This item is an audio file.

Oral History Interview with Alok Vaid-Menon

Alok Vaid-Menon is a gender non-conforming writer and performance artist. In their oral history, Alok describes growing up in College Station, TX, connecting with activists and artists during college in California and subsequently in New York, their experiences touring across the world as a performance artist, and their journey of navigating gender through poetry, activism and fashion.

CW: Assault

Gender & Sexuality, Activism, Fashion

Duration: 01:03:04

Date: December 5, 2019
Type: Oral History
Source: Archival Creators Fellowship Program
Creator: Mustafa Saif
Location: Brooklyn, NY

Transcriber: Anonymous

Alok Vaid-Menon (AVM): 0:00
I was born in College Station, Texas, about an hour and a half from Houston on July 1 1991. Canada Day, but Canada is not really real so. And I have an older sister, who is three and a half years older than me. And my mom was and is a faculty member at Texas A&M. So that's how we ended up there in College Station. I grew up in kind of like a polarized space, meaning the broader town of College Station was very white, very Christian, very conservative. But I grew up in kind of like a tight knit Pan Indian Hindu community. Because there weren't enough Indian people in my town to kind of segregate on the basis of region, we all kind of flocked together. My parents have these stories of when they first moved to College Station and just like seeing brown people mowing the lawn, and then like rolling down their window and being like “Where should we live?” So it was kind of that kind of environment. So I have this kind of cultural dissonance from a really young age of having the joy of being enmeshed in such a tight knit and supportive Indian Hindu community. But then that being the like opposite of a school experience, which was like a whole different world. And I think when I was younger, I didn't have the vocabulary to articulate those differences. So they just felt like disparate worlds. And I think retroactively, I'm able to see the ways in which having a tight knit brown community made me feel so much more confident, and I guess less alone around issues of race. But I think when it came to queerness, there was like no community there. So even within that sort of Indian community that was supposed to be supposedly our like home, it wasn't for many reasons.

AVM: 01:55
I would say the university like in a lot of university towns doesn't do a good job of reaching out to people who actually live there. So, I didn't really interface with the university that much beyond the university hosting like carnatic music concerts we would go to, or like graduation parties at venues. But it was only after I graduated and moved away, that I realized like “Whoa, there were like LGBT people at the university or there was like an LGBT Resource Center.” Because that was just a world beyond me, even though it was right down the road. College Station is very much a college town. It was called College Station because there's a train station that could take you to Texas A&M very explicit. And it's A&M because there's agriculture and mechanics, so very kind of like Southern agro business focused. The house that I grew up in was like near some college frat dorms. So I think my first impression of the university was just like drunk white men in cargo shorts. And I think that that has persisted to this day. And College Station therefore, during the school year, is predominately students. But then in the summer and in the winter, they all kind of go and it becomes more of a ghost town. There's not really anything going on in terms of the cultural life because it's so centered around the university. But I think in a lot of ways the university was not my focus growing up there.

AVM: 03:27
Because one of the perks of growing up in College Station is that because it was so small, we were often going to school with the same people from like kindergarten until 12th grade. So there's only one high school when I was there. Now there's two. So the friends that I had were friends that I had for like 12 years. And that was really precious to have that kind of continuity. And I think a lot of those people I'm still close with today, because even though we didn't have that much in common in terms of like our ideas, or politics, or our backgrounds, we had so much in common in terms of growing up in the small town and feeling like what do we what do? So what we did was we like went to Walmart a lot. We like would we would sit on hay bales. And when everyone got their licenses like 15 or 16 we were so excited to drive, but we were too young to like go to Houston and go to a club or like too young to drink or anything. So we would just like drive on the road listening to the latest like emo music. I grew up very emo. I think that white alternative culture was the only space that I could articulate difference. So we would just be on these like highways, just blasting these tunes and crying. It was very much like Perks of Being a Wallflower. This kind of like how are we in this small town? But I think it created a really great setting for the kind of angst that I have now because the dissonance was so profound between what I felt and what I loved, and who I was, and what was around me. Everything around me just seemed so formulaic and conservative.

AVM: 05:11
And I think it was interesting in 2016 when Donald Trump got elected because everyone was so worried about what the country would look like. And I think I already kind of experienced that growing up. College Station still commemorates confederacy memorial month in February. So you'll often see Confederate flags around. We have to say that... I'm sure you remember, we have to say the Texas pledge every day in school. And there's just a deep pride in being a Texan because people would say like “We have the right to secede.” It would be kind of like they were Texan first and then America. To be Texan meant to like have a Ford 150 or 250 pickup truck. Have someone or be the person who actually wore cowboy boots. Like a deep unquestioned love of patriotism, and masculinity, and sports culture and tailgating. Tailgating was like a really big thing in my town. And I think that when you grew up as an Indian person it… Because College Station and Bryan are kind of sister cities. And Bryan is actually one of the poorest and most disenfranchised cities in Texas, because of Republican gerrymandering. So a lot of Black and Latinx people were pushed into Bryan. And the narrative in College Station was very much they’re taking our tax money, that that's where the people who are unsafe live. And now I'm able to like understand what was going on. It was like a racist project of rezoning so that the money would stay in College Station school districts versus Bryan. So the reason that College Station was so white was because the Black and Latinx people were in Bryan. But I think that what that facilitated when you were Indian was that the only kind of racial dynamic you saw was white versus us. And I think leaving Texas was one of the first times I began to complicate that binary and be like “Oh, wow, there's actually a lot of other people.” But the way it kind of worked in College Station at the time I was there, and especially with schools is there would be like the Asians, which was like mostly Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, Indian, and then the white people. And so, the kind of racial affinities that I had were with Asians, but most of us were the children of professors or other skilled professionals. Most of us were like upper caste. But we didn't have any of that vocabulary. Because I think the foundational saga of growing up there was the white community and then us. And we were very made to feel that we didn't belong. I think some of my earliest memories of that town were people asking where we came from? Or what we ate? Or what kind of Bible we read? And why we looked the way that we looked? Why I was so hairy? Like just like a deep attention to difference and to be known in that difference. Like you had to constantly state it. It was never implied. It was always articulated.

