“I Understand the Project of Trans-Feminism To Be About the Liberation of All Genders”: An Interview With the Poet and Performance Artist Alok Vaid-Menon

18 March, 2017

Alok Vaid-Menon is a poet, writer and performance artist, who identifies as a non-binary transfeminine person and uses the pronouns “they/them.” Born and raised in Texas, Vaid-Menon rose to public prominence as part of Dark Matter, a duo ofnon-binary trans South Asian performance artists. Vaid-Menon is currently touring across India, conducting performances, talks and workshops that address social-justice issues.

On 25 January 2017, Skye Arundhati Thomas, a writer and critic, met Vaid-Menon before a performance at the Talera Institute of Fine and Applied Arts, in Pune. The two spoke about the legal recognition of the third gender in India, and the perils of seeing people within binaries, such as either cis or trans, or gay or straight. Vaid-Menon also spoke about opposing gender as a concept, as well as the value of kinship to those who don’t conform to a particular gender or sexuality.

Skye Arundhati Thomas: How has your trip through India been so far?

Alok Vaid-Menon: I started out in Thrissur [in Kerala], which is where my achamma lives, and this time I actually got permission to leave the house (laughs). We saw the [Kochi-Muziris] Biennale and I just had the most emotional and wonderful reaction. I saw such good art—good curation, good performance, good politics—art about sexuality and gender that was curated not just as part of a queer exhibition. My dream for queer and trans artists is that we can be curated as part of broader themes.

SAT: In 2014, following similar moves in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, the Supreme Court of India recognised transgender people in India as falling under a third gender. At the same time, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code continues to subsist. What do you make of this?

AVM: I am deeply suspicious of symbolic legal victories for any community, because the law has, and continues to be, a way to do the performance of justice without the actual realisation of it. We are given policy and language, but not resources and housing.

I am concerned about the turn to legislation being synonymous with social justice—in particular, with the legalisation of trans justice, because the majority of trans people cannot access these frameworks. We speak a lot about policy but we never speak about implementation, and when we don’t speak of implementation we are losing the reality of class, caste, language and intimate violence. Narratives of progress frustrate me—we are always trying to create an arc, especially around feminism and gender issues. And that’s part of the way that patriarchy works, by making issues of misogyny and gender as ones of progress, despite the persistent evidence of staggering violence. For me, it’s difficult to talk about progress without talking about violence, and how the majority of violence against women and trans people is intimate violence. What I am most interested in asking is, has the quality of life for the average trans person in this world been impacted by these things? Most of the time, the answer is no.

That’s what I return to: I am less interested in analysis, and more interested in daily practice. Are we creating spaces for all people be celebrated for experimenting and playing with gender? Are we creating spaces where people have the resources, safety and wellness to do that? Are we doing safety planning so people can present as they wish and get from point A to point B? Those small things feel much more tangible and real when I think about progress.

SAT: The academic Robert Stoller writes in his 1975 book, Sex and Gender, Volume II: The Transsexual Experiment, that “gender was identity, sex was genital pleasure, and humans would always give priority to the first.” What do you think of this dichotomy, and how it plays out in the legislature here?

AVM: I am not interested in having conversations about gender-sex dichotomies because I think they are contextual, and culturally specific. One of the things that I worry about, and I am also implicated in this, is the strict binary system that maintains the myth of oppositionality: sex-gender, gay-straight, trans-cis, which is deeply medicalised, deeply Christian and deeply Western. I have only spent a little time in India but I think things are a lot more complicated here. People are holding simultaneity and holding contradiction in ways that will never get elevated to the level of state recognition.

Pieces of trans legislation are interesting because they are attempting to define something that is fundamentally indefinable. How do we legislate around an identity that is fluid? How do we legislate around an identity that varies drastically with its expression on the basis of caste, class, and region? I don’t think we have legal frameworks to do that. Once you protect on the basis of trans identity, there is a question of who gets “allowed” to be trans and who gets believed for being trans. Then caste and class become important—are reservations really necessary for upper-class or upper-caste trans people like me? I don’t think so. I am less interested in focusing on identity than I am on focusing on the power relation.

