Defying gender binaries with Alok Vaid-Menon — a gender non-conforming writer, performer, & fashion icon

July 5 | Guest post by Minerva Siegel
Alok Vaid-Menon

Alok Vaid-Menon is a 25-year-old gender-nonconforming person of color from Texas who has an amazingly refreshing, out-of-the-box fashion sense that reflects their attitude toward life in a very inspiring way. Alok challenges the very notion of gender and is individualistic to the core! I knew I wanted to get to know them better, and was super excited when they agreed to an interview.

Did you encounter a turning point when you decided you needed to let yourself be the person you are, or was it more of a gradual evolution?

"I am in a constant state of becoming," Alok tells me."I'm not really sure who I am, and that's the joy of it! I really just try to give as much permission to myself as possible to embody whatever I'm feeling in the moment. "

Why shouldn't we all give ourselves such freedom? Why are we so obsessed as a society with labeling people — with shoving them in neat little boxes with tags that read "masculine," "feminine," "gay," "straight," etc? Human beings are so fluid and ambiguous. People aren't this or that — we're combinations of both, or maybe sometimes neither altogether. And that's okay. That's beautiful, even! Rather than vilifying and ostracizing people for their otherness, we should encourage and celebrate them.

Is it ever tempting to conform or to fit in, maybe as a social survival skill?

"Yes absolutely. That's the story of the majority of my life. Still, to this day, I often have to censor myself and what I look like in order to be safe. I don't shame myself for that, though. We have to do what we have to do to survive. I dream of a world where people can do something as simple as be themselves. What a simple request, what a huge mandate."

This is a really important point to hit home: you can be totally, 100% committed to promoting individuality and challenging binaries while still doing what you have to do to stay safe. Blending in doesn't equate to selling out or admitting defeat in a world that is hateful and violent toward people that don't fit the norms. Do what you have to do to stay safe and mentally healthy.

Still, Alok dares to defy social norms by dressing in wild, loud prints, mixing fabrics, and playing with unconventional garment silhouettes and shapes. I ask them how they'd like to see the fashion industry change to be more accepting of gender-nonconforming people.

"Casting more trans and gender non-conforming models, highlighting the work of TGNC (Trans Gender/Non Conforming) designers, photographers, and makeup artists — that's the first step. Then, we need the complete degendering of fashion to begin with; the utter rejection of the idea of "men's clothes" and "women's clothes." One of the biggest obstacles to beautiful fashion — no, beauty itself — is our obsession with the gender binary. This isn't just about accepting trans people, this is about challenging gender to begin with."

Alok feels that the concepts of masculinity and femininity shouldn't have relevance in this day and age. "We need to be much more colorful, expansive, and precise about what we mean rather than defaulting into ideological catchalls that do more harm than good," they tell me.

Being that Alok is a person of color, I wonder if they feel that ethnicity/race ties into the equation in a meaningful way. Their reply is so profound that I'm still sort of reeling from it.

Do you feel that gender-nonconforming babes of color have a different experience than white gender-nonconforming people?

"Gender is a racial construct. The gender binary was imposed by various processes of colonization and imperialism. When gender-nonconforming people challenge gender, we aren't just challenging gender norms, we are challenging racial norms. We experience the compounded and violent combination of white supremacy, gender binarism, and transmisogyny. This means we not only often experience more severe forms of harassment and discrimination, but also lack the language to even articulate our essence in a world that has stripped us of that ability."

This hits me hard. The idea that we've sort of arbitrarily and needlessly gendered every aspect of ourselves ("You aren't supposed to play with dolls, you're a boy!", "Girls don't speak that way — you need to be more demure!", "You're too emotional. Man up!") and our lives (masculine vs. feminine fashion, interests, career paths, etc) to the point of leaving no room for deviation without violence, hate and prejudice is a tough pill to swallow, and it's inspiring me to be proactive about consciously unlearning everything I've been taught about masculinity, femininity and gender.

Speaking of violence, hate and prejudice, Alok sometimes uses the new Instagram Stories feature to share some of the messages of hate they receive. Seeing all the obscenely hateful comments they receive simply for daring to challenge gender norms breaks my heart. Despite criticism and negativity, Alok stays remarkably kind and open.

What keeps you soft and brave?

"Friendship! Friendship! There is no way on Earth (or even Mars for that matter) that I could do this alone! Everything that I am is because of the love and care from a supportive network of friends and family. When things get rough, I know that I have them to fall back on." Alok says that their friends affirm and support them for who they are — binaries be damned. #FriendGoals

Alok is an amazing, intelligent, and thoughtful person with the guts to be themselves in a world obsessed with binaries. They've inspired me to reconsider the very notion of gender, and to regard it as a racial and social construct rather than something inherent. Gender ostracizes and burdens people, and it's high time that we recognize the harm it's doing and work to constructively abolish the prejudice and hate piled onto people who dare to defy arbitrary gender norms. After all, we're all unique and talented in our own ways — we need to let ourselves flourish and bloom, which can't happen in a gender vacuum.

If we all gave ourselves permission to like what we like, wear what we feel most powerful and comfortable in, and wholeheartedly feel whatever emotions we're feeling without worrying about whether or not we're being "gender-appropriate" by doing so, the world would be a more beautiful, less conflicted place.

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  1. Love this! Thanks for sharing it and for all of the inspiration to both be more me and fashion-wise. I also REALLY appreciate Alok sharing the bit about doing what you need to, to be safe. I often feel guilty when I hold back, but it's affirming to be reminded of some of the reasons I do being valid. <3

    6 agree
  2. I read this immediately after a male friend of mine got snarked at for making an inquiry about safety. Men are supposed to be warriors from birth or something. Never mind that my friend is blind and in his 60's. I, on the other hand, get scolded occasionally for not worrying about safety, even though I know how to take care of myself. There isn't a branch of life that people don't have opinions about, based on what gonads a person was born with.

    Granted, there are some neural and hormonal differences on an average that can impact behavior, but these are just the tops of overlapping bell curves. If only some women (like me) have mechanical aptitude, we should still be allowed to fix our own machines. If only some men are better at child-rearing than competing in the job market, the children should get the blessing of their skill. If you've got one tone-deaf but bucolic athlete in a family of musicians, let that kid put down the violin and play ball! No one should have to ask, "Oh, is this person allowed to excel at fashion, hunting, dance, bodybuilding, whatever?"

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