AVM: 08:18
For me that foundational sense of being displaced from the norm actually allowed queerness to be so much easier than I think for a lot of other people. Because I was like, “Oh, I'm just used to this like I'm used to... I'm used to being disarticulated.” I think that it created a kind of sense of disassociation that I'm still working through in my life because you were there but you were not. Because I think it was this kind of schism where our parents’ generation didn't want to talk about race, because so much of their migration story was about moving to the US for more economic opportunities, more kind of political expression and freedom. And then the reality of experiencing racism kind of confounded that narrative structure. And so, we never actually got practice talking about racial injustice or discrimination. I don't think anyone my community and my Indian community ever even said the word “racism.” We knew that it was happening all around us. We knew that we were not welcome. We knew that there was discrimination going on. But the narrative was always it's because they don't know how competent we actually are. So the goal then became be so excellent that they can't question us. And I think that that was kind of so much of the way that I was raised. Maybe not necessarily for my parents but in that community was struggle very, very, very, very hard to prove that you and by extension your people are worthy, salvageable, beautiful, wonderful, smart.

AVM: 09:58
So growing up in College Station also felt like a lot of pressure that was never made explicit to be a racialized pressure. But now I see it, where it's like we were at the spelling bees like it was the Olympics. And like, we were in like UIL academics like it was like so serious. And like every time one of us Indian kids won something like the entire community knew. And we were like... We were clipping out the local newspapers. And we would like bring it to the temple. And we're like “Yeah.” And now I understand that urgency behind that was like we're trying to prove, we're trying to recuperate from feeling less than or unworthy. And academics became never sports, but academics became the zone where we could be superior. But I think that also facilitated a kind of competitive culture in high school where our families just were so mean to each other by comparing us to one another. And I'm still friends with some of those Indian kids I grew up with and we processed that now of “Wow like remember when people would literally be like, why don't you study as much as like this kid?” But like he got an A on this like... So what kind of affinity or solidarity you had also that divided. Because our families and our parents wanted to brag essentially about how great we were. It was the kind of space where we’d be like in the middle of a dinner party, and then some parent would be like, you know, my child plays the best cello sonata ever. And then they would force their kid to like just play cello at the party. Like everyone is trying to show off all the time; it was extremely ostentatious but in a way that was not collaborative. So I don't want to romanticize it like we were this unified community; it was also so fragmented.

AVM: 11:43
But I was really lucky because... And I think I’m seeing the effects of this now. My parents are weirdos and like my parents were political. And my parents were so different than everyone else. And I think that that's because of their upbringing. So my dad actually was born and raised in Malaysia. In Ipoh in Malaysia. And his dad was a teacher there. And what's unique maybe to Southeast Asia is the positions of Indian people in Southeast Asia is that often ethnic Malay and Chinese folks are really racist against Indian people. And Indian people, and especially Tamil people, my dad's Malayali are seen as kind of the underclass and the dark skinned kind of laborers. So my dad had a vocabulary around discrimination and cultural displacement already, because he was an ethnic minority growing up. And so, he became politicized when he was younger and then he moved to India to go to JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University] where he studied until university. And then he got the kind of Marxism and the sort of political frameworks to contextualize his own upbringing. So my dad already kind of understood what we were experiencing as kids. And maybe the community wasn't having a conversation about discrimination or oppression. But my dad was with us. And very much teaching us like you're not going to learn about slavery in schools. So you need to read these books, or watch this documentary. Or we need to learn about Indigenous people. Like my dad had that kind of framework in a way that I think a lot of other Indian diasporic people don't. And I understand now I think that's because of his own experiences being an ethnic minority.

AVM: 13:19
And then my mom, she's born in India but then moved to the US when she was 11 or 12. So it's also a really different experience because she grew up in the US. And she was kind of one of the first generations of Indian diaspora. So she had to deal with all that kind of racism in upstate New York and being orientalized. And so she understood that kind of discrimination that we're experiencing my sister and I. But then my mom also helped create one of the first South Asian domestic violence hotlines. And she was a really involved and avowed South Asian- she is really involved and avowed South Asian feminist. And so when I was a little kid we would get calls from battered and abused South Asian women across the US trying to navigate domestic violence situations. And so my mom would always demystify patriarchy to us and be like “Well, a lot of people's citizenship status is incumbent on their abusive partners, so they don't want to report because they're afraid of getting deported.” And a lot of South Asian women don't want to speak about the kind of violence or patriarchy that they're experiencing because of cultural stigma. So I have these kind of complex frameworks and vocabulary from a really young age that I think a lot of other people did it.

AVM: 14:26
And then my mom’s sister Urvashi was the first woman and the first person of color to lead a national gay rights organization in the US. She was a really active and is a really active lesbian activist. And so, Urvashi also would come and visit us from [inaudible] and Texas, and she was kind of like our sugar Mama. She would like buy us like the Nintendo 64 that our parents refused to. Or like a stereo system. Or like my first CD player. She was like... My parents were very non-materialist. My parents are very like academic and very like invested in a life of ideas. And looked down on me because I cared about fashion and what I looked like. And they were like “Those things are not important. Read the New York Times.” But Urvashi was my materialist enabler and my queer enabler. So she would come with her partner Kate and stay with us for weeks at a time. And would come to my soccer matches and like be the soccer mom that my mom had no interest in being. And I think through Urvashi I also had exposure to queerness and queer South Asianess. But also to political action because Urvashi at this time in particular, also in the early 90s, she was sort of fresh off the weights of HIV and AIDS organizing in the 80s where she had done a lot of direct action against so many presidents who had remained silent around AIDS. And so she would speak about these things in front of us. And I remember my mom would often be like “Don't speak about these things like Alok doesn't know what gay people are.” And I'd be like “Ha ha ha like I totally do.” Like I would ask her “Why are Urvashi and Kate sleeping together? Like I thought they were just friends. Like friends don't sleep together.” And my parents would always never bring it up. But Urvashi was always so unapologetic in her queerness because she was butch and gender non-conforming. And Kate would like play videogames with me and talk about how hot the female characters were. So there are all these ways in which queerness was made legible to me.