There is also this deep thing that happens where we rely on the same state institutions that are directly responsible for criminalising vulnerable populations, rather than developing alternative ways to keep people safe. In one telling of the story, we could talk about ending Section 377 as ending criminalisation [of homosexuality], but I think that’s a misleading story. Regardless of Section 377 being in place, the people who are criminalised will continue to be criminalised. And those people are sex workers; those people are femmes who are profiled to be sex workers for navigating the public; visibly gender non-conforming people; poor people and caste-oppressed people who are trying to survive; and people who have, and are, practicing kinky sexualities. Until we shift those fundamental paradigms, individual policy shifts won’t do much.

The case around Section 377, similar to the case around gay marriage in the US, is largely a symbolic pursuit—and I get symbolic justice, it feels good to be like, “Wow, we repealed something.” But I think it’s time—especially with the rise of right-wing nationalisms across the world—to really challenge good feelings. We should be feeling very uneasy, and we should be trying to recalibrate ourselves to be ready to be uneasy— because it’s going to require us to be vigilant. They are going to repeal the laws, and then do the same shit. They are going to decriminalise but then still incarcerate. Are we going to actually show up to the prisons and ask what happened? Are we actually going to support the survivors of domestic violence? Are we going to be there when things don’t get better? That’s the real work.

SAT: What do you think is the political potential of art, and do you think a burden of politics is placed on the work of people of colour, especially of those who are queer, trans or intersex?

AVM: I think my feelings about this have really changed. When I started to make art I was really idealistic. Where I thought that art was going to change the world (laughs) and all that we needed is to give resources to artists that we had not heard from and they would create templates for the revolution. But I think we tend to romanticise the ability for art to make change and how much easier it is for corporations to fund writing workshops than to fund housing. The “boho” rhetoric around art— that “everyone should have a creative voice”—often masks the violent inequalities that make it so that the majority of the people cannot access our artistic worlds. More importantly, we do not see the everyday practices of survival as their own form of artistry.

What I think I have turned to in my own practice is to create spaces for people to be nourished for all the parts of themselves that they feel. For people to be honest about the apocalypse, for people to actually be like, “Hey, things aren't getting better, things are getting worse; this is what my life is, what do we do?” There is this paradox where performativity allows us to be real in a way that the real is performative. What I have started to offer is—okay, I don't have all the answers, I don’t know what to do, I’m fucked up, I’m basic, I’m problematic; all the things you believe about me are true and not true at the same time, but, what do we do from this mess?

I think art is uniquely positioned to give us an emotional and intellectual framework to hold messiness and I think our political movements need to learn that.

SAT: On your Instagram page, you post about your travels and how you find “families”— so to speak—where you go. Could you talk about kinship, and how you feel it has been recontextualised through your experiences around the world?

AVM: I am privileged in that I have the support of my family of origin, and I think that’s extremely rare for trans-feminine people like me. So I’ve always struggled with the dismissal of the family unit as an oppressive and heteronormative structure—that if I believe in the worth of my family, I am being duped or buying into the patriarchy. I believe we all are negotiating our own complex power systems and it is simultaneously possible for the family to be oppressive as it is to be supportive. My family will never be able to nourish me around my gender and I came to terms with that, they might be able to get my pronouns, but fundamentally who I am opposes the basis of our relationship. Whereas, when I meet other gender non-conforming [GNC] people, and especially trans-feminine people, there’s a sense of kinship there and sisterhood and siblinghood that feels so deeply gratifying because I’ve never gotten that from anyone else. There’s a sense of intangible connection—people who go through this particular iteration of identity and trauma and family have something really necessary that gives me permission to be free.

