Gender has become the cornerstone of the modern political debate around identity and civil rights. The increasingly expansive spectrum of identities has challenged us to think beyond our conditioned constraints of 'man' and 'woman.' The discourse around the subject, however, can often seem exhaustive with many too occupied with their identifying labels than the context behind it.
Performance artist, poet, and activist ALOK [Vaid-Menon] doesn't subscribe to this navel-gazing view of gender and instead focuses on destroying our notions of what's 'feminine' or 'masculine' in favor of simply being ourselves. The Texas-born and raised artist — who identifies as gender nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/them — comes from an Indian American family and grew up in perhaps one of the most conservative communities in the country.
They have chronicled their experience being queer and femme through their book of poems, Femme in Public and their Instagram. It's here that ALOK share their experiences walking in public in extravagant and colorful dresses with their natural body hair on full display and the expressions of shock and lingering glares from passerby that often follow. It's also a platform where ALOK explores ideas of gender, fashion and beauty.
"For me, beauty is not at all about looking good. Beauty is actually about looking like yourself. I think people conflate those two, and they're very different," they explain. "The reason I speak at BeautyCon or attend beauty things is because I don't think that everyone is actually trying to look the same. I think people are actually trying to figure out, 'Who am I?' or 'How do I express myself?' Self-expression is what beauty is to me, not social conformity."
As a transfeminine artist, ALOK's entire platform rests on the rejection of 'passing' or the implication that there are just two genders. It's not as radical an idea as people might think, especially not in Indian culture, where gender fluidity and trans identities have existed quite visibly for centuries. (India even legally recognizes the 'Hijra' community as the official third gender). In further exploration of these ideas, ALOK is about to embark on an upcoming tour across the United States and Canada.
Before taking off, the artist and activist reflects on their work, trans visibility, race and challenging the dynamics of modern beauty.
What are your working on currently?
I just completed a residency last week at The Invisible Dog art center called Strangers Are Potential Friends. Now I'll be touring across the US and Canada for the next few months. All the while, I'm working on my first book project.
I also just finished my third fashion collection in India. Through my collection, I wanted to show that you can have really colorful, printed clothing, have dresses and skirts and these can still be gender-neutral. It's also really important to me to work with Indian photographers, stylists, makeup artists and challenge the whiteness of this non-binary conversation — it's been around [in India] for thousands of years.
"I think some of what harassment is is that it makes you singular, as if you're not part of various forms of connections and relationships. When people are targeting you, they're actually targeting people who love you as well."
On your Instagram, you often share your experiences dealing with harassment on the streets — can you tell us a bit more about the types of things you experience on a day to day basis?
I think in the winter [harassment is] less because I'm able to wear coats, so I can kind of cover up. Otherwise it's just people staring, taking photos of me, gawking or pointing. In the summer, when it gets warm, it can escalate a lot more with people following me home, sexually violating me, or throwing trash at me. Occasionally I get shoved, but it's not that often. I feel like also living [in New York City] for a while now, I know how and where to navigate and when. I'm much more intentional about where I go, when I'm alone, and what I'm wearing. I feel like I've also found my own strategies to circumvent that kind of stuff.
Has the harassment gotten better over time or do you think it's stayed the same?
I actually feel like it's gotten worse. With the election of Trump, a lot of people felt enabled to exercise their transphobia. I don't think it's a new type of transphobia — people now just feel like they have permission to work it out in public. I also feel like being both brown and trans means in a given moment I can't really tell what's happening. Is it peoples' racism, xenophobia? Is it peoples' transphobia? It's just kind of all at once, and I think this is what a lot of visible minorities in our society experience — people who wear hijabs, people who are black, disabled, or gender non-conforming. People whose difference is visible and don't have the privilege of disappearing have to deal with the brunt of society's scorn.
Do you experience any aggression from friends or family at all?
I no longer share space with family that doesn't accept me for who I am. I perform in India every year, and a lot of people always ask me, "Well, how do you negotiate family? Family's so all-consuming." How did we end up with this weird equation where asserting mental health and boundaries are somehow American or Western — that's not okay.
A lot of what we normalize as "just family" is actually really controlling. I'm trying to maintain my mental health and my integrity, so I've learned how to make and maintain my boundaries. Not everyone has the luxury to do this, but for me, it was very much about, 'I have to deal with so much harassment in my life, in my public life, I can't experience that from my friends and family.' That's just too totalizing. The only way that I'm able to endure the kind of harassment that I experience is because I have supportive
Are your parents supportive?
My parents are quite supportive. It's taken a while with both of them, and the truth is I think a lot of their reservations were less about prejudice and more about fear of the violence that I would be experiencing. They're like, "You're exposing yourself to violence." What do you say to that? I think those are some of the most heartbreaking moments in my life.