AVM: 16:15
So I think that I have that kind of third schism, where there was like the white sort of conservative religious, hyper Christian community, the Indian Hindu community that I was a part of which was still largely conservative, but then my intimate family and my nuclear family was this like bastion of progressive South Asian politics. And I think that that explains so much of what I am today because I had permission from a very young age to be self expressive. I was never pressured by my family directly to do well in school; they didn't care. My parents never even asked about my grades. Like I would come home and be like look at my report card; we don't care. My parents were just so much more interested in like my ideas and the books I was reading and my beliefs, then like how well I performed on a test. And I never really felt that pressure from them. I felt that pressure from other Indian families.

AVM: 17:11
And then my grandparents also were really an active part of my life. They would come and spend like three to often six months with us at a time. My grandfather who lives in New York now, and I see him all the time, is a really celebrated novelist playwright from India, who writes in Hindi and Urdu. And he writes about a lot of controversial things. And I think growing up I always had these images that he was the voice of God. So he would like read books to me growing up and would be in the study with like a quill pen that he would dip in ink and write in mirror handwriting. Because he has a lot of partition trauma and was like afraid that someone would read his diaries. So, he like encoded them and encrypted them. And he would always expose to me the purpose of being an artist. We have these conversations from when I was like five or six. And I remember one conversation, I asked him “Why do you think it's important to write novels in a country where many people can't even read?” And he got so mad at me. And he was very much on this sort of school of like “We are the new India because we kicked out the British. And we had to figure out what it means to be Indian.” And an artist's job is to actually create the vocabulary and the images that people can think about these larger things. Because other people don't have time to think about them. And so, he was very kind of part of that newly emergent postcolonial creative movement in South Asia of like “What are we going to be now that they're gone?”

AVM: 18:41
And my grandmother, whenever she was finished doing the carework and labor of raising three daughters, she also started to become a poet. So, she published while she was alive... I think three anthologies of poetry in Hindi and in English. And then later in my life, my grandparents moved into our house in College Station when I moved out when I was 18. My grandmother started to paint. And she ended up painting before she passed away two years ago... She ended up painting I think like 1,800 paintings. And these were largely abstract large pieces. And she exhibited across the world because her story was so dynamic. She was this like 70 something year old Indian woman who had felt silenced her entire life. And then finally through art was able to express her emotion and her politics.

AVM: 19:25
So, I just grew up in this kind of extremely unique and exceptional space, where the expectation was that I would be an artist or an academic, or some kind of journalist, or some kind of critical thinker. And so, while all my other peers, my Indian peers were being pushed into like being a lawyer or a doctor, what I never really had any of that anxiety. And my parents were just so great. And I see the impact of that now, because I'm like “Wow, I mean I have a lot of trauma about a lot of things, but my parents aren't really that bad.” And we're actually able to have a really close relationship. Because it was the kind of environment where if you believed something and you had enough evidence and you could argue it, then it would be okay. So, it was never that I felt like my parents wouldn't accept my queerness, or my gender, or my sexuality; it was that I had to accept it first. But I never feared that my family would be homophobic or transphobic because they were so exceptional. And I think because Urvashi had already done that work for me. And I'm so grateful because she struggled a lot with her parents, my grandparents, before I was born. So she had kind of laid the groundwork around queerness in our family.

AVM: 20:31
I was visibly gender non-conforming my entire life. So when I was a little kid I insisted on only wearing women's or girl’s clothes. And my parents were 100% accepting of that. And I would just basically dress like my sister. And I would like dance around to like all the Bollywood songs. And like put on my mom's clothes and like wear her makeup or her heels. And my parents were totally down. And actually, the first kind of expression of transphobia experience was from the white community when in my first or second grade talent show, I danced to the song “I love My India” in front of an entire auditorium of people. And I would do these like deeply emotional, like interpretive kind of like twirling around fusion dances. And everyone laughed at me. And I remember just being so confused. Because my parents and our larger Indian community have been so celebratory of me. I think my parents understood that I was queer before I did because of Urvashi. I think she spoke to them and was like “It’s kind of obvious that Alok is…” But I think that the larger Indian community rationalized it by saying “Alok just loves their sister. So this is just them expressing love for their sister.” Which is kind of maybe true, I guess.

AVM: 21:44
So I also feel like when it came to gender and sexuality, I didn't experience that kind of intense regulation in policing from my family. I experienced that much more from the Indian community and from the white community in my school. I think my idea back then was like if I disclosed then I was no longer Indian. I think that's... I think in my head I had convinced myself, even though I had Urvashi, I had convinced myself that it was one or the other. That I had to be straight and cis in order to have access to Indian culture. And that if I disclosed that I was different, that would be me just whitewashing myself. And I would lose that. So actually I think a lot of what kept me from disclosing was not that I like didn't know who I was or was repressed, but actually like a complex negotiation of being like “How can I remain my attachment to Indianness?” Because I just thought they were incompatible. And still to this day that I know of, I'm the only Indian person in my [inaudible] that has come out as queer. And every year I'm like hoping…

