Alok Vaid-Menon says their aunt, the renowned lesbian activist Urvashi Vaid, was their first “queer protector.”
“Having an openly queer person in my family changed everything and made it possible for me to do the work that I do today,” Alok says. “Urvashi was my first queer protector.”
Alok, who identifies as gender nonconforming and transfeminine and uses the pronouns they/them, is a writer, comedian, and performance artist who elevates topics on on gender politics, race, and trauma. In 2017, Alok released their inaugural book of poetry, “Femme in Public,” a meditation on harassment against transfeminine people.
They appeared on “The Man Enough” podcast last year and discussed the problems with gender binary and how people can fight against it. The video went viral on social media.
Gender nonbinary is one issue Alok addresses in their tour of live shows. Alok will perform in downtown Los Angeles at the Ace Theatre Wednesday. They will will take their tour to Europe in July, August, and October.
Growing up in College Station, Texas, Alok was bullied for their race and gender expression, experiences they describe as “horrendous” and “arduous.”
Vaid visited the family many times over the years and gave Alok emotional support and guidance, from one queer person to another.
Vaid, who died last month after a bout with cancer, left a lasting impact on Alok.
“From a young age, I learned that patriarchy was a thing. I learned that homophobia was a thing. I learned that people could love people regardless of their gender,” Alok says.
“Urvashi was always buying me clothes and always encouraging me and my artistry and my creative expression.
“I always knew that even if I was being bullied or harassed, there were people called activists who didn’t put up with that. That was major,” Alok says.
“I knew that what I was going through wasn’t permanent. I knew that there was a way to change society. I knew that there were people like me somewhere in the world,” Alok says. “From a very young age, I had possibility.”
In an interview with Q Voice News, Alok, 30, talks about being on the road with their tour, observing toxic masculinity in comedy, and confronting gender binary.
Here are some excerpts.
“I have been wanting this for so long. I told my agents, I was like, Let’s go big. Let’s do as much as we can. I’m going to be going all across the world, which I’m really excited about.
“For me, what made the pandemic so hard as a performing artist is I really believe in the preciousness and sacredness of live art. I believe that it can’t really be replicated, even if you have videos or photos. It’s the ultimate. You had to have been there to experience.
“It means so much to me spiritually, personally, to be able to bring my heart on full display whenever I’m performing.”
Why the tour is important
“Things have been very difficult and hard for people like me,” Alok says. “In 2022, we’re seeing more anti-trans legislation than ever before in U.S. history. Trans people are being used as a scapegoat to get cheap shots for political and financial gain.
“We’ve just been punched down over and over and over again,” Alok says. “I’m feeling this deep need to respond to the times in multiple ways. One, to provide my community with a safe space to laugh and feel joy and celebration amidst so much invalidation and rejection.
“And then two, artfully, poetically, and comedically, show how absurd it is that people are coming for us,” Alok says. “Comedy presents a unique way to do that because for so long, people like me, who are gender nonconforming, have just been seen as a joke merely for existing.
“But the real joke is how much money, time and energy people put into dividing billions of complex souls into one of two genders. That’s the farce to me,” Alok says. “What I’m really excited about in this show is doing that inversion of showing, You think that I’m the joke, look at yourself.”
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“I take a lot of my inspiration from the history of political humorists who have really used humor as a way to demystify systems of power,” Alok says. “It feels very concerning to me that comedy, and especially standup, is losing that tradition.
“What we’re seeing now is many mainstream comedians just parroting the dominant Right Wing talking points. They’re so far behind that they think that they’re ahead.”
“A lot of times when people are familiar with my work, they’re confused because they’re like, You’re not a comedian. Inherent in that appraisal is so much a ratio of legacy and history,” Alok says. “Actually, drag has always been a political comedic space of challenging and subverting the normative architecture of our society.”
Toxic masculinity in comedy
“What’s happened then is that the monopoly of a particular aggressive, toxic masculinity in comedy has made it such that people don’t even know that they’re consuming poison being taught its medicine and mistaking the medicine as poison.
“I have this line in my set where I say, There is a real crisis facing this nation, and it’s not transgender people in bathrooms. It’s men in comedy. We need to protect jokes from men in pants.”
“It seems like at a fever pitch right now where so many patriarchs are having to confront the obsolescence of their hegemony and in their final breath. They are clinging to whatever they can to reestablish it.
“That’s funny. It’s funny how desperate they are to remain relevant. It’s funny how pathetic their jokes are because they’re no longer even funny. It’s not humor anymore. It’s just drizzle,” Alok says.
“What an exciting time it is to be a queer comedian. We are, and have in the past, reimagined this genre and made it relevant time and time again.”
Push back they heard about gender nonbinary
“I’m not surprised because all of those reactions I had against myself,” Alok says. “This is what really frustrates me often about contemporary LGBTQ politics. LGBTQ people act as if we were born proud. And actually, I had so much self-hatred, so much self-rejection, so much disgust at myself.
“I had to do the work. I had to actually work on healing myself in order to become proud, which was a process that will take my entire life,” Alok says. “In my own life, I’ve seen how I’ve gone from being so self-hating and self-deleting and self-denying to so unapologetically and flagrantly me that I do believe that transformation is possible.”
Responding to the hostility
“When I’m confronted with such outright hostility, I know that it’s not actually about me. It’s about people’s relationships with themselves,” Alok says. “They have abbreviated their own freedom. They have repressed their own waywardness. They have abrogated their own dignity for likability.
“When they see people who are living their lives freely, of course, they’re going to retaliate. It’s easier to demonize me than it is to reckon with the heartbreak. The only ways that they’ve been shown love has been so conditional on their disappearance. They literally are under so much pressure.
Who’s the performance artist?
“It’s so funny being called a performance artist because I’m like, Am I the one performing, or is it all the choreography required of us to be seen as real, as safe, as worthy in this?
“Every summer in New York City where I live, I’m just flabbergasted that so many men are still wearing these suits, sweating their brains out. I’m like, A skirt would be such a more functional option for you, but you would rather suffer than actually have fresh air and circulation.
“That’s just such a metaphor for me that many people mistake pain as a virtue, and it’s not,” Alok says. “When they’re confronted with the fact that you don’t have to suffer, that you get to be free, of course, people will defend their suffering because that’s the only way that they know themselves.”
Confronting gender binary
“What I’m really feeling heartened by is people are genuinely waking up to the fact that gender norms are ridiculous and are looking for a new vocabulary to describe it.
“This is about everyone. I would really like to see taking on the gender binary be understood as a universal concern,” Alok says. “People still believe that when I say I want a world without the gender binary, that means I want a world without man and woman and that’s not true.
“I have to continually clarify to be like, No, it’s actually a world where you get to choose to be a man or a woman. A world beyond the gender binary is one in which people can self-determine their own genders for themselves. It’s about challenging a society that genders people without their consent.
“That’s the missing link. My concern for the future of gender politics is how do we pay attention to the disproportionate violence facing trans and non-binary people, but understand that within trans and non-binary people’s artistic resistance is the creation of a world that’s actually going to help everyone?
“It’s going to be a world where we have undefined masculinity and femininity such that people finally have the space to author it for themselves. What does it mean to be a man to you? What does it mean to be a woman to you?”