Alok Vaid Menon

Photography by Elif Kücük

Alok Vaid Menon

As a performer and writer, Alok has questioned the alignment of gender with one's identity on a daily basis. Their work is dedicated to championing the same. From blogs that defy the endless stigmas of our society to performances that combine art and poetry, Alok's been an important voice in and for the community of trans people. Apart from their solo act, Alok is known for their former South Asian trans performance duo DarkMatter along with fellow gender non-conforming artist Janani Balasubramanian which gained both wide recognition and accolades. Alok was also part of the 2016 HBO documentary titled The Trans List. 

From growing up in a conservative, small town in Texas to living in the seemingly cushioning anonymity of populous cities. And somewhere in between and after, touring around the globe, it goes without saying that Alok had their fair share of experiences being exposed to a range of notions, perceptions and prejudice. 

How have you dealt with the polarising outlooks of different people towards transfeminine people and do you believe that the anonymity of a city like NYC ensures a greater degree of acceptance than the conservative backdrop of small towns?
Touring means that I’m exposed to a whole range of reactions to my gender. What I have experienced is that transphobia is everywhere – it’s too simplistic and reductive to say that 'small towns' are *more* prejudiced than big cities, they all have their own ways of discriminating. I’ve found that rather than necessarily being helpful, anonymity in cities can be even more dangerous. Anonymity means people don’t know you, which means people don’t defend you when you’re getting harassed. In my experience it’s the people that have mattered more than the place: it’s so vital and essential to be surrounded by a community who see you as you and protects you.' 

The LGBTQIA community's journey has been gaining considerable ground along with an evolving acronym that only signifies more hope for those who wish to challenge the status quo. However, more often than not, people remain unaware of struggles faced by the individual communities. As the representation of each is commonly drawn a hazy picture by an oversimplified sense of homogeneity; misconceptions about people from the community being part of a unified movement remain prevalent. 

What do you think has been the degree of trans progress relative to that of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, intersex and asexual communities amongst others?
It’s important to acknowledge that trans people can be lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, asexual, and intersex. The fact that we often forget this and discuss trans as separate from these suggests how much progress we still have to make. The only versions of LGBTQA life that have gotten acceptance tend to be the cisgender and/or gender conforming ones. Across the board trans people – and especially those of us who are gender non-conforming – are experiencing extreme rates of harassment, violence, and discrimination. In many cases this violence is actually increasing. I think this has everything to do with transphobia within the movement: our issues and experiences are rarely, if ever, prioritized.

“I’ve found that rather than necessarily being helpful, anonymity in cities can be even more dangerous. Anonymity means people don’t know you, which means people don’t defend you when you’re getting harassed.”

Do you believe that the process of self-identification for those operating outside the conventional ties of existing identities is a lot more complex because they've had to start at the same place as them? Considering they've had to question what something even as traditionally simplified as gender even means. 
The process of saying, 'This is who I am' is one of the most intense and complicated journeys. I think all of us are struggling with it in our own ways. I don’t think gender non-conforming and non-binary people have a necessarily more complex journey, I think we are more honest about how difficult it is. Things like 'language' and 'identity' are devices we use to approximate what we feel in the inside so there is always a disconnect between who we know we are and how we are able to express it.

Could you tell us about your experience working on The Trans List? Has being part of a film about transgender stories in America made you consider other paths of performances other than poetry?
It was a really wonderful opportunity to contribute to trans visibility on a larger stage than I have had access to before. It’s been so delightful to receive messages from across the world of people telling me that they had never seen anyone like me before and that my story was helpful for them understanding their own non-binary genders. Not just with The Trans List but with other experiences over the past few years I’ve started to see myself as a performance artist first and foremost. I will always write poetry, but I don’t think my performance is confined to it.

Alok Vaid Menon

A couple of months ago, you and your former collab partner Janani Balasubramaniam decided to end your Trans South Asian performance art duo, DarkMatter after four years of working together. Could you talk about some of the highlights from your time as part of this duo?
My collaboration with Janani gave me the confidence to exist in the world as a gender non-conforming person and gave me the conviction that my creative work matters. The life that I live is often very difficult: I experience relentless harassment and violence and am constantly reminded that in the scheme of the world my life and my experiences do not matter. I am so grateful to have had such a close and intense creative partnership so early on in my life that continues to give me the confidence to keep going.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline? What can you tell us about them? 
After almost 10 months of non-stop touring I am taking a couple of weeks to breathe, sleep, write, and read! This feels as important as any other project; care is a form of work!

Earlier this year, you toured in your country of origin, India. Is there any stand-out difference in your experience touring here, that's differentiated it from your other international performances? 
India is a fundamentally different landscape to perform in [and within India there are so many differences, too!] I could go on and on about this, but what I will say is that personally it feels so much more emotional and personal for me to perform in India. Growing up as part of the Indian diaspora I was always made to feel that my sexuality and my gender were something that I picked up 'in America', and was routinely told that there were no LGBTQ people in India. Connecting with LGBTQ artists and activists in India and sharing my work there touches me deeply. My experiences in India have been some of the most foundational to my life and my creative practice.

“Growing up as part of the Indian diaspora I was always made to feel that my sexuality and my gender were something that I picked up 'in America', and was routinely told that there were no LGBTQ people in India.”

Trans as an identity is fundamentally indefinable because of its culture-specific adaptabilities. How then, do you believe an identity which is fluid could be understood in its full capacity? Are there possible sub-sections within the community that could emerge as a result of this?
I believe that there are as many genders as there are people in the universe. I think the goal is less about 'accepting trans people,' and more about accepting the ways in which all of us [regardless of how we identify] fail to embody a reductive binary of 'man' or 'woman'. Trans identity is complex because humanity is complex – we have to commit ourselves to constantly learning and recognizing that difference and diversity are strengths, not weaknesses.

Today the discourse surrounding marginalised or oppressed communities revolves around bringing about a change in the established legalities and politics, but like you’ve mentioned in interviews before, one needs to go beyond such symbolic pursuits and focus on practising it. To what extent do you think it is possible, for entire generations brought up in their own time that dictated its own rigid social conditioning and belief systems to be able to accept a world that is increasingly challenging the same? 
I believe it’s possible. I think I have to believe it’s possible to keep going. I believe that all of us are able to transform – that we just have to be exposed to the right poetry, art, resources, conversation, something to help us realize that another world is possible. I have seen so much transformation in my own life of people I thought would never be able to change in their ways. What it takes is compassion, empathy, and persistence. It can feel impossible because we are up against hundreds and thousands of years of oppression. But that’s what art is about: taking on the impossible.

More about Alok Vaid Menon here.

Text Shristi Singh