AVM: 22:44
I think it's really hard to speak about my childhood because I feel like I was just so disassociated for most of it. So like a lot of memories that I have when I articulate it are like the same memories. They're like the five or six stories that I can like get by to be like “This is what it was like.” But really the majority of it I just wasn't there. Because I think that it was not about sexuality; it was about my gender presentation always like... And what I think most people don't understand is that the reason that even gay and lesbian people are targeted is often not because of their love, but rather if they’re visibly gender non-conforming. And so, because I could never pass as a boy, I never had the luxury to come out. Because everyone already said I was a faggot before I articulated that. So everyone already called me a girl or a pussy or fagot or queer so that... I didn't even know what those words meant. I didn’t even know what any of that meant. I didn't even know my own desire, but I knew that my body betrayed me. And so, because my body betrayed me, that meant I did not want to see any video recordings of myself. That meant I did not want any voice recordings of myself. That meant I did not want to speak because then I would hear my voice and be like “Oh, this is too feminine. People are gonna know that I'm a faggot.” That meant that I like restricted the way that I walked. That meant that I stopped dancing dance lessons. I stopped gymnastics like... I tried very deeply to immerse myself in my academic work. Because then I could be a redeemable faggot. So it'd be like “Okay, if they're gonna bash me at least I'm smart. Or I have some kind of place in this community or in this structure.” So I think because of that I largely feel like there was no framework even with Urvashi. Because I think she just understood me as gay, so she would take me... Which is still cool because I got these experiences. But like when I was in New York, she would just drop me off with her gay male friends. We'd like all go out to like have movies or like eat burgers or... And I just saw gay people. I was like normalized to gay people, which I think a lot of queer people in a small town in Texas would have never seen. But that became synonymous with New York City. So, I think I have this imagination in my head that I was going to move away. Like I had to leave in order to access New York to get access to a queer community. But I also feel like that didn't really stick with me because I was like “I thought I was gay” because it's the only vocabulary I had. But really what it was is like “I'm a queen.” Like really what it was like “I'm just not a man.” But like there was just no framework at all for that whatsoever. So I think a lot of that dissociation would just be compounded. Because even when I would see gay people, I would just be like “That's not what this is about.” Like it was never really about a repressed desire that was there. It was more about my actual embodiment being policed into a binary.

AVM: 25:37
You know I've come out so many different times now because I just wasn't given the vocabulary to describe what I am. So, I had to just stumble through different things. When I was 16 or 17, I used the word “gay.” And I told everyone in my family in different ways. And then when I got to college, and I was exposed to more vocabulary, I was like actually I'm “asexual.” Okay. And then I was like actually I'm “genderqueer.” And then everyone's like “Okay, this is just like a…” So, I just went through like so many “Actually, I’m”s that I think my family at some point was just like “I can’t. I don't even understand. I guess you're just Alok.” But I think that when I finally landed it for them was moving to New York City, which I did in 2013, was the first time I really got access to a trans and gender variant space. And I started to really have the space to unpack the first kind of 20 plus years of my life. And I realized like “Oh my gosh like I am unequivocally not a man.” Like I'm not even part of it. That’s just so not me. And so, when I would speak about that to my parents, they would get upset. Because they'd be like “You weren't always sad.” Or like “You weren't always depressed.” Or like “I remember when you were happy.” Or like my dad would say these things like “I went through struggle too like... I went through racism like...” And I would just constantly be like “You don't understand like I was not there.” And that's been a really hard conversation. I think it's easier for my family and it's easier for the public to understand transition is like you were a man and then you became non-binary when you got access to this vocabulary. But what I'm trying to actually get them realize is I was always non-binary and you forcibly and coercively put me into the category of man to create some kind of socioeconomic project that you had in mind for me. And that therefore you're also responsible for the violence... Those were really hard conversations. And I have them because I knew that the only way I could keep my family in my life as if I was really honest with them. And so I really reported back and I was like “You forcibly gendered me in a way that was really fucked up.” And you, I get it like you didn't have access to the resources of education, so it's not like necessarily quote your fault. But in so many ways you made my life miserable by calling me a boy. And I kind of named those boundaries where I was like “I'm just not going back to College Station or to this home or to the family.” Because the disconnect between the life that I live as a trans person in New York City and having to be your son is too profound. So, unless you're able to gender me appropriately, not police what I'm wearing... “I'm not coming back.” And I think that was a huge moment for us where they were like “Oh shit. Okay this is real.” Because I think when you're not medically transitioning, it's difficult because people always undermine your self identification as something that you're just doing as like a fashion trend or like a political thing that you've done. But I just kept on struggling like “No, this is real.”

AVM: 28:48
It was just like a sense of like having to be schismed in so many parts like... But I think that's what made me a great performer is because I learned how to perform from a very young age. Their son, my sister's brother, my communities like academic… I became the darling child and I was a really good people pleaser. But that was a trauma response. Because I learned that I could coddle the people who were bullying me and kill them with kindness, so they would stop bullying me. So, I learned how to be very charming and funny and smart as a violence evasion strategy. And I just think that like, you know, the more I read about trauma and childhood trauma, I'm like I have so much profound acceptance of myself for the decisions that I did. Like I don't really have shame or guilt. I just understand why things happen the way that they did. This culture produces this kind of myth that being a kid is like your glory days of like innocence and freedom and whatever. And there's just no space actually like it can really suck and really be painful and existentially so. And so, I think that it's not just about being Indian and being trans and yeah that’s compatitive, but it's also just about like being a young person and being expected to be happy and triumphant. And actually being like “No, I'm deeply not that.” And I think that for me the way that I got solace was through music and fashion. And being an emo kid. And like wearing my girlfriend's jeans. And like going to screamo concerts where there was like a really great screamo scene in Bryan. So I would just be like the one Indian kid with everyone in their like Texas tattoos because they were all Christian screamos. I’d just be there and I just found ways to let it out.

