Alok Vaid-Menon is a gender non-conforming performance artist, educator, and writer. Alok uses the pronoun ‘they’ and has received international attention for challenging the gender binary through fashion and poetry.
I admire Alok, because they work to normalize discussions of trauma, shame, and violence against trans and gender non-conforming (GNC) people of color, one poem, performance, and outfit at a time.
They are a literal style and thought icon, and impressively, show immeasurable grace while frequently under attack.
Alok Vaid-Menon | Nonbinary and Transfeminine
Alok is based in New York and identifies as nonbinary, gender non-conforming and transfeminine. Recently, Alok was the youngest recipient of the prestigious Live Works Performance Act Award granted to ten performance artists across the world.
Alok has also been featured on MTV, HBO, The Guardian, The New York Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.
Along with this, they have presented their work in more than 40 countries across 500 venues.
Alok released their inaugural poetry chapbook FEMME IN PUBLIC in 2017. For the last three years, Alok has traveled around the world to bring attention to the violence faced by gender non-conforming people.
Alok focuses especially on the plight of those who are visibly gender non-conforming, as they face the most danger and public scrutiny.
Living in Fear
Through their groundbreaking brand of slam poetry, comedy, and music, Alok shares messages of their own experience of public abuse, torment, and hope for the future. Ocean Alok’s work has been described as activism and visual art combined.
Together, they make a powerful statement about the risk gender non-conforming people face across the world.
Alok has inspired other gender non-conforming artists to develop and present high-quality, disruptive performances. They’ve led a movement on social media that takes a stand against transphobia and other forms of hatred directed at queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people.
Alok’s work highlights the fact that people live in fear around the world. For this reason, it’s important to stay updated and to do your research. If you’re informed, you’re empowered.
Alok was born on 1 July 1991 and grew up in College Station, Texas. Alok is from an Indian American family and went to Stanford University. Their parents were born in Thrissur, Kerala.
Ramdas Menon, Alok’s father, says Vaid-Menon wasn’t always fashion-forward, describing them as a “normal kid” who could be gregarious or introspective depending on their mood. From 2013-2016, they co-created Dark Matter, a trans South Asian performance art duo, with Janani Balasubramanian.
“I always understood gender to be an obstacle to style,” Vaid-Menon explains, but they now view clothing as a site of political possibility.
What Does Gender Non-Conforming Mean to Alok?
To understand what being gender non-conforming means to Alok, we have to look toward their highly impactful writing on the subject.
Alok describes the prevailing idea that gender is “cultural” and exterior and sex is “biological” and interior as neglectful of the fact that biological sex is also cultural. In line with this, they state that the sex/gender split relies on a particularly western historical conception of the body as individually bounded and enclosed by skin.
For those who ascribe to this worldview, clothing is something people put onto the body, clothing is not part of the body itself.
In line with this, Alok states that they’ve never ascribed to the conventional western frameworks that rely on a sex/gender split. They simply don’t map onto their experiences, is how Alok describes it.
In contrast to the Western belief of “the body proper”, many other cosmologies don’t perceive adornment as a supplement to the body. Instead, Alok says, it’s foundational to its constitution. In other words, ‘this is not my costume, it’s my being’.
Alok puts it perfectly when they say “I am not dressing up as, I am being myself. I am enmeshed in my surrounding, not isolated from it.” Alok calls for people to lean on other more ambitious and complex understandings of gender and embodiment.
Punished and Suppressed
A central element of Alok’s perspective is that gender variant people are punished for their insistence on a different kind of embodiment. A more vibrant one than is currently put forward.
If more people accept that our beings surpass our physical bodies, they’ll be more open to accepting that whatever you choose to adorn yourself with is your choice.
Alok reminds that in the United States, it was illegal to wear articles of clothing different than your assigned “sex.” Gender variant people were put in jail for “cross-dressing” and “female impersonation.” People were even criminalized for wearing makeup “female impersonation from the neck up.”
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At the same time, trans and gender-variant people were saying that this makeup, this clothing, is integral to my personhood, not separate from it. If you understand this, you’ll understand Alok’s central argument. Keep this in mind.
Gender variant people are those who say that their essence does not have to be internal and contained within. Instead, it flows outside into the public. Alok takes this a step further when they say that the idea of inside/outside is the real problem. Our spirits cannot be divided into exterior/interior or private/public at all.
Alok says, “When I get dressed I become myself. This is my corporeality.”
It’s clear that Alok is a queer fashion icon. More than that, they break not only the borders of gender but also the boundaries between life-writing and activism through fashion.
Alok manages to stand firm as a fashion icon and an activist. These roles work together and have catapulted Alok to the success they now experience. However, Alok’s success doesn’t protect them from being harassed. Alok reports the constant and consistent way they experience daily harassment and abuse.
Alok believes that the horrific legacy of punishing trans and gender-fluid people is still seen in mainstream feminism. Today, some forms of feminism continue to uphold cisgender women’s bodies as natural and trans feminine bodies as unnatural or wrong.
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Further, Alok state that heteronormativity is naturalized by delegitimizing and discrediting gender variant people. Alok explains that gender variant people model and template forms of living that exceed the confines of ‘natural’ understood by most people.
Importantly, Alok reminds us that gender and sexual plurality and fluidity is natural.
In line with this, there’s room for infinite variability, expression, and transformation.
Alok Vaid Menon is Powerful
Alok Vaid-Menon has a website (alokvmenon.com) with links to their various social media and blog. They also have cutting-edge, gender neutral fashion line.
Along with this, videos of their performance art and spoken word poetry are available online. I’ve included one of my favorites below.
If you’re interested to learn more about Alok, heat to Episode #115 of Jonathan Van Ness’ podcast Getting Curious, “What’s Your Experience with the Binary?” Their discussion is powerful and enlightening, and it will stretch the way that you think.
Through these outlets, Alok’s work is accessible to all people through many free avenues.
Now, when you see the name ‘AlokvMenon’, you will realize their importance in a world that still struggles to accept gender non-conforming and gender-variant people.
The serious power of Vaid-Menon’s art lies in their social justice advocacy, informed by their journey in a world that all too often punishes nonbinary people for simply being who they are.
Let’s Get Connected
P.S. Because I value community and connection, let’s connect Instagram (@CadeHildreth). This will let me share in YOUR world too.
Feature Photo Source: Alokvmenon.com