Alok Vaid-Menon


Alok Vaid-Menon is not interested in binary accounts of the world. Halfway through our interview, they called out the sole “is-it-this-way-or-is-it-that-way” question in the lineup of inquiries. It was a question about social media, and whether the phenomenon has been good or bad for Vaid-Menon, as well as other transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) people.

“Most answers are both-and,” Vaid-Menon says, understanding the myriad ways that social media’s enormity could impact them and their community—but also referring to any facet of the world, not just avatars and double taps. Vaid-Menon’s work and art are themselves a myriad. The 28-year old New Yorker has traveled to 40+ countries to speak (on a myriad of matters, no less, from fashion to advocacy); they are a published poet, and soon a published author (Beyond the Gender Binary dropped June 2, from Pocket Change Collective); they are a performance artist, an activist, a designer; they are a canvas for color and clothing and makeup, or a lack thereof, or some mixture of it all.

To scroll through their Instagram (@alokvmenon), delighting in visuals alone, is to see Alok as both artist and artwork. Brightly dyed hair matches (or doesn’t) loud patterns, pursed lips, kinky boots, even kinkier shoulder pads, and whatever amount of facial and body hair Vaid-Menon so chooses. In my favorite image, dated January 3, 2020, they wear a Snooki-style wig, bumped to the heavens, plus Elphaba-green wedges. They are seated on a stool against a yellow drop, and they sport a B+B bra and underwear...or is it a swimsuit, or? (B+B is an inclusive brand that creates clothes for all body types and gender expressions.) Alok’s colorful makeup brings life to the Jersey fantasy, or is it a Long Island fantasy, or why do I care so much to find a reference? And their body hair, ever abundant, is cutely swirled like Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

But you cannot simply scroll through Alok’s Instagram for visuals alone. You’ll miss the myriad. The caption on this image—a poem—adds depth, dimension, magnitude. (The full poem can be found on Instagram, while this excerpt skips some lines with ellipses <...>).

“on the other side of shame, BODY HAIR IS BEAUTIFUL.
on the other side of shame, i am here — hairy, feminine, powerful!
because my white classmates used to call me a monkey
because when my sister’s arm hair grew she was called a man…
…because i never took my shirt off in public until i was 20 years old
because they called me a beast
(because i believed them)…
…because when i told i was trans she said no one would believe me because i was ‘so hairy’
because when i came out my community told me i should ‘at least shave’ to be taken seriously
because women + men yell at me on the street telling me to ‘shave if i’m gonna dress like that’
because indian people harass me the most for it
because they say the same things to me that were said to them
(because i know these intimate cuts, how deep they sting)

because every day online i have people tell me that i am disgusting + deserve to die
because the women, they don’t want to look like me
because the men, they don’t want to look like me
because it doesn’t matter —
because i’d rather be me than beautiful
because i’d rather be me than their beautiful
because i’d rather be my own beautiful

because this body hair it is —
calligraphy written all over me,
a letter to you, a letter to me
it is lace, waves, eternal softness
it is an invitation to another way to be
on the other side of shame,

Despite the binary nature of my question about Vaid-Menon’s relationship with Instagram and other social platforms, they did paint a picture of the pros and cons. On the one hand, it’s a platform for art, for connection, for feeling less isolated, especially as a TGNC person. But then there’s the other side that those people face: “Social media has exposed us, hunted us, violated us. Over the years I’ve become a lot savvier about how I use the platform,” they say. “It’s a means to an end for me, never the end.”

But nothing is the end. Every day, TGNC people are fired, harassed, taken advantage of, and killed on the basis of gender. This year, the U.S. Supreme Court has three cases on trans rights, and whether or not they belong in the list of protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which bars employers from discriminating against their employees on the basis of sex, race, skin color, national origin, and religion): One of those cases centers on plaintiff Aimee Stephens, a trans woman who was fired from her job at a Michigan funeral home after coming out as transgender and dressing in feminine clothes. A year before that transition, Stephens stood in her backyard with a gun to her chest, ready to end her own life. But she promised herself to press forward, to come out as trans. And now Stephens could change the course of history if the (conservative-leaning) court rules that this firing was unconstitutional.

In some ways, Vaid-Menon’s own path began similar to Stephens’. As a young teenager in College Station, Texas, they attempted suicide after relentless derisions and bullying. The dark yielded to enlightenment, however: Their poetry was born in the wake of that trauma, which itself solidified their persona, their activism, their artistry, their thick skin, and their spine. “That’s why I keep going, even when it’s hard,” they say. “I know the stakes. The people that I am, and the people that I love are suffering, so bad. I see my role as being able to help them articulate the wound. That’s so much of what the role of an artist is: giving people access to the frameworks to describe the violation. Because oppression works by dispossessing us of our images, language, and being. I hope that by creating work, I can create possible worlds—inklings of possibility where trans and gender non-conforming people are free, safe, well, needed, and loved.”

And that extends well past the hopeful legislation, since, as Vaid-Menon points out, laws are often tokens of justice—a superficial flag-waving that indicates progress, while more imperative needs and rights are ignored. “There have been so many powerful strides made for trans visibility this hasn’t really trickled down to the everyday experience of most trans and gender non-conforming people,” Vaid-Menon says. “In the U.S. this year already we’re seeing more anti-trans legislation being proposed than ever before. Reported murders of trans women of color continue to increase. Poverty, homelessness, suicidality, employment discrimination...all of this remains pretty much the same, or worse. So while we now have our foot in the race, we have more language and more platforms. We still have so far to go.”

Within Vaid-Menon’s infinitely-faced trans-femininity and gender nonconformity, there lies an optimism that the binary world can change its thinking on “it’s this way or it’s that way”. (That binary world even includes the largely heteronormative LGBT community, which has often pursued civil rights in an effort to blend in with the cis, straight, white world, and a community that is so quick to embrace that “T” in its acronym, while ignoring most queer and trans experiences.)

“It’s a real travesty that we have been misinterpreted as trying to ‘get rid of,’” says Vaid-Menon of the notion that their activism and art begs for a dismantling of societal norms. “When actually we are calling for such profound and celestial creation. … We are saying that everyone should have self-authorship of their bodies, that assuming who people are from the meager optics of what they look like is wrong. We are insisting on a tremendous presence to people that exceeds what they look like.”

One idea that Vaid-Menon often repeats is that they weren’t born in the wrong body; they were instead born in the wrong world. It’s as if they’re an expressionist painter whose work is only ever viewed in high-contrast black and white. But incrementally, through art, advocacy, and presence, that contrast lessens. The pixels populate. The colors grow defined. And finally, the message emerges: “We can be different selves over and over again,” Vaid-Menon says. “Our bodies are merely suggestions, and there is so much room for continual replenishment.”