AVM: 30:44
And I started writing when I was 11 or 12. And I had an internet persona. I called myself Larry such a trans moment, confusing moment. Where in sixth grade I created the Intername Society where I asked my friends what what they would want to be called if they could choose their names. Wow. And I called myself Larry Peterman Arabi. I don't understand why I just made up that name. And so I was called Larry in school for like years. But Larry was my Internet persona. And I started to get kind of Internet famous when I was a small town kid under the name Larry. I would never post photos of myself online. But like when I was 13 years old my parents let me shave for the first time and let me get a Xanga for the first time and there was no going back. And so, I created a Xanga website. I think it was like emo icons double x. Or then it became like a waste of paint productions like a Friday's lyric. And I have this extremely vibrant online life that no one in my life knew about, where I had 1,000s of strangers across the world, consuming my art, my graphic design, my poetry, my writing, my thoughts. And telling me that like they “Felt the same way.” And that I shouldn't... Like I had a place to go with my suicidality and depression. And that's why I think I'm so committed to the Internet now is I’m like “Whoa.” I didn't have people in real life who were queer who could talk to me about mental health, or depression, or suicide, or pain but I have that online. And so, I just built this really robust kind of Internet identity. And the Internet was so foundational to me in terms of like giving me permission to live and to express. And I think that gave me what my family and my community and my school didn't give me. It gave me artistry. It gave me companionship. It gave me vocabulary. Such that I kind of made a plan with myself. I think so much of my life was about planning to get out, so that I could not experience violence. So it was like literally early as like 8 or 9, maybe even earlier being like “Okay, who I am will get me killed.” It's not a question of could or maybe. I didn't have the vocabulary to say what I was. But I was like, “If I really express myself to the fullest extent I will die.” So, I can't right now because I don't want to die. So, I'm going to work really hard. And then I'm going to get a scholarship, so that I can move to one of the coasts. And then I'm just going to be my…”

AVM: 33:13
So, I like planned. And in that way, I'm resentful because I think everyone was thinking I was having this like idyllic childhood. But inside I was literally like scheming and having to make really mature decisions around violence control. And I actually respect myself for that. I don't understand that to be like repressed or closeted. I understand that to be strategic. Because there was no anti-violence framework for someone like me; there was ironically in my family for cis womanhood. And this is something that I speak to my mom and my sister about all the time, is that this kind of ironic position of me feeling like I could declare my own gender precisely because my mom was a feminist. So, she gave me the vocabulary to actually say, “You own your own body.” And so, I was like “Okay, the natural conclusion of my own body is that being trans is like the most feminist thing ever.” But there was just no conversation about trans people, understanding about trans people, visibility of trans people. So even in my mom's case, I think everyone still saw it as me being a feminine man, or an effeminate gay man. And it took years to like really push back and be like this is actually completely unrelated to my sexuality.

AVM: 34:27
My sister would explain to my parents like this is what gender is. She would call people in the extended family be like this is what gender... She would take the hit for me in advance. And then let me know where I should go and where I should not go. And for me that's such a South Asian feminist politic. Like understanding the intimacies between cis women and trans feminine people. Not as like a kind of white feminist allyship or intersectional inclusion. But actually a mutual understanding of how the binary is harming us both. Because it creates these mythologies of what a man and a woman should be. And they're both not actually who we are. And so, I also feel like even amidst all of the like profound invalidation, the reason I'm alive is in so many ways my sister was so awesome. When she left for college... She's three and a half years older than me. So, when she left for college, I did like the kind of like big thing in my Indian community was our graduation parties. We all wanted to outdo each other. So for me, I was like “Okay, how can I outdo everyone?” So, I scanned all of our childhood photos and I made this like dramatic PowerPoint presentation set to “Yellow” by Coldplay great song. And I have like an elaborate poem at the end that I'd written about like stepping through the walks of life with her something. And then I just started sobbing at her graduation party and like ran out into the parking lot. And everyone was like “Oh my God Alok’s love of his sister is like so deep and super. It reminds me of my love.” And everybody thought it was about how I love my sister. But really in so many ways it was also, and now I understand it, a terror. Because when she's gone, I'll get hit. That's what I thought. Because she in high school was a senior when I was a freshman, so I was getting called a faggot. I was getting bullied. And my sister would always be like “I'm a senior. I have authority. Listen to me. That's my younger brother. Leave, leave him alone.” And so, when she was leaving I just had this sheer panic of like “How the hell am I going to go back to school without my bodyguard?” But I didn't have anyone to speak to about like “I'm literally terrified of going to school.” And I think now when I hang out a lot of other trans women and people, that's the situation for so many of us is that like school was literally terrifying. Because we were just constantly having to pretend to be something that we were not. And that performance had to be so consistent that I never went to the men's restroom ever. So I would just literally hold if I had to pee or poop I would hold it all day. Because I was so terrified of going to the men's restroom. Because I was terrified of being with men. And gender segregated sports gender segregated PE. Like every single time would be like so terrifying. And my sister I think made that terror so much less real. Because I had someone there who would rally for me and it was like pre-political, pre-grammar of identity politics whatever. But just her allegiance and commitment to me. So, I think it was like a lot of like dread and pain and loneliness. But also like a lot of profound kinship and coalition. I think that I found ways to live as myself. Like I don't want to have a narrative of my life that's like the first half was like repressed, hidden, and announced like liberated out. I think both are mixed up. I think now there are parts of me that are hidden that weren't then.

AVM: 25:15
So, I graduated from high school in 2009. And I went to Stanford University. Part of the reason I ended up going there was because I had this idea that California would be this oasis for gay people. It was pretty juvenile like I didn't really understand California to be composed of different places. It was just like a very Texan understanding that California equals progressive. I had basically, you know, worked my ass off in high school for a means to an end. So that I could get into a school like Stanford so that I could get away. So I moved that summer 2009 to Stanford where I spent the next four years on and off. It was such a culture shock in so many ways because, whereas I grown up around white conservatism in Texas, at Stanford for the first time I was thrown into white liberalism. I kind of missed the conservatism because I knew how to operate in that world. And then in the sort of liberal world I didn't. Because at Stanford immediately everyone ostensibly supported me. It was very much the rhetoric of like multiculturalism or like rainbow flags everywhere. And like this kind of symbolic display of acceptance, but without a real interrogation of how that landed on actual people. So, in so many ways Stanford I think politicized me even more than growing up in College Station. Because I saw what progress was set out and I saw how it wasn't actually that progressive. I saw how inclusion as a project actually just often feels like erasure. I finally... I think also had the space to develop the vocabulary to articulate the things that I was enduring my entire life. I was lucky and like I said my parents had no pressure on me to like major in certain things or like think about my career or whatever. So I decided to just major in myself. So I studied feminist studies and ethnic studies. And I would just be reading all these amazing queer and trans people of color from all across the world. And it gave me the grammar to articulate my entire life. That I think was the most precious part about school for me. It's just like meeting so many scholars and so many artists who gave me permission to be alive. And made me feel like I was connected to a legacy of something greater than myself. So, I continued my kind of extreme nerdom at Stanford and just like always petitioned to take even more classes. And like maxed out. Like I was just in the library all the time like studying all the time. I would create pie charts of like how many hours I was studying, socializing, and doing activism in a week. And then try to optimize it like Hermione Granger style. And I was just so like... I think it's because like I had been denied water like growing up for so long that like for the first time I was flooded with it. And I just loved that I could say the things that I was saying. Like and that I could do the things that I was doing. And I could be brazen in that way. So I took it very seriously, academically.

