Unflinchingly femme: an interview with Alok Vaid-Menon
Alok Vaid-Menon has been making several appearances in Berlin this summer. Fellow American performer Lyra used the opportunity to chat with Alok about transfemininity, street harassment, and the rift between online and offline
Aug. 4, 2017 – Gender-nonconforming writer, educator and performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon has been making waves internationally since their work in DarkMatter, a collaborative performance project with fellow trans poet Janani Balasubramanian. While the duo parted ways earlier this year, Alok is now bringing their creativity into focus in an entirely new body of solo work. You can see their new performance "Watching You / Watch Me" on August 6 at Werkstatt der Kulturen, or visit Humboldt University on August 7 for "Femme in Public". I caught up with Alok to discuss their need for writing, how they experience violence both online and offline, and the importance of being cared for unconditionally.
Living as an American in Berlin, I sometimes notice ways in which American structures of race and gender become projected onto European culture, out of context. Do you think this is a problem?
While things like racism and transmisogyny are global structures, the way that they work are specific and contextual. I recognize that it is often easier for people to regard, sympathize with and universalize the experiences of people like me talking about marginalization in the U.S. However, there are particularities to the history of Germany that totally inform the way that race and gender are defined and policed here. It is important to engage with activists and thinkers of color doing work within Europe. For example, Berlin-based Tamil writer Sinthujan Varatharajah is doing important work about race in Germany.
Street harassment is a huge issue for women, trans and gender non-conforming individuals. However the violence that gender non-conforming people can experience is often left out of mainstream feminist discourse. How do you deal with the violence you face on the street, and in what ways could cis feminists do better to recognize the violence that all gender non-conforming people face?
So much of the work that I've been doing over the past year has been writing about the harassment I experience as a way to cope with it – I find that when I give language to my pain, it becomes a little bit easier to deal with. The erasure of gender non-conformity from the street harassment dialogue doesn't just hurt gender non-conforming people, it hurts everyone! What I need cis feminists to understand is that centering gender non-conforming people isn't just about solidarity; it's about challenging patriarchy more precisely and effectively.
For example: I am rarely, if ever, complimented by men on the street. I am spat on, laughed at, pushed and shoved, thrown trash at, et cetera. We can't just talk about desire, we have to talk about disgust. Why should we have to be beautiful in order to be safe? Also, I am often harassed by women – mostly white women. Street harassment isn't just about enforcing men's control of public space, it's about policing the gender binary and actively disappearing gender nonconformity from the public imagination. Finally, my harassment doesn't stop on the street – it continues wherever I'm going and it is sometimes photographed and filmed for later entertainment. This expands the scope of the work beyond 'the public', to understanding how femininity is always made into a spectacle for public consumption and entertainment, offline and online. It's not just about including token gender-nonconforming people in the anti-harassment movement; it's about fundamentally challenging some of the core ideas of the movement itself.
You're right – being a gender non-conforming person can often feel like being an avatar for other people's consumption, especially in the age of Instagram. Do you experience this tension between the possibility of digital simulation of oneself and the reality of harassment in the physical world?
I have such a fraught relationship with the internet. On the one hand, it is so affirming, and so fun to get dressed up as I want and take photos of myself. But I know in my heart of hearts that this platform – along with the stage, the runway, the camera – is the only place where I'm permitted to exist as a gender non-conforming person. The minute I interact with the public, I am harassed. I think platforms like Instagram have the danger of warping reality – making it seem that we are more progressive and that the world is more accepting than it actually is. That's not to dismiss them, but to show the simultaneous tragedy and triumph of being femme online.
Your upcoming Berlin performances address many struggles that queer people of color constantly face, including surveillance, issues with intimacy and psychic violence against oneself. In the vulnerability of your performance, what kind of world do you hope to point toward?
This work is some of the most intense and personal work I've ever created, and I offer it as a love letter to transfeminine people of color. I think we have to undergo so, so much, and our experiences are rarely represented or engaged seriously with. When we are noticed, it is often to make us into triumphant stories, heroes and divas overcoming incalculable violence. I don't want to have to be empowered or put together or confident or fabulous in order to be worthy of sympathy, let alone consideration. In this work, I wanted to be honest about how difficult it is to live a visibly gender nonconforming life as a racialized person, and the constant fear and stress that literally informs your every decision and movement. The world I want to create is one in which we can be honest about our hurt, our anxiety, our pain, our fear, our loneliness – one where we do not have to be confident or self-actualized to be taken seriously and cared for. A world where, rather than trying to privatize pain and suffering, we find ways to come together and heal from it.
Do you have any thoughts on how we can collectively heal and exchange our suffering with each other, outside of our solitary practices of self-care?
I think this will take a lifetime to figure out, but some of the things I've been experimenting with are coming together, to challenge the need to politicize or intellectualize my feelings when talking with other people. I try to remind myself and my friends that feelings are valid unto themselves – they don't need to be made legitimate in order to be real. So often, we don't actually get at the root of the problem – jealousy, loneliness, rage – because we are too busy cloaking them with big words to make them more palatable. But I don't think we can heal from pain by making it palatable – that's for sure.
We live in a time defined by an absurd overabundance of information. In all of this noise, how do you get a sense of progress on the social justice front?
I root a lot of my ideas of change and progress in my relationships. Often, it can be so overwhelming to be confronted by all of the ideas, the news, the data – so what I try to do is to turn to my friends and family and say, "This is who I am, this is what I need, what do you need?" Change becomes something more local, tangible and accountable – something where I can say, "I went home to my family last week, and no one told me to cut my hair." That might feel like something small in the scheme of things, but when things become about us – as in our bodies, our lives, and not just our social media handles – small things can feel enormous.
Interview: Lyra Pramuk
Watching You / Watch Me, Aug. 6, Werkstatt der Kulturen Berlin
Femme in Public, Aug. 7, Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum