Trans-Feminine Activist & Poet Alok Vaid-Menon Says Men Should Embrace Their Femininity
- IWB Post
- May 17, 2018
If you’re slightly following where the global LGBTQ movement is leading, it might be possible that you’ve come across the name of Alok Vaid-Menon, the trans-feminine Indo-American poet.
A noted feminist and trans activist, Alok was in the city when we decided to have a heart-to-heart conversation with them. Well, that’s how Alok prefers to be referred as. “I am a gender non-conforming. People tell me it sounds (grammatically) wrong, to which I say I’m not static or one-dimensional. I use ‘them/their’ for pretty much everyone I meet until I know what their real gender is. I want to break the myth surrounding one’s gender – there are not two, but many genders out there. We shouldn’t recognize someone by the appearance, body type or clothes. All of us have the power to be multiple people. I, for one, consider myself as someone vast who has the power to don various looks.”
Alok added, “Every new-born, from the time of its birth, should be allowed to live a gender-less life. Let the doctors not tell our parents if it’s a boy or a girl. The child should be given the freedom to decide and say ‘I want to be a girl/boy/gay/trans/bisexual.'”
I directed my conversation with Alok by asking for the clarification of a couple of terms I failed to understand through Wikipedia. One of them was Cisgender. Alok explained, “Cisgender are those who identify themselves with their biological gender or sexual orientation assigned to them at birth. I dislike the fact how the schools and even parents identify kids through their physical appearance.”
Alok credits the liberal upbringing at home for being open-minded and brave. “My mom is a feminist. That’s why I was given her last name (Vaid) along with my father’s (Menon). She is responsible for commencing the first movement voicing against domestic violence faced by the South Asian women in the US. Most of these women don’t speak English, can’t navigate on their own, and sadly, are identified by the names of their male counterparts. Shame and stigma around them. Both my parents are highly qualified and understand the patriarchy scene happening in India. Growing up, I was told how real patriarchy is irrespective of the borders. From home to workplace, sexism is everywhere. With my parents’ support and books surrounding me, I learnt a language that could articulate what I was going through personally. For example, I didn’t take long to learn that I was being bullied by my ‘friends’ for not being ‘man’ enough.”
Alok told how the women in the family have always been the badass feminists worth looking up to. For example, Alok’s maternal aunt is one of the first lesbian activists in the US who stood for the rights of LGBTQ. Alok’s grandmother began painting at a later age killing every stigma related to old age in her family.
Talking about the now-regular Indian tours, Alok smiled and shared that the initial visits were a result of the fear of losing connections with the distant relatives in India. “However, back in 2012, I was shortly associated with a Bangalore-based Human Rights Organization that helped me connect with prominent feminists and queer activists. I was always told that people in India didn’t understand feminism and that it was still a vague idea for most of them. Honestly, I was surprised to see the sincerity and energies with which Indian people fight for their rights.”
Alok has performed in India many a time and the poetry, Alok says, is mostly for the younger generation. “I’m happy when straight/cisgender men come up to me saying that they see humanity in my work.”
Amidst all the love that Alok is spreading, hatred often creeps in. “I have been attacked both emotionally and physically. I get death and rape threats almost every day. When I am on the stage, people think I am ‘dressed-up’ for the performance. Once I am off the stage in the same clothes, they question my choices. Again, who are you to do that? Today, LGBTQ individuals in the US are trying to hide their identities after Mr. Trump was elected as POTUS. They are going back to their past-non-real-self, the life that almost suffocated them to death. This process is called ‘stealth’ which is done to avoid hatred and violence one faces because of the gender preference. Taking my example, it would be going back to looking like a ‘real masculine man.’
“Sadly, most of these bullies are men. The alpha men, to be precise. Probably my sense of femininity is something they connect with but couldn’t come out with. For them, I represent the freedom that they could never have. They are repressed in their own way because of the anxieties and insecurities. Their animality has nothing to do with my way of living.”
Sadly, it’s not just the men who try to suppress Alok. Women make their appearance, too, by blaming Alok for wearing clothes ‘too-girly.’ “If these women recognize themselves as feminists but are victim blaming someone for wearing ‘too-feminine’ clothes, they aren’t feminists in the right sense. Being one doesn’t solely mean fighting the patriarchy but also fighting for ‘femininity.’”
However, it is the constant support of many lovely admirers that keeps Alok going. “As activists, we’re expected to be strong, not cry or break down, bear everything, and keep struggling. This behavior is a part of patriarchy, too! The love that I receive makes me feel that I can come out of any difficult moment. It keeps my mental health in shape.”
Meeting Alok and not talking about the dress-sense would be inappropriate.
The matt purple lips, neon pink nails, platform heels in candyfloss colors from the 60s, and gaudy prints together make for Alok’s chic look. “At the age of 18, when I began my transition, I thought to myself ‘Now I’ve to change my entire wardrobe.’ I was fortunate for I had the money to do so.”
i want a world where every meeting, every performance, every public gathering begins with an acknowledgment of all of the harassment & violence people had to go through in order to get there. i want everyone in the room to look at each other in the eyes & say "i am sorry, you didn't deserve that." i want everyone to promise each other that they will keep each other safe (and mean it). and really mean it. i want a world where i can wear what i want without fear of being insulted, gawked at, followed, pushed, spat on. i want people to recognize that street harassment doesn't end with the encounter, it becomes part of you. i want people to understand ptsd, anxiety, and trauma as material forms of violence. i want to know what i would look like, what i would feel like if i didn't have to worry about being bashed again every day of my life. i don't just want the violence to stop, i want to be safe. i want to be uninhibited. i want to have a relationship with my femininity that's not mediated by my fear of it. i do not want to have to be beautiful to be free. I do not want to have to be desirable to be safe. i do not want to have to be a woman to be real. i do not know who i am outside of what they have done to me. i said i do not know who i am outside of what they have done to me.
Alok shared, “Since I travel so much, I get to pick things of different tastes. In cities like New York, I take fashion risk because there people don’t judge me and give me ‘the look.’ In places like Jaipur, for example, I have to be a little cautious and wear ‘manly’ clothes. However, I believe that your clothes can get a conversation started. If you are dressed boring, nobody will listen to you. I really adored designer Alexander McQueen. He was weird and so forward-thinking. I loved his strange fashion sense. I think he created lovely provocative clothes.”
Meeting Alok was beautiful. Below are some thoughts that he left me with:
“I want a world where I am visibly queer without any threats. I want to walk freely into a jewelry room, covered in feminine jewelry from head to toe, and still, no one reacts.”
“Everyone has a right to ‘femininity.’ It’s okay for men to be a little feminine.”
“Come out of the closet only if you can. It requires courage, but more than that one must think about the safety. You don’t want to get executed in case your govt. or policies don’t support you. Don’t be too harsh on yourself.”
“When someone comes out of the closet, congratulate them. Don’t stop there. Ask them what they are going to do next. Are they planning to support others like them? Have they learned all about their country’s laws and policies supporting or opposing their sexual orientation? Merely announcing is not going to help them or anyone, for that matter.”
Photo courtesy: Chhaveesh Nokhwal
This article was first published in January 2017.