So many trans-femmes suffer from social isolation, and a lot of my writing has been thinking about that—that it’s possible to be surrounded by communities and people and still feel utterly alone, because they’re not the right communities and people.That loneliness, maybe, doesn’t stop. It ceases when you’re part of something where you feel recognised—being able to say “I accept your entirety.” I want a world where you don’t have to be a trans-feminine GNC person to accept my entirety (laughs). But right now that’s not really there, so when I meet other gals who are GNC and whatever words they use to describe themselves, I feel so deeply understood that I don’t need to know that much about them because I know that they will have my back. When I’m walking down the street and I see someone who is GNC I genuinely feel safer, because I know that they will be the first person to intervene when I get harassed.

In a digitised landscape, many more people know who I am. But often what they know is what they want me to be: an idealised representation of something that always has utility for them, either to be emblematic of some ideology that they agree or disagree with; or to be some trope or prop. There is a long history of trans-femme bodies being reduced to metaphor, to symbol, denied our true personhood and seen as stand-ins for ideas, fantasies, and nightmares. Kinship is outside all of that—it is the collapsing of history and politics in the intimacy of the now, a sincere and earnest commitment to encountering someone in their entirety and their paradox and their contradiction, and being allowed to be complicated.

SAT: In a recent interview with the Times of India, you said that even if you are not speaking about gender or sexuality, people are unable to imagine trans identity as separate from the body and from physicality.

AVM: The question that is informing my life and work these days, is: how do we imagine a world where gender is not a prerequisite for subjectivity? In other words, how can we experience one another as worthy, lovable, coherent, and intelligent outside of gender? How can we actually, and not just theoretically or creatively, practice a world where gender is not a criterion for social classification—of our desire, of our resources, of anything?

The dominant cis-feminist conversation about gender isn’t pushing far enough. The problem isn’t just gender-based violence, it’s the also the violence of gender itself. How do we actually get people to recognise that we are worth more? That we are worth more than being reduced to and instrumentalised for our genitalia? That we are worth more than being reduced to our bodies? That we are worth more than being reduced to language—that our worth is so enormous that we don’t have the laws, policies, states, or ways of being that will actually do justice to that?

The reason that I am so vehemently against gender is not because I want to be radical, or political—it’s because I want to be free. And I actually think that liberation from gender will make all of us free, not just trans people. This does not mean the end of womanhood, or the end of manhood, but it means the end of compulsory participation in gender as a system—where gender no longer becomes a salient category or characteristic with which to determine anything about anyone. I think about all of the friendships, all of the wonder, all of the ideas I could have if that wasn’t there. I think about all of the knowledge systems, rituals, and forms of care—from tying a sari to self-defense—that I was denied because I didn’t align with normative gender. And that just leaves me with a sense of mourning and also a sense of possibility of how much more enriched our lives could be if we allowed everyone to have a worth and dignity outside of gender.

SAT: How would you respond to the primarily cis feminist critique of abandoning “the project of gender” as one that belittles the subject as well as the oppression of womanhood?

AVM: I am hurt by the long history of scapegoating trans people—an already vulnerable and relatively powerless community—as hijacking the women’s movement. The undertones of this are transmisogynist: that we are just men who are invading with our misguided agendas, not that we are people who have been deeply traumatised and abused by the women’s movement’s meager articulation of justice.

Trans and gender-variant people have been struggling against patriarchy since the foundation of patriarchy itself— in fact, I would offer that the foundation of patriarchy and the imposition of the gender binary was most violently templated on our bodies. Often, trans people are accepted by the largely-cis women’s movement insomuch as we align ourselves with their ideologies, rather than offering our own. It is not enough to accept us superficially, you must engage with the politics and ideologies that we are contributing as well.

I understand the project of trans-feminism to be about the liberation of all genders—including cis women. The violence of the gender binary takes billions of people and groups them into one of two categories on the presumption of genitalia and what those body parties are supposed to be used for. The very categories of “women” and “men” are created with a denial of all of the complexity and difference—be they caste, gender identity, language, personality, history.  I believe there are as many genders as there are people in this world, and that we have become terrified of that fact because we have become so normalised to our own categorisation, our own fixation on appealing to commonality rather than affirming difference. I want us to be vastly different from one another and to feel comfort in that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.