that you are beautiful and unique, because you are. Have a good day. » People are so confused when you react like that [laughs]! The shaming doesn’t get to me anymore. That’s how I was made to feel as a child. And then I said, « Fuck it! I want to be free! » But if I hadn’t done that work of self-love and acceptance, I could have been just like the very people who harass me. And I also learned that you can’t change people by making them feel ashamed or discredited. You change them by loving them more than they hate you.

 

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Une publication partagée par Valentino (@maisonvalentino)

In your books, performances, and lectures, you claim that society doesn’t want trans and non-binary people to exist. Why do you think that is?
It’s about control and power. Legislating about trans people actually concerns everyone. Anyone who deviates from gender norms is punished. When trans people say, « You don’t get to tell me how to live my life, » it reverses the status quo and power relations. Society wants men to be militaristic and women to be maternal.
That’s why in the US, anti-abortion laws are passed at the same time as anti-trans laws: it’s the same misogyny that reduces women to the role of mothers. When a trans woman says, « I don’t have to be able to reproduce to be a woman, » and a cisgender woman says, « I don’t have to procreate if I don’t want to, » it goes against the conservative idea that women are primarily genitors.
It’s interesting to have this conversation in France because after the French Revolution, feminists demanded equal rights and representative democracy. But the men refused. Their role consisted in being mothers for the nation. This desire to control women so that they remain subordinate to men spans centuries. The question of the rights of trans people is exactly the same struggle. And what’s painful is that some cisgender feminists don’t support trans women, even though we’re facing the same problems. In reality, many of them are not fighting for equality, they are fighting for privilege. They are reproducing what was done to them. It’s very disturbing.

Alok Vaid-Menon : « We are told that feminism is a threat when in fact it can improve the condition of all genders. »

How can we deconstruct the binary system and overcome its stereotypes?
First, through more education, more knowledge. Everyone should approach History through the lens of racism, sexism, feminism… This is how we can reassess our ways of thinking. Right now, most people still think that patriarchy is the norm! We are told that feminism is a threat when in fact it can improve the condition of all genders.
Second, we need to unite with other marginalized groups, be intersectional. We need to understand that racial justice is linked to economic justice, to the fight against homophobia… It’s not enough to be concerned about the issues that affect us personally.
The third thing we need to do is support those on the front lines. Activists take risks. Honestly, it’s trans people who pulled the gay movement forward. But how are they supposed to fight against the oppression they face when they can’t even live decently? What most trans people are worried about is how to pay the rent, how to pay for surgeries… And they are being asked to dismantle the patriarchy! We need to support them financially.
Finally, we have to dream of a better world, which means involving artists in our movement. That’s why I’m very involved in fashion, art, and beauty. People often think this is superficial, but wrongly so. When images represent us, they give us permission to exist.
Fashion plays a key role in gender stereotyping. As the person who launched the #DeGenderFashion campaign, do you feel that this industry, and the beauty industry, are moving in this direction?
Some figures in these industries are going gender neutral, yes, but as part of a campaign rather than within their entire product line. Or they do it temporarily, for Pride Month. Or they create a third category, in addition to the « male » and « female » ones. But what we need is for fashion to be completely gender neutral!
People often tell me how drastic that is. But what’s drastic is saying that only a woman should wear a skirt! It’s so absurd! Brands could make much more money if their products were addressed to everyone. Of course, in the short term, some people will be offended, but they’ll die out eventually. When women started wearing pants, people were angry. Then it became the trend. So, let’s start this trend!
You yourself have created several gender-neutral collections. Will there be more?
That’s my dream. Right now, I’m gaining experience so that one day I can start my own brand. I truly believe that fashion can be a kind of armor, and that’s what I want to create: clothes that are empowering and unapologetic, like the Valentino dress I’m wearing on stage tonight [a long neon pink shirt dress, Editor’s note]. It’s impossible to ignore! [laughs]
Do you see fashion as a political tool?
Absolutely. Especially for trans people, who were forbidden to exist in public space, whether in France or in the US, because of laws prohibiting cross-dressing. The police would imprison people who broke these laws and take pictures of them to single them out in the newspapers.
At the airport, I was wearing something like this [they point to their outfit, which is a flowy dress covered with pastel flower prints that match their hair, Editor’s note], and they looked at me, horrified. But I want to show them that I have the right to exist. That’s what fashion is for: to show that we have the right to take up space and that we are beautiful. It has allowed me to find beauty in myself. Too often we’re told that being beautiful means looking like what society and fashion tell us to look like. But no! Being beautiful means being yourself. Which means that there are as many ways to be beautiful as there are people on Earth.
Photo: Alok Vaid-Menon on the stage of the Apollo Theater, in Paris, July 8, 2022.
Your hair is an integral part of your look and helps deconstruct ideas of masculinity and femininity. On Instagram, you also launched the #NothingWrongHair campaign…
Yes. This was important to me because hairy people are not well represented in mainstream culture. Women are taught that being hairless is synonymous with femininity. But this has to do with racism. Since they are less hairy, white people considered themselves more advanced than people of color, whom they compared to animals.
I grew up surrounded by dark-skinned, hairy women. That didn’t stop me from finding them beautiful and feminine. Keeping my hair is a sign of solidarity with them. I am often told that my life would be easier if I shaved. But why do we always blame individuals, rather than society, for its responsibility in the diktats it imposes on our bodies? To shave or not to shave should be a choice. Imagine people getting upset because you don’t want to keep your hair! It’s ridiculous!
You published the poetry collection Femme in Public in 2017, followed by Beyond the Gender Binary in 2020, and another collection last year, Your Wound/My Garden. Do you plan to publish another book?
Yes, I really want to write a memoir. The problem is that I don’t have enough time. Right now, I’m traveling a lot, concentrating on the 60 or so dates on this tour. But when it’s over, I think I’ll get back to writing. 

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