AVM: 40:53
And then I realized that that kind of mode of thinking wasn't enough. And so, I really pushed myself into the sort of student activism space. And I was in so many amazing groups that have shaped so much of the way that I navigate the world now. And met so many amazing people. I think what was most great about school was I just met more diverse people than I had grown up with in College Station. So one of the most foundational groups that I was a part of was our poetry collective, the Stanford Spoken Word Collective. And I joined my freshman year, and I was in it all four years. And it was mostly like a Black and Indigenous and people of color, queer, political art space. And I just had so many incredible mentors like upper class people who were like, “Yeah, this is what it means to be an artist. And this is what it means to be a political artist. And here are political artists you should be listening to.” And I just met people who my entire life are going to shape and influence me. And people who are now doing really amazing things like one of my friends Yaa who published a novel called Home Going, which did so well. And it's just wonderful to see all of us in that group who have remained committed to our practices. Because it was kind of the first group of people that I felt like really understood why I wanted to be an artist and kind of gave me permission to be an artist.

AVM: 42:15
So I started writing poetry like I mentioned when I was 11 or 12. And then started performing my junior year in high school. I would go to like poetry recital competitions. This wasn't like performance poetry; it was like stanza kind of poetry. And so, I'd be like at a Barnes and Noble in Houston. And I would like enter all these like youth poetry contests. I was already doing poetry, but I had never really seen performance poetry. And I saw at my freshman orientation… And I was like “Whoa like these kids are all emo kids. And they're all like talking about depression in public.” Like sign me up. So, I auditioned and I wrote two pieces. And I auditioned. And we had like our first show that fall. And I still remember what that felt like it. It just felt like this stage felt like where I've been waiting to go my entire life. Because what I realized then, and I hold it true to be now, is that when you're a performer you're actually more honest than everyone else. Because everyone's performing, they just pretend that they're not. And performance and in space... The space of the stage and performance gives us permission to say and do the things that we've always wanted to say and do but we couldn't. And we have an audience, which makes it even better because then you get validated for some of your most profound existential wounds. So, it very much became a healing space for me where I was just writing about growing up in Texas. And writing about being brown and queer. And then through that realizing I was trans. And through that realizing that I was non-binary. And all these kind of frameworks came from my creative practice. And I’m so grateful for those years of my life, they were so helpful. And I think at the time I never would have said that.

AVM: 43:55
Like at the time I was very much angry and disappointed because I had been led to believe that a place like Stanford would be political and my classmates weren't. I very much was known as that kid with the megaphone, who would be... We had a free speech hour from 12 to 1pm. It would be in White Plaza, the name... With my megaphone just screaming about something. And I was just always out there with a megaphone screaming about something. Like I was like “We're doing a die in the dining hall.” Like I was like that kind of like escalate the tactics like revolution now kind of girl. But cause I think I had been silenced my entire life, I like for the first time could just keep on screaming. And I just sustained a scream for like four years. And it was just such an amazing opportunity to kind of do that. I mean there are very few spaces… And that's why I believe in student activism so much. There are very few spaces where I felt more validated and like seen then by other student activist peers. And I just developed my political analysis of the world and of the university and of my life and my identity. So at the time I was like over it. I was like fuck school like this is like... I would just hate being called like the activist perspective. In seminar I’d be like “Why don't we all be activists?” Like it was really like antagonistic. But now I understand like wow that was such a treasured space for me. Like I was just... My ideas were so fecund. Like I was just constantly growing and learning and becoming.

AVM: 45:23
And I also was able to I think balance school really well. Because I started to just apply for fellowships, external and not, so I could get more experience in community organizing. Because I kind of solidified in myself when I was an undergrad that I wanted to be a community organizer. So my first summer, summer of 2010, I moved to DC for the summer where I worked at the Center for Progressive Leadership. And I was part of this program that I don't think is still around, where they were trying to get more people of color in politics in DC. So we were a cohort of like 40 people of color from all across the country. And they paired us up with progressive organizations. I worked at the democracy alliance. And then we do political education together. And that's where I met like my first cohort of like queer and trans people of color, who were mostly Latinx and Black. And helped me understand the intersections between race, sexuality, and gender. And it was my first time living in a city. I was in DC and I was 18 19 finally, so I could like go to clubs. And I was just like so young and like idealistic and powerful. And I look back at those photos and I'm just like “Wow.” Like we would just be up late talking about how to change the world and like revolution. It was really great. And so, I think that summer for me solidified that I wanted to live a political life. And so, I came back to school very much saying like “Okay, I want to learn everything that I can from school as a way to pivot and like get involved in the trans movement.”

AVM: 46:49
So that summer, after my sophomore year, which was summer of 2011, I moved to Cape Town, South Africa, where I worked at the first trans organization there called Gender Dynamic. And that was my first experience doing like community organizing work. And it's one of the most impactful and profound experiences for me to this day. I still maintain a relationship with trans communities in South Africa. I try to go back every year or two. Because South Africa is a place where there's legal equality, but there's profound experiences of violence. And so, that really politicized me around being skeptical of the role of policy change, and really thinking about how that lands on actual people. And I just met so many incredible mentors there who had been part of freedom struggles for a very long time. Had so many foundational experiences like going to court cases and watching people just perform justice. And realizing that it’s not justice. And going to my kind of first protest and organizing my first protest. And learning from so many incredible activists there like Zackie Achmat. South Asian queer activists there. And just really feeling like I was part of a global movement of trans people.

