By RJ Johnson
Recently an amazing human by the name of Alok Vaid-Menon performed in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and members of the Prism team were fortunate enough to be in attendance and witness the poetry and words of this artist and activist. Alok identifies as gender non-conforming and transfeminine and use the singular they pronouns. From their website:
ALOK (they/them) is a gender non-conforming performance artist, writer, and educator. Their eclectic style and poetic challenge to the gender binary have been internationally renowned. They were recently the youngest recipient of the Live Works Performance Act Award granted to ten performance artists across the world. In 2017 they released their inaugural poetry chapbook FEMME IN PUBLIC. They have been featured on HBO, MTV, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New York Times, and The New Yorker and have presented their work at 400 venues in more than 40 countries.
Prism was also grateful to be able to conduct an email interview after the small Alaskan tour.
General questions from Prism:
First, thank you for agreeing to this interview. We hope that you enjoyed your time at UAA. Were you able to take any time to create some memories that you will carry with you?
ALOK: Absolutely, this trip to Alaska was really personally and politically very important to me. I hope to take what I learned back to “lower 48” (I learned that phrase too!) and to keep coming back!
“Alaska hospitality” is a term that is used to define a standard of how we treat our guests. Did you enjoy your time with the residents of our state?
ALOK: The organizers and community members were such a delight! The hospitality really reminded me of the community back in my home town in Texas – we all had each other’s back.
For some, the moment that they accept their own truth can be the bravest moment that they experience up to that point. Coming out to their loved ones is the next challenge they face. You have made the choice to share your truth with so many people, strangers included. Was there a moment that was the clear deciding factor for you to make that choice?
ALOK: I’ve come out so many times in my life. When I was younger I didn’t have much language or representation to figure out who I was so I thought I was gay and came out as that. It was only later in my life when I learned that there were people who were non-binary (neither exclusively a man or a woman) and gender non-conforming (people who visibly defy traditional gender norms). I remember when I first found out about GNC people I was like OMG THAT’S ME! But then actually presenting as myself took so much work because I experienced constant harassment because of it (still do). I think, perhaps ironically, that it’s validation from strangers: my audiences, my fans, my potential friends – that helps give me the conviction to keep going. When people tell me that I give them permission to live their best selves it makes me feel like something greater than myself ;3.
What’s next for you? Where would you like this journey to take you next?
ALOK: This summer I’m going to start working on my first book. I’m really excited about it! Right now, there’s so much air time given to cisgender people’s projections and anxieties about us, versus our actual experiences as trans and gender non-conforming people of color. I want to show people what it’s really like to live as we do.
Other members of the Prism Press team had the following questions for ALOK.
Recently you wrote about the struggle of finding a kinder and gentler way to recognize and affirm ourselves with one another, with regards to TGNC people. Can you offer your insight on correcting others on their misuse and assumption of pronouns? How do you avoid confrontational speech and how do you pick your battles?
ALOK: It can be really, really exhausting to have to constantly legitimize your existence and remind people about how to refer to you. How I respond has everything to do with context. If I have had to correct people several times and they’re still not getting it, then yes, I’m going to be less patient. If it’s people who are inviting me to speak specifically for my work as a gender non-conforming person, then they have no excuse! I am more understanding for people of color, people whose first language is not English, etc.
ALOK: I think what I was writing about with that is how so often TGNC people experience so much misrecognition and harassment from society and rather than taking that out on one another, I wish that we would develop kinder and more gentle ways to relate to each other. At every level we are seduced into perpetuating the cycle of harm, rather than disrupting it. I think kindness, transformation, and empathy can be disruptive forces – especially when practiced among marginalized people.
As a fellow GNC (Gender non-conforming) PoC, I fear all that you have experienced and I hide myself by conforming to masculine gender binary presentation. How did you learn to face your fears and blossom into the person that you are today?
ALOK: I don’t want to underestimate how terrifying it is. Literally every day I am afraid for my safety. No one should have to live like that and I respect whatever people have to do to feel safe and secure. For me it got to a point where If I wasn’t expressing my gender non-conformity and my femininity then I’d feel so depressed and dysphoric. I hate that I had to choose between two forms of pain…and it’s not like one is lesser than the other! What gives me the courage to keep going is having close relationships with other gender non-conforming PoC (online and off) to just have people who understand me, affirm me, and celebrate me for me. It makes me feel like I’m part of something greater than myself, like I’m part of a historic legacy. That makes me feel less isolated and more validated.
When you travel and share your truth, experience, and message, where does the energy come from and what continues to drive you forward on this journey?
ALOK: Honestly I think so much of my energy comes from meeting other LGBTQ people all across the world, and especially Black, indigenous, and PoC LGBTQ people. I am just so proud of us and the lives we are living, the families we are building, and the imaginations we are sustaining. Amidst constant and relentless erasure and violence we are doing so much, and that just makes me feel so happy and grateful – like I need to do everything I can to give back!
How can we engage people to desire and realize healthy gender in their own lives, and ultimately help them be more secure with themselves, and therefore tolerant of others?
ALOK: Gosh, you’re hitting the nail on the head here! People police other peoples’ genders because they are insecure about their own! I think we need to learn how to affirm people and build each other up, rather than constant critique and tearing each other down. Affirm and celebrate the things that get shamed and demeaned by our society: dark skin, disability, fatness, gender non-conformity, etc. Make people feel as if they have a fundamental worth outside of their appearance ;3
How do you help someone to care about something they were taught not to question? How do you help them relearn healthy gender practices so they don’t feel like they have to uphold and impossible and corrosive gender ideal that has been conservatively clung to for so long?
ALOK: It’s literally such difficult work and I’m trying to figure that out too! One thing I think is really powerful is art and storytelling. People often disengage when we just make arguments, but they might resonate more if there are more emotions, images, and sounds involved. This is why it’s really important to support trans and gender non-conforming artists who are bringing our issues and experiences to new audiences all over.
Love and need everyone!! Thanks for having me!!