Alok Vaid-Menon: „What would I wear if I wasn’t afraid of violence?“
We asked the transfeminine performer about experiences of racism, violence and what fashion has to do with empowerment
Our cover model for August Alok Vaid-Menon from New York, well known as part of the spoken-word duo "DarkMatter", is now traveling around the world with a new one-person show. As a non-binary, transfeminine artist and poet, Aloks performances challenge gender norms and racism within the LGBTI community
Alok, you define yourself as nonbinary and gender nonconforming. What does that mean to you? It means that I am more complex than the categories of “man” and “woman” contain. I'm trying to challenge the idea that you can divide millions of people in the world into one or two genders and sexes. For me, these words are basically an invitation to the world to say: I – and maybe you – are too complex and unique to be summarized by a label.
What does it mean to be transfeminine and not being a trans women? The question of “What do you identify as?” already is the wrong question for me, because I shouldn’t have to identify as anything. Identifying means I’m trying to make static and fixed what is something so fluid, complex, and changing. I use “trans feminine” because I want people to understand that people who are not women still experience misogyny, sexism and patriarchy. Often we're taught that patriarchy is just men versus women. I experience tremendous violence because I express femininity, even though I am supposed to be “masculine.” Because feminism often requires us to identify as women in order to be seen as legitimate subjects of gender based violence, there is no framework to hold our experiences of discrimination. Repression of femininity and policing of the gender binary affects all people.
Last year you did two shows in Berlin, now you're coming back. What brings you here? I've been coming to Berlin since the last five years, every summer. I feel like the number of artists I meet in the general population is just so much higher than anywhere else in the world. That being said, I also feel like Berlin is romanticized as this artistic oasis without a real consideration of the racism that has been happening and that continues to happen. I love to come and support the work of local artists, academics and activists who are writing about racism within the German context. I’m going to do a performance with my friend Keith, a Black trans person who lives in Munich. Every time I speak with Keith about the experiences they have with racism in Germany, I’m like wow, that’s really different from what I experience in the US!
Do you think the queer scene in New York is more aware of racism than the one in Berlin? I actually think it’s impossible and unproductive to make hierarchies like this — racism is widespread and takes different forms and different contexts. One important difference between the US and Germany is that race was foundational to the very creation of the United States. So the question of race is unavoidable because there is a long legacy of Black and indigenous people organizing since the beginning. I feel like often times we attempt to “copy and paste” our analysis of race and oppression from the US and apply it to places like Germany and it just doesn’t work — there are different histories and dynamics which need to be unpacked. That’s why it is important to support the work of local artists, academics, and activists who are writing about racism within the German context. In my experience — my audiences in Europe are more willing to sympathize with the struggles happening in the US than actually confronting what’s happening in their own backyard. So they can say, wow the US is so backwards, look at Trump. And then pretend like there are no problems in their own backyard. But I think racism and transphobia are global phenomenons.
Besides being a writer and a performer, you are also a designer and just released a clothing line. Is developing a style a political act for you? I’ve always been really interested in fashion and styling, but this is the first time I made a collection where I really challenge myself to ask: What would I wear every day if I wasn’t afraid of violence? And I made the pieces thinking about what the society would be like where I didn’t have to double think every thing that I wore because of harassment. Where I didn’t have to double think, if what I wore was appropriate. Style is about dressing up for myself — taking myself seriously and celebrating myself. And that is political because we are resisting the world’s designation of our appearance as ugly, tragic and superficial. This work of defining beauty on our own terms challenges how beauty standards continue to be a site where racism and transphobia are produced. I wanted my clothing line to be a place to say that there is no one definition of beauty, there is just your definition of beauty.
Do you sometimes feel the need to adapt to avoid stress or discomfort? The reality of the situation is: if I were to dress like I wanted every single day of my life, I don’t think I would be alive. Like, I experience so much harassment constantly, so much physical, sexual violence, every single day. And often its too overwhelming for me to bare, so I don’t dress as I want and wear something more conservative just to be able to get a coffee or not have people following me around. So I have to compromise what I look like just to think about safety. That’s why performing is so important for me – because the stage is the only guaranteed place in the world where I can just be myself.
Interview: Hannah Geiger