Talking Gender Fluidity, Travel, and a Texas Childhood With Alok Vaid-Menon

The performance artist, writer, and activist travels to remain a perpetual student of the world.

Alok Vaid-Menon wearing a multi-colored suit, red pom-pom earrings, and bejeweled sunglasses. Their hair is dyed green, blue, and purple.

Alok-Vaid Menon believes foremost in the power of love. Outfit and styling by Param Sahib.

Photo by Krishna Sandesh

I follow a few South Asian influencers on Instagram, but the one who indubitably stops me in my scroll is Alok Vaid-Menon.

Alok is a writer, performer, and artist who is gender nonconforming and transfeminine. When I think of their work, two words come to mind: joy and nuance. Their world view is rooted in love and radical acceptance; sometimes, Alok responds to transphobic comments by responding, “I love you more than you could ever hate me.”

The world Alok curates is bright, poppy, filled with new ideas, and free of judgment. Their wardrobe and makeup features vibrant colors and sparkles; their friends and collaborators are remarkably diverse; and their speeches are (for me) eye-opening. I started to get curious: How does someone like this think about travel? And conversely, how does travel affect their world view?

So, I reached out—and the ensuing conversation gave me chills. I hope it affects you deeply as well.

Tell us about yourself, Alok.

Artist feels like the only word I’ve ever chosen to call myself. My creative project is to end the international crisis of loneliness. I believe in the power of love.

Can you share a bit about your childhood?

I grew up in a small town in Texas where I was continually made to feel like I didn’t belong. It was there that I developed a more elastic sense of home. Home wasn’t about my external surroundings; it was an internal sense of security and self-knowing—something I could bring with me wherever I went. I started writing poems when I was 11 or 12, and they saved my life. They showed me that beauty was still possible—despite everything. That I could take all the pain and turn it into something beautiful. And that was my first lesson in duality: how being alive is both profoundly painful and incredibly beautiful. Often at the same time.

How, if at all, did your cultural background influence you while growing up?

I struggle with this question. As a product of various diasporas, I grew up with a hybrid sense of culture. It’s hard for me to parse out what trait belongs to what, because it’s all so mixed up. What I can say is that I grew up in a tight-knit Indian community in Texas and would make frequent trips to visit family in India, Canada, and the U.K. I had an intimate awareness that the world was so much bigger than my small town. That there were so many other ways to think, look, act, eat, be. That regardless of what my bullies were saying, I was part of something greater than myself. Something that was dynamic and special.

Alok holds a microphone on stage, with blue spotlights falling on them.

Alok says travel has become inextricable to their art practice; they learn from the conversations they have, partner with creative communities, and share lessons they’ve learned on stage.

Photo by Giovanni Steele

How do you think about your identity today? And how does your identity affect how you move around the world?

I don’t think about my identity much on my own. I spend my days following what charms me, trying my best to cultivate joy and wonder wherever I go. I mostly have to think about identity when it’s imposed on me. When people on the street send slurs my way. When forms require me to pick a gender. When people ask me “What are you?” When laws attempt to legislate and criminalize me out of existence.

I want so badly to move through the world fluidly, but so often this society [puts us into discrete boxes], and that makes that extraordinarily difficult. Humor has been my best travel companion as I have to navigate the preset itinerary of identity. I guess that’s another way of saying: Every day is ripe with comedic material. You think I look absurd? What’s absurd is a world that genders inanimate objects and emotions.

How does travel feature in your life?

As a touring artist, I’m constantly on the move. Last year, I was in 26 countries, from Namibia to the Netherlands. Travel has become integral and inextricable to my art practice. In both the practical sense (I know the lightest pairs of heels to pack for tour) and the poetic (I’ve learned that on the road we don’t just go to new places externally, we go to new places internally). I’m insatiably curious about the world: how it breathes and how it grieves. While I’m often invited to new places to share my work, what I relish most is the ability to immerse myself in new circumstances and conversations, to be a perpetual student of the people of the world. I’m in awe of us: humans. Memories are the best souvenirs. You can see them decorate every sentence I make.

Have you been to India and/or Malaysia as an adult? If so, what was your experience like?

I went to Malaysia for my first and only time almost a decade ago with my father. We got to visit his old schools, meet his friends and family, the works. It made him make so much more sense to me—and me, so much more sense to myself. And the food—heavenly.

I try to make it to India every year—I recently toured there with my comedy and poetry for a month at the beginning of this year. These trips have been the most poignant and profound for me, especially being able to collaborate with local artists. The creative community in India is absolutely incredible. On this past trip I designed a jewelry collaboration with the Mumbai-based Papa Don’t Preach and that was a dream come true.

Have you had any travel experiences that changed your outlook on gender and racial identity or changed your perspective on life in a meaningful way?

Everywhere I’ve gone has left an indelible mark on me. When I think about the places I’ve been, I don’t just recall the landscapes, I remember the people. All the conversations. They make me who I am. One place that’s been foundational for me is South Africa. I’ve been going there for the past 12 years and have had the honor to work alongside their trans movement and local trans and gender nonconforming artists. Many people don’t know that gender nonconforming people were a crucial part of the anti-apartheid struggle. In the West, gender nonconformity and transfemininity often get dismissed as superficial. But prior to colonization these ways of being were sacred.

What I relish most [about travel] is the ability to immerse myself in new circumstances and conversations, to be a perpetual student of the people of the world. I’m in awe of us: humans.

Speaking of changing perspectives, I’ve long admired the “book reports” you sometimes post on Instagram. I’m curious to know the genesis of them, and what you hope they can accomplish in your advocacy career?

The quarantine of 2020–2021 was the first time in years I had to stay in one place for a prolonged period. The closest I came to traveling was reading. I’d journey from one book, to the next, and eventually it was more than a hundred. It was the kind of reading I love most: chasing an idea no matter where it took me. I’d read a footnote and find a recommendation for a new book, and then from there I’d be on to my next. Like gender, genre is merely a suggestion. I’d leap from history to literature to philosophy to economics. I had no destination in mind. I just wanted to learn. And I rekindled my childhood awe of reading, remembered that learning is one of the most precious parts of being alive. I wanted to share what I was learning with everyone to instill that sense of amazement in them, too—that the world was far more expansive and complex than we could have ever imagined. Hence: the book reports.

Finally, I have a question from a gender nonbinary friend who is a big fan of yours: How do you stay hopeful when the world starts to look bleak?

I read LGBTQ history. I remember that there have been many moments in our history where the world felt bleak and impossible, and our transcestors kept on going. I study how they did it: the jokes they cracked, the portraits they took, the communities they sustained. And I remember how lucky I am to be part of that lineage. And how I have to do everything I can to make sure it remains unbroken.

Sarika Bansal is the editorial director of AFAR Magazine and editor of the book Tread Brightly: Notes on Ethical Travel.
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