Alok Vaid-Menon

Femme in Public

Photo by Elif Kulick

Alok Vaid-Menon is a gender non-conforming performance artist, writer, educator and entertainer, and they’re coming to Winnipeg on March 14 as part of The Uniter Speaker Series.

Vaid-Menon shares their story of being and becoming through intimate, personal writing across social media platforms and on their website. They say they’ve been writing on the internet since they were 11 or 12 years old as a way to find community, because they grew up in a small, conservative town in Texas.

“Writing became the only place where I could write down, leave the evidence of what was happening to me and what I was feeling. The internet became a place for me where I could reach out to people who understood how I was feeling,” Vaid-Menon says. “My writing practice was desperately linked to finding a group of people who could understand what I was going through.”

They say the more personal your writing is, the more universally it will resonate with people.

“We are all hungering for queer and trans stories, because still mainstream media hasn’t caught up to the fact that we are real and not just probes and stereotypes,” they say.

“There are people like me in the world, and I’m leaving evidence, and that feels so important to me, because so much of the history of queer and trans people in my own culture (has) been erased,” they say. “So I don’t really trust other people to tell our stories. I just figured I would tell it myself.”

Vaid-Menon says they choose not to use the language of coming out when describing their journey of being who they are today. Rather, they use a framework of becoming.

“I try not to use the language of coming out, because it shouldn’t be my responsibility to emerge from the types of ideological straight jacket that people put me in,” they say. “What becoming means to me is it’s not just about gender or sexuality, it’s about my personality, my life, my passion, my dreams more generally.”

Vaid-Menon adds that language around gender and sexuality has been isolating, because it requires using one word – boy or girl – to describe a person.

“I just feel that I’m more than one word. In fact, I feel like I’m no words at all. Maybe I’m like a sound, or a song, or something else,” they say. “I just am now sort of comfortable with ambiguity and comfortable with complexity and a whole range of emotions and ideas that I feel like the language of gender and sexuality don’t allow us. When they ask ‘are you a boy or a girl?’ that’s not even a relevant question.”

“I just want to be a constant question mark. And coming to terms with my ability to be dynamic and fluid and interesting is really challenging, because this world really wants rigid and fixed norms and category to people, which doesn’t often allow people to change,” they add.

Vaid-Menon says they use their platforms to tell their story, because they need to externalize the negative energy they receive on a daily basis. Being able to use writing and performance was a way for them to turn the pain and negativity into something regenerative and beautiful.

“That process of recycling is instrumental to my art practice, which is the more harassment and misunderstanding and isolation I experience, the more committed I am to turning that into something powerful and beautiful for myself and other people,” they say.

“There’s days that it’s easy, and there’s days that it’s hard. I feel like the work of healing is not linear. It changes and fluctuates based on where we’re at in our lives,” they say.

“There are days where I’m like ‘I’m never going to be able to share any of this stuff again. I just want to disappear.’ And there’s days where I just want to scream to everyone on the street that’s what’s going on to change it.”

They currently live in New York where they say they’re surrounded by people constantly.

“I look all around me, and there’s absolutely no one that looks like me, and everyone is just staring at me,” they say. “And that deep type of existential isolation to be like ‘I know that I’m not the only one.’”

“It’s just that this world is so misogynist that it makes people have to disappear themselves and prioritize their safety over their authenticity.”

Vaid-Menon says, as a performance artist, they do poetry, comedy, singing, dancing and work with technologies like projections as well as voice modulation. Although those are works they will do, they find each performance to be unique, and the Winnipeg audience should expect their own unique iteration.

“For me, what I love about performance as a term is that it also has that ambiguity. It resists definition. Performance gave me the open space to do whatever I want to do on the stage,” they say.

“And I also feel like a lot of what I’ve been doing recently is improvising. I find that each performance to be unique to that specific situation. And what’s really beautiful to me is that it’s ephemeral to me - you have to have been there to experience it.”

What’s your favourite thing about yourself? "Actually, I think my sense of humour. I think I’m really funny and have just recently started exercising my humour bone, because I felt like ‘K I have to be really serious, because the things I’m talking about are really serious,’ but then now I’m like okay, I don’t want to give up on levity, and I just like being funny.

I love comedy. Women and trans comedians are so important to me, because I feel like what so much of what misogyny is (is) laughing at us, and it’s so empowering to laugh at other people, and to actually flip that script is so powerful. And I feel like it’s therapeutic for me, because people laugh at me all the time, so when I’m actually able to laugh at them, I’m like ‘ha ha ha.’’’

The Uniter Speaker Series, University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA), QPOC Winnipeg and Like That present Alok Vaid-Menon - Femme in Public on March 14 at The Park Theatre (698 Osborne St.) Doors open at 7 p.m., and the the event starts at 8 p.m. It is free and open to all ages. ASL interpretation will be provided, and the venue will be physically accessible with gender neutral restrooms.

Published in Volume 72, Number 20 of The Uniter (March 8, 2018)

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