Meet Alok Vaid-Menon: The performance artist who refuses to live in society's gender boxes
Alok Vaid-Menon is one of the biggest voices for the queer community in our time
Alok Vaid-Menon is not your average boy, nor your average girl. They belong to the ever-expanding community that the sensitive and inclusive "snowflake" generation calls gender non-conformists. They are people who fall somewhere in between the spectrum of gender and refuse to be boxed into female or male.
The performance artist, writer, educator, and entertainer has achieved great heights even as they adamantly refused to give up on their individuality – a herculean task in a world that still gets scandalized with mustache atop lipstick-smeared lips. But, thanks to Alok a young queer person today will not feel as they did growing up.
"There have been so many trans icons across time, but the problem is that we are never taught about them growing up! So as I kid I didn't really know of any gender non-conforming people (let alone that it was a real...possibility). And there's no words for that kind of loneliness — for feeling like you're the only one, for not even having the language to validate your existence," Alok relates to Meaww.
This is exactly why the younger generation deserves to see people belonging to diverse background on their posters, textbooks, TV screens, movie halls, internet and anything else they pay attention to. "I'm so happy for this young generation that has a wider field of representation of trans and gender non-conforming people to look up to!" Alok says, adding, "Because we experience so much social isolation and lack of supportive structures, representation can really save trans lives — can let people know that their identity and experiences are valid and important."
In an exclusive interview with Meaww, Alok, a 2018 Shorty award nominee in the LGBTQ influencer category, talks about their experience about growing up with all the labels they did — some given to them by society, others carefully and confidently chosen by them. Alok also talks about shooting for #OverTheTop — their first fashion campaign — and finding acceptance within themselves to then tell the world: This is me!
Meaww: Congratulations on your first fashion campaign. How was your experience shooting for it? What was your favorite aspect of the entire experience?
Alok: Thank you!! I'm so excited. I had a great time at the shoot: it was so early in the morning but everyone on set had a great and warm energy. We were surrounded by so much queer talent and that really just sent a tone for the day. My absolute favorite part was the set design. They designed each one of the models a custom set (with custom murals) and mine had cats! I freaked out!
How did you identify with the #OverTheTop campaign and what was your contribution to the creative process?
I'm a fashionist@ who loves a good challenge! The #OverTheTop campaign is about re-inventing classic sneakers. What I love about wearing classic sneakers is that they are already so loaded with associations, the question then becomes: how do we reinvent them? Make something fresh. That's so much of what queerness is about — taking the familiar and creating something new with it.
On the one hand people say that they care about you but then you begin to realize that they only care about the convenient parts of you, the ones that fit with their narratives and their vision on how you should be and how the world is.
Could you briefly describe your journey to understanding who you are and accepting this authentic version of yourself, especially in the context of being a first-generation Indian-American?
Welp! I still feel like every day I am trying to manifest (err--femmifest!) my authentic self. So much of what growing up was like for me was being told "This is who you should be." [I] Was having everyone else's expectations of me prioritized over my own dreams, identity, truth. And it's so devastating because on the one hand people say that they care about you but then you begin to realize that they only care about the convenient parts of you, the ones that fit with their narratives and their vision on how you should be and how the world is. Peeling myself from that has been painful, but ultimately so rewarding. Even though I experience so much harassment on the basis of my identity, there is nothing more powerful than being able to look in the mirror and say, "this is who I am."
As a gender non-conformist, would you say you prefer labels or would you rather we do away with them?
I want the freedom for everyone to decide what feels best for them and be respected for that choice! I'd prefer to not have any labels, but I know many people find comfort in them. For me the goal is less about everyone being one way, and rather being open to the complexity and diversity of everyone's experiences.
It is so extremely difficult to hold my head high when people laugh at me and throw trash at me on the streets.
What are some of your upcoming projects?
I am going to be touring across the US on and off for the next few months. I just designed a new fashion collection with my friends in New Delhi [India] and hope to be debuting that shortly. And the most important project of all: I am continuing to figure out who I am.
Do you have a message for all your haters? If you'd rather speak to your fans that would be great as well.
I think today I'd rather speak to my fans. I just want to say that there is absolutely no way I could do this without you all. Every day I am put down in public and offline by people who tell me that I should disappear. It is so extremely difficult to hold my head high when people laugh at me and throw trash at me on the streets. Your continued affirmation reminds me that I'm not doing this alone and that I'm part of something greater than myself.
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