AVM: 47:59
My third year, I went back to South Africa again that summer, but then I went to Bangalore. I took off some time from school my senior year. And I moved to Bangalore for a couple of months because I wanted to work with queer and trans people in South Asia. Because one of the experiences I had as a student organizer was that I was often the only Indian queer person in the sort of political formations I was a part of. It would be mostly Black and Latinx people and then me. And so, I was just kind of trying to figure out because even at Stanford, the Indian community was just so structured by heteronormativity. And so, I never really felt welcome or understood there. So I built most of my political and creative communities elsewhere. And I think I just reached this point where I was like “I need to really figure out like the Indian side of me.” Again, because I had run away from it in so many ways. So I moved to Bangalore because I had familiarized myself with the work of an organization called the Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore. And people like Arvind Narrain and all these people who had been sort of catalyzing the gay movement in India. And I just emailed them kind of... I was always over ambitious in this way. And I just emailed them. I was like “I want to come. Like I'll find a way to pay my way through. Can I help?” And they were like “Sure.” So, I moved to Bangalore and I worked at the alternative law firm. And I think that for me was like one of the best experiences of my life. I did such cool stuff there. I helped two amazing trans activists there work on the first book on trans masculine people in South India, and violence against trans masculine people. I wrote all these like policy proposals around trans legislation, which were later used in the Supreme Court judgement for trans rights in India. I just connected with so many queer and trans feminists in India. And it was groundbreaking for me because I realized that I had been locked into or duped by all of the Indian people I grew up with who were like “There are no queer people there, or like feminism isn’t there.” Like I'd seen such a monolithic image of India, but for the first time I was meeting people like me, who are like swearing and like writing poetry and crying and like falling in love. And I was just like so enamored by it.

AVM: 50:06
And it was really great because I also had my friend Kareem, who's a great professor now at Tufts. And Kareem was my kind of drag mother, who in so many ways... I started to perform in South African and India on my own. And Kareem was really central in being like “You really have something to say here.” And would sort of take me to these gay parties in the peripheries of Bangalore and like point at things. And be like “Do you know how to dance like this?” And I would be like “No.” And then would teach me how to dance. And there were all these kind of like foundational moments of reconciling my queerness and my Indianness and my artistry. And all that sort of coming together for the first time and feeling like cohesive.

AVM: 50:44
And so, I came back to school. And I very much was like “I am going to find a way to be a political artist. I don't know how, but I'm going to do it.” So, I moved to New York so that I could work at ALP. And I was on fellowship there for about a year. And then I was hired as a staff member for communications and grassroots fundraising. And I worked there for a little over two years after that. And I mean it's like kind of like a before and after kind of New York move... Like my life just like totally transformed. In New York City, I made a really conscientious effort to build relationships with people that I did not have at Stanford. At Stanford I was often and in College Station, I was often the only trans person of color. Whereas in New York City, I finally had the opportunity to be part of larger constellations. And so, my friends and I that I moved in that I'd met at various conferences, kind of created a queer of color collective. And I just started to find and meet so many other queer and trans people of color, and especially trans people of color through my work at ALP. And that first year ALP changed my life totally. Because I met elder trans women and trans feminine people who would like take me boxing. And be like “If you're going to dress like that you need to learn how to fight.” And like teach me about the history of police violence against our community in New York. And about things like the cross dressing laws and where people used to do sex work. And I finally felt like I had people who saw me for me. And that was so major for me to feel like I could live a gender non-conforming life. Like I never thought that that was really possible.

AVM: 52:19
So I started to really shift my self expression. New York City is where I started to wear heels everyday and makeup everyday. And like dresses and skirts. And yes I was experiencing so much harassment and violence and persecution. But it was almost so much easier than when I grew up because I finally had people who understood it. Like I think so much of the violence of growing up in a place like College Station is you can't speak about the harassment you're experiencing because then people will know that you're queer and then they'll target you further. Whereas in New York City,I finally had a community of people that I could process things with. And that changed my life because it gave me the courage and the conviction to practice. And I see it as practice because it's everyday a choice of being like “Am I ready to endure?” And then now I'm like “Yeah, because I know who I'm fighting for.” Like I have actual relationships with people who I really believe in. And who believe in me. So working at ALP was just exactly what I had wanted my entire life. It felt like my political home. It was the kind of place where when you were heartbroken you'd be like “I'm heartbroken and I can't come to work.” And people will be like, “Yeah.” There's not even the option of a dress code. I mean everyday was a fashion show. It was like where I'd order my first heels. And then I would wear them strutting around the office and people would be like “Yeah.” I felt affirmed for all the parts of myself that I felt shame. I felt like so held and so respected and so understood. And they're just so many nights late in the office we'd all be exploiting our own labor because we wanted to. And just doing beautiful things like putting together the largest trans march here—the Trans Day of Action. And just like anytime I had an idea about a program, I'd be like “Oh, my friend from Argentina is coming.” Let's do a panel on the trans Argentine movement. “Okay, cool.” And we can make it happen. Or we started these kind of gender potlucks where it's trying to bring together GNC and non-binary people, and that happened... And it just felt like a place that was an incubation center for whatever ideas or things that I wanted.

AVM: 54:25
So right after I left ALP kind of as like a healing mechanism, I did a tour in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia. And in Fiji I was hosted by a queer Indian there named Chris Prasad. And I connected with so many queer Indians in Fiji and learned about the struggles of Indio Fijians. And then in New Zealand, I just had the best time ever. I mean there were so many queer Pacific Islanders and queer Maori people. And then Australia was like a really big trip for me because I was sort of headlining this feminist music conference. And then I got bashed right after that was in 2016. And that moment for me, I think set the trajectory of the work that I'm doing now. Where I was just like, “Wow imagine this perverse irony of like being a keynote speaker that like hundreds of people are clapping for in the one sense and then two hours later just being physically assaulted and no one caring.”