Sometimes when I'm talking to my mom on the phone and I'm getting harassed, I have to say, "I'll call you back," or, "I'm distracted." I think some of what harassment is is that it makes you singular, as if you're not part of various forms of connections and relationships. When people are targeting you, they're actually targeting people who love you as well.
At times, it's really difficult to mobilize self-support or self-love, but to think that there are people like my mom who really care about me, and then to know how hurt they'll be when I'm hurt, that's really difficult for me. I think that's why a lot of my work and my poetry and my art is about heartbreak because I'm constantly navigating it.
"[Pride] has become more of a celebration than an actual protest [and it] glorifies a particular kind of masculinity and whiteness that is actually toxic and violent to our community."
Was growing up in an already conservative part of the country all the while being part of the Indian community also somehow consequential to your experience?
The thing about growing up in an Indian immigrant community is that I experience both the most profound forms of validation and the most hurtful forms of violence. Going back to India and doing work in India is exhilarating and exciting, because people understand what I'm saying about family, mental health and culture.
At the same time, a photo of me will be shared on an Indian blog and it's like a thousand Indian men telling me that I look like a monkey and I'm disgusting. It's the situation of many Indian women and Indian trans people. Our culture, in so many ways, romanticizes and glorifies critiquing us all the time. It gets really hard but I know that my people are hurting me because they're hurt.
I think my community moved [to America] expecting a better life and then experienced racism, and rather than speaking about racism, they thought, "OK, if we become really good and we're really quiet and invisible then they won't mess with us." So then they began to target LGBT people because we were visible, and we actually said, "I'm different." We drew attention to ourselves, and we became synonymous with the fear of what they think white people see them as. Now I get that the root cause is not just Indian peoples' prejudice, but actually casteism, racism, and legacies of colonization. So now I really go in knowing my history, and what's happening. I say, "You want to say that who I am is somehow Western, but you're wrong."
You've also talked about Pride and how you're very critical of it. Why is that?
A lot people don't really know the history of Pride. Pride was started as a riot. It was for and by trans and gender non-conforming people of color, but it has lost its commitment to intersectional politics, of racial, economic, and gender justice.
It has become more of a celebration than an actual protest [and it] glorifies a particular kind of masculinity and whiteness that is actually toxic and violent to our community, and is negligent of the enduring forms of violence that many of us still face. I think what I've started to do with Pride recently is re-deploy it for something else. For example, last year I hosted a show featuring a lineup of all queer women of color and trans women of color on the day of Pride. So many people just didn't show up because they went to the parade, and I was like, "This is literally a metaphor for everything wrong in the world. These are the voices that need to be centered during this event, but people don't want to show up for us because of things we're talking about. We're actually talking about pain, struggle, and violence, not just celebration." I think my relationship with Pride now is that I try to use it as a means to actually amplify and celebrate the history, resistance, and power of trans and gender non-conforming people of color who are actually the people who need to be centered during this event.
That's Pride in America but what have you found the dynamics to be like in India, especially since they only very recently legalized homosexuality in the country?
Regardless of what's in the books, we [gender non-conforming people] are the most hyper-visible in the community and these protections do not interrupt other people's displays of prejudice. What's on the books doesn't necessarily reflect what's happening on the ground: even though being queer isn't criminalized in the US, many gender non-conforming people are still targeted. In a progressive city like New York, which has made all these strides, I keep on asking, "Strides for whom?" I cannot walk around NYC without being laughed at. If most cis people had to endure even one tenth of what we experience, there would be protests. But society thinks we're disposable and blames us for the harassment we experience. They say, "Well, you're choosing to look like this, so you deserve the violence that you experience," But we should look like whatever we want without fearing violence.
"New York is a constant experience of being harassed and having no one do anything."
Why do you think you experience more harassment and violence in New York City than anywhere else?
I think what's different about New York versus other places is that you're in public all the time. When I'm in Texas, I'm taking cars around so people don't see me. Whereas in New York, your body is constantly exposed... Also, the subway is extremely terrifying for trans people because when we get on the train, the doors lock. What do you do if you're in a car with someone who wants to kill you?
New York is a constant experience of being harassed and having no one do anything, whereas in a lot of other parts of the world, especially outside the Western world, people will defend you and say, "Hey, that's not right," or, "Stop it." I think that's why a lot of my artistic work has been challenging ideas of strangers, because as gender non-conforming people, we actually need the support of strangers. I can't expect that everyone is going to know my pronouns or know what non-binary means — that's not what I want. What I want is for random people on the street who see injustice happening to stand up for us. We're so far away from that in New York because I think also there's this New Yorker idea of self-reliance, like, you can't talk about struggle. Even though everyone is navigating bed bugs and rent hikes and loneliness, people just all walk around like, "Hey, love my life, meet me at this party!"
