Alok Vaid-Menon

How Alok Vaid-Menon is Making the World a Safer Place for Everyone

For the gender non-conforming performance artist, style and activism are completely intertwined.

It’s Friday night in Toronto, and The Garrison is packed with a motley crew of people with angular haircuts and septum piercings—the kind of crowd one might expect in attendance at Venus Fest, a feminist music festival that aims to remove toxic male aggression from live music environments. We’ve all assembled here to watch a South Asian drag queen named Manghoe Lassi gyrate with a comically oversized fake blunt to Bollywood music. The air in the club is nearly unbreathable, spiced with the ubiquitous scent of Santal 33 and generous base notes of body odour.

After Lassi finishes stripping down to her pot-leaf nipple pasties, Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender-nonconforming performance artist (who goes by they/them pronouns), arrives onstage dressed like a futuristic prophet attending Coachella, wearing a blue spandex crop top and matching pencil skirt that reveal a thatch of body hair, a Frida Kahlo flower crown adorning their magenta locks. After a moment of silence for the Christchurch, New Zealand, massacre, they proceed to launch into a rapid-fire act evoking the violence that trans people face on a daily basis and, in the same breath, throw shade on Ariana Grande.

By the end of the show, Vaid-Menon is visibly in tears and at least one person in the audience has passed out. I feel as if I’ve been shaken out of complacency so hard that I might wake up tomorrow with whiplash. It’s hard to reconcile the garrulous figure onstage with the soft-spoken, thoughtful person I met one day earlier.

“I never was able to consent to the various sets of stereotypes around gender and race that were ascribed to me, but with my outfits, I found I could interrupt those logics.”

Vaid-Menon ushers me into the lobby of the old Victorian home that serves as their crash pad in Toronto. They’re clad in a mix of colours and patterns that conjures the cacophony of a Jackson Pollock painting: a flowy earth mother tunic, zebra-print pants, a splotched ’80s-print skirt and door knocker earrings—finished off with a vibrant swipe of coral lipstick. For Vaid-Menon, whose tag line is “not a girl, not a boy, just me,” style is one of the most important weapons deployed in their ongoing crusade against the gender binary. “I do a lot of what the world calls ‘power clashing,’ but clashing denotes dissonance, and I don’t see it as that,” they say. “I’m trying to tell a story of mistaken dissonance—of harmony that is waiting to be recognized but is suppressed.”

Mistaken dissonance is perhaps the most succinct metaphor to describe the activism that is Vaid-Menon’s life’s work. “People see me as a failed man, a failed woman and, increasingly, a failed trans person,” says Vaid-Menon. Yet nothing about their self-presentation is a failure. As a non-binary transfeminine person, they have the ability to cast off stifling gender categories with the same ease one has when discarding a pair of ill-fitting pants in a change room—it’s every bit as intentional. “I never was able to consent to the various sets of stereotypes around gender and race that were ascribed to me,” they say, “but with my outfits, I found I could interrupt those logics.”

As the author of the poetry book Femme in Public, Vaid-Menon has been touring around the world for the past three years drawing attention to the plight of visibly-gender-nonconforming people through their unique brand of comedy, slam poetry and music. “I cannot isolate Alok’s writing and poetry from the fashion, visual art, activism and performance aspects,” says Umlilo, one of Vaid-Menon’s contemporaries, who is based in South Africa.

Vaid-Menon’s father, Ramdas Menon, says Vaid-Menon wasn’t always fashion-forward, describing them as a “normal kid” who could be gregarious or introspective depending on their mood. “I always understood gender to be an obstacle to style,” Vaid-Menon explains, but they now view clothing as a site of political possibility. In 2013, Vaid-Menon began performing poetry onstage with Janani Balasubramanian under the moniker DarkMatter. Vaid-Menon began to dress up for performances but found that the act of exploring creativity through clothing felt so good, they began to cultivate a studied appearance offstage as well.

“I have a ‘boring section’ [in my closet] for when I just want to operate from point A to point B without getting harassed. But that section is getting increasingly smaller,” says Vaid-Menon. When tasked with wearing a gender-conforming outfit to an ex’s wedding last year, they showed up in a pair of banana-print pants.

In 2017, Vaid-Menon began to design their own clothing as a way to imagine what they would wear if they didn’t have to face violence, sketching out a flamenco-ruffle dress and a pink baby-doll dress with exaggerated bell sleeves. Right now, the clothing is strictly non-commercial, but Vaid-Menon dreams of a brand reaching out to collaborate on a gender-neutral capsule collection that doesn’t look like an assortment of beige-coloured flour sacks.

“Alok manages to straddle this fine line between a fierce warrior goddess that can be intimidating and a gentle clairvoyant spirit that is approachable,” says Umlilo. But by simply existing and living their truth—a.k.a. “being hairy as fuck and wearing makeup”—they are creating a sense of social possibility for others to do the same. “If there was ever a person able to express what I feel and put it into words, it’s Alok,” Umlilo continues. “There’s a raw honesty that their work has that manages to transcend space and time and express all the ancestral cries of sisters from yonder.”

“I’m still trying to figure out why my fabulosity threatens people. I think that at a fundamental level, people have been taught to fear the very things that have the potential to set them free.”

“At the core of it, I’m trying to challenge the international crisis of loneliness,” says Vaid-Menon. Growing up, the only characters on television they could relate to were cartoon villains like HIM, the lobster-clawed, falsetto-voiced villain of The Powerpuff Girls. Vaid-Menon displays a rare willingness to be vulnerable in public, a human quality that’s beginning to feel en­dangered in the age of Instagram, when most people choose to present a highlight reel of their accomplishments for the world to fawn over. Vaid-Menon’s poetry performances and writing workshops often double as group therapy sessions for participants. “When your job is to cry in public to hundreds of people who tell you ‘good job,’ it just kind of reinforces that you’re on to something.”

Alok Vaid-Menon
Photography by Bronson Farr

Despite Vaid-Menon’s inner power and strength, their self-expression is not a welcome sight for everyone and is often the target of cruelty and violence. “I’m still trying to figure out why my fabulosity threatens people. I think that at a fundamental level, people have been taught to fear the very things that have the potential to set them free.” But Vaid-Menon perseveres, partly because they are a pioneer and partly because they see no other way to live. “When non-binary and gender-nonconforming people critique gender binarism, it’s not just because we have selfish interests or are some angry minority of people. It’s because we’re trying to create a world that is more just and inclusive for everyone.”

Back at The Garrison, Vaid-Menon performs their wild and rancorous mix of political commentary, decrying the tribulations of irritable bowel syndrome and calling for a Hilary Duff 2020 presidential campaign. Like in a church, the set is punctuated by audible “mm-hmms” and scattered applause each time Vaid-Menon makes a salient point. By the end of the show, my mind drifts toward something they mentioned the day before: “I want to create irresistible images of what freedom can and does look like.” Onstage at The Garrison, that is exactly what is happening.