Challenging the obsession with gender norms
A gender non-conforming poet, educator and performing artist Alok Vaid Menon prefers to refer to himself in the plural and lives on ‘their’ own terms. Vaid recently performed Femme in Public at Project Café, Assagao. In conversation with NT BUZZ they decipher their style of art, trans-activism, queer fashion and more
Danuska Da Gama I NT BUZZ
Alok Vaid Menon is an individual who refers to the self with the pronoun ‘they’ to avoid conforming to any gender. An Indian raised in the US, the style and poetic challenge to binarism has won them international acclaim – one that has its basis on their own journey as well as social advocacy. Besides, Menon is the youngest recipient of the prestigious Live Works Performance Act Award. After having performed at 350 venues across 40 countries, they recently performed at Spoken 2019, a festival of arts in Mumbai
Excerpts from an interview
How did poetry come to you?
I started writing when I was twelve, because I needed somewhere to put the pain of being harassed for my gender identity. Writing became my outlet to say: “This is happening to me, and it hurts.”
What is art to you? Many today have this notion of art being a catalyst of change and revolution, etc.
Art is the pursuit of honest and creative expression. Its impact depends on how it’s deployed. Art has the potential to change people and people have the potential to change the world. With my work I am trying to challenge society’s obsession with gender norms, and create space for complexity and fluidity – not just with gender, but with everything.
You have presented your work in over 40 countries, how was the response? Do you experience some kind of scepticism and hypocrisy in the audience?
The nature of my work is quite visceral and evocative. Often the reception has less to do with geography and cultural context, and more to do with the particular audience assembled that day. Are they feeling vulnerable? What kind of trauma are they negotiating in their lives? My hosts tend to do an incredible job of curating the perfect crowds and while yes, there is occasionally a refusal to engage, most often things are wonderful.
How do you bring together your notions of trans-activism in your writings and art? Is it a deliberate process to create awareness and inform, or is it your way of soul searching?
When I first started writing and performing I was deliberately writing about gender and transgender issues with the goal of raising awareness and making change. But then I realised that I was limited to myself. I am so much more than my gender. While I’m still, of course, attentive to the plight of my community, I also give myself permission to touch upon more universal themes like loneliness, heartbreak, transformative love.
Acknowledging the existence of trans- and gender non-conforming people is just the tip of the iceberg in solving struggles to be part of an inclusive society. But, there’s much more that needs to be done on various fronts. Can you shed light on some issues that need immediate attention?
Many people are unaware that trans- and gender non-conforming people experience extremely high rates of murder and physical violence. These past few years have been some of the most deadly ever. Due to a combination of discriminatory factors, trans- and gender non-conforming people also experience acute rates of homelessness, poverty, and suicidality. So many of us are struggling just for the right to exist.
What was it like growing up as an Indian in the US, and more so, who had a different concept of identity and sexual orientation?
I always felt trapped between binaries and polarities. From a young age I had to learn how to collage diverse aesthetics, traditions, and ways of being in order to make some semblance of myself. In retrospect: I appreciate how my intersecting identities required me to do the introspective work of negotiating who I was on my own terms.
Indians by and large are very conservative; describe the struggle from dealing with taunts and tags, to actually being open about your identity and sexuality?
It is excruciatingly difficult. There’s a constant and sustained sense of betrayal and grief: to be attacked from all sides. Performance art saved my life, giving me the space to process the pain and to imagine my own future. I don’t think I would be alive if it wasn’t for my art.
Tell us about the fashion and beauty trends you follow? Can it help in making queers feel accepted and inclusive?
I’d like to think that I set my own trends! The irony is that LGBTQ people have always been on the frontlines of fashion and beauty industries, it’s just that our aesthetics make it into the room and rarely our bodies. I think style has been such a powerful way of self-creation for me. I didn’t have control of the gender I was assigned at birth, but I have control of what I wear.
Finding out about one’s identity is one phase, being able to fight and stand up to shaming and bullying is the bigger struggle. Your advice to those queers who need to the courage…
They harass you because they want to be you. Remember that people have been taught to fear the very things that set them free. It’s not about you, it’s about their insecurity. Even though you might feel alone, never forget that you are part of a long legacy of people who had the audacity to prioritise their individuality over social conformity.