In a society that's been brainwashed by gender stereotypes, how can people overcome their prejudices?
I think it begins with recognizing that in order to do harm to other people, we have to do harm to ourselves first, that we're just externalizing internal self hatred. I believe that the people who harass me hate themselves and are projecting that out on me.
For a long time, to be honest, I also had this kind of self hatred. I would look at myself in the mirror and I would say, "OK, what if I just looked like a woman? What if I shaved more, what if I actually wore makeup like this, what if I looked more conventional, what if I just..." but then I realized, why does beauty require me disappearing myself? Why does it require me disappearing my body hair, disappearing my Indian features, disappearing my skin tone, disappearing my gender nonconformity, disappearing my fatness? I don't need to have to disappear myself, this isn't beauty; this is palatability. When it comes to trans people right now, the only way that we're listened to, regarded, or respected, is if we're palatable, and that's why you exclusively see representation of binary and conventionally attractive trans people represented in media, all the while gender nonconforming people are left behind.
What are some of the biggest beauty myths and standards that you think should be dismantled and that have impacted your life?
I think the first one is that you have to be a man or a woman, period. Some of the earliest stories I remember from growing up in an Indian family is the women in my family being like, "Oh, I feel too hairy. I need to get rid of this body hair because people are going to say I look like a man." Already there's this presumption [that there's something] wrong with looking gender non-conforming. It's something that affects all people, regardless of their gender identity, but you get policed if you display beauty standards that violate this kind of strict binary.
The other issue is that a lot of what we call beauty is actually about ableism — we've been fundamentally taught that there's one form of one body that is beautiful, and all other bodies should aspire to that. What I think is so important about disability justice is that it teaches all of us that no one body is the same and that this myth of reproducing the same body is boring and also really violent.
I think the third thing, really, is to talk about race. We have been so indoctrinated into Euro-centric beauty standards, such that when white women even do what black and brown women have been doing forever, they get heralded and celebrated, while black and brown women get demeaned and likened to animals. It's really sad to see the media uplift this. There's so many incredible women of color artists who never get the kind of platforms that white women who are pretending to be women of color do. That has everything to do with beauty, which at a fundamental level we've been taught that white is right and that darker-skinned people are somehow less than. We really need to challenge that to say that your skin tone should have no bearing on your worth as a human being.
"I have been part of [brand] campaigns where I've been asked to leave the camera because the photographer said, 'Do you want the politically correct photo, or do you want the best photo?'"
What do you think of fashion and beauty brands attempting to market themselves as progressive or feminist?
I have never seen a visibly gender nonconforming person integrated into a woman's beauty campaign. Even when trans people are invited onto campaigns,it's often exclusively binary and gender conforming trans people. I have been part of campaigns where I've been asked to leave the shot because the photographer said, "Do you want the politically correct photo, or do you want the best photo?" I'm just seen as politically correct and not the best. Best is always already binary.
I say this all the time, but gender non-conforming people are the most fashionable, the most interesting, and the most creative. Why we only see it in our social media accounts and never on your billboards has everything to do with the fact that our aesthetics make it in, but never our actual bodies. So much of the way that the beauty industry works is it takes the creativity and genius of women of color, gender non-conforming people, or disabled people, and then it kicks us out and just makes those aesthetics work with the same thin, white, cis people.
How do you define beauty?
Beauty is actually about looking like yourself. Self-expression is what beauty is to me, not social conformity.
And while I've been really happy about this whole Instagram/YouTube beauty nexus moment, we're also just churning out the same look. Oftentimes the same makeup, the same figure, the same outfit on someone who's just one degree different from each other, and that's not what beauty's about to me. Beauty is about saying that we're tremendously different from each other and we don't actually need to look like each other, we can all look like what we want to look like and that's wonderful.
Do you have any favorite beauty and skincare products that you use on an every day basis?
Yes, I really got onto the Fenty Beauty trend. Those contour sticks make me so happy, and they're magnetic, which is even more fun so I just play around with them a lot. My favorite lipsticks are Pretty Zombie Cosmetics. They're basically Halloween makeup, which I love because they stay on for a super long time. They're vegan, liquid, and matte.
That said, I really feel like the best beauty and skincare routine is challenging the cis-hetero patriarchy. I find that it yields the best results when you recognize that your physical appearance shouldn't determine your worth as a person. It makes your life a lot easier and your skin a lot better.
Photo courtesy of Alok-Vaid Menon