AVM: 55:12
I began to realize every single place that I went people were looking at me. That there was not a single place that I could go where I would be invisible. And then I began to realize like everyone was a potential threat. And then how do you go outside when you think everyone's a potential threat was what I basically used as the catalyst to write my book, Femme in Public, which I got the conception for when I was in South Africa in 2016. Because I was with so many other amazing gender non-conforming people there. And I was just having these conversations about navigating public space and violence and vulnerability. And I started to realize that for so long I put my faith in queer community, or Indian community, or LGBT community. But none of those communities reciprocated the kind of love historically, and to this day, that transwomen and trans feminine people give to them. And that instead I should put my commitment into other trans feminine people. And so, I kind of wrote that book as a love letter to myself and to other trans feminine people, and to trans femininity as a political project. Because trans femininity in my life had been always seen as the thing that I had to avoid. It was why I didn't allow my voice to be recorded. It was why I like walked in particular ways. It was the fear of being read as a tranny faggot. And so, I think that that was the year, 2017, where I really found my power and my strength and my conviction as a tranny faggot. And being like actually nothing anyone could ever do to me could face or deter the conviction that I have in my people. And my people at that moment became gender non-conforming people and trans feminine people.

AVM: 56:54
And at this time I was touring a show called Watching You Watch Me, which is where I was working through a lot of the dynamics of visibility and violence, and hyper exposure and hyper exploitability. And I think still to this day is the most intense performance piece I've ever done. I don't know if I'll be able to do it again because in 2017 I was just so raw. So, I think it took a more dark and sinister tone than a lot of my work before, but I think it was really important. And I brought it to London and I met people in London, who are now my best friends like Travis Alabanza, who opened for me in February 2017, who I had met years before but I think we really became friends. And then I sort of assembled this motley crew of trans and GNC artists all across the world, who I felt like were my colleagues and my heroes in my community and my family. I think that group of people from South Africa to Uganda to India to US to UK has been my bedrock. Like my return to when I'm like “Why am I doing this?”

AVM: 58:00
So then I moved back to New York. That was fall of 2017. And I was just ready like I had taken out the notes. I had like literally just gone back to square one. Like put post-it notes on the walls being like “What do I want out of life? Like what am I trying to accomplish with my life? Like what do I want to do?” And I just like came back with such an assurity and purpose where I was like “Okay, I want to do everything I can to proliferate images of gender non-conformity in the world.” And to show people that gender non-conformity is not a failure, is not like an in between, is not abject but actually is “is” period. And so, I opened myself up creatively in a way that I never have. I started to design. And I have now designed three gender-neutral fashion collections. I started to think much more about visual culture and modeling and photography and self portraiture. I think I became a much funnier performer. I started to do a lot more comedy. And I started to kind of engage for the mainstream in a way that I had never before. Because I was like “Wait there's like a political project that is invested in disappearing people like me.” So I'm going to respond with a vehemence of the opposite. And I think that's where I've kind of been for the past two years, almost three years now, is just kind of trying my best to manifest through my work creatively, emotionally, politically a world where trans and gender variant people don't have to be afraid. And a world in which gender non-conformity is not just safe but celebrated. And I think that irritates and pisses a lot of people off because what they want to pretend is that we're something new like we're some like millennial fad. But I've done such deep research historically, and I know with conviction that we've always been and that we always will be. And I think I feel so grounded from my histories to claim and take space.

AVM: 1:00:08
I think I am allowing myself to speak in multiple registers. I think when I started I was very much invested in a kind of flawed idea of transparency meaning... of authenticity meaning this is what it means to be me. And now I'm like actually there are many “me”s. And those “me”s can operate and speak in different ways. So, I can give the same talk in an extremely convoluted academic way as I could in a more fun colloquial joke way. And I don't differentiate as one being better than the other. They just have different strategies for engagement. I think I've allowed myself and I'm trying to also push back on the ways in which trans people are policed into appropriate spaces. Like this is where you're supposed to be performance culture. I'm like but everything is performance so I belong here. I think that a lot of what 2017 taught me is that the stage kind of felt like a cage. Because people are comfortable with people who look like me entertaining them. But weren't comfortable with people like me educating them. Or weren't comfortable with people like me sitting next to them on a subway train. So, I began to really think like “Okay, how do I reach all these other places that I've been told were impossible for people like me?” And I think I'm still very much in the process of doing that. But I've allowed myself to like enter spaces that I never thought that I could be in. Because I'm kind of like that's just my internalized trans misogyny. I believe that we are competent in every realm, not just the performative.

AVM: 1:01:31
I think my life is a deep study in contradiction and a deep study in paradox and idiosyncrasy. I think in so many ways, I feel one thing and then I go another way. And I go one way, and I feel another thing. And I think that's what I've always loved about history. So in making an archive and an object of an archive, I think it would ask that people be diligent about allowing me and allowing everyone to hold simultaneity. I think we want to flatten people and turn them into tropes or ideas that we can recruit in the service of a bigger political imagination. But I'm not as interested in doing that. I think in so many ways my life is an argument for my continual becoming and my continual contradiction. And I think I'm fighting for the right to be contradictory. Because I think what I was talking a little bit before about how I'm not allowed to be abstract. I think that so much of the surveillance of trans people is that we have to be known. Because if we're not known we're a threat. And that's a trans phobic framework like we deserve to be unknowable. And we deserve to be complicated and thorny and chewy. So, I hope that the narrative that I've sketched out is understood not as the authoritative narrative. But one narrative that was created on one day, between two people breaking the law by being in this room longer than we should have. And I hope that that narrative can and will contradict other narratives that I said because I think all of them are true and all of them are not.

Collection: Mustafa Saifuddin Fellowship Project
Item History: 2020-08-18 (created); 2021-12-30 (modified)

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