It’s not impossible to put Alok Vaid-Menon in a box. That is, if the box were covered in sequins, painted in rave-y neons, wrapped in sea-deep love, and bursting at the seems with impassioned, eloquent lyric.
The poet, writer, performer, and designer is creator and creation all in one, advocating for the trans community and their truth by challenging the gender binary. Their work has gained international recognition (and won the honorableLive Works Performance Act Award) through its discourse on violence towards trans people and marginalization of the LGBTQ+ society. The reality for many non-gender-conforming folks—especially those who identify as transfeminine—is that not only does their being go unrecognized, but it’s ridiculed, denied, and too often threatened. The power of Alok’s message lies in their mastery of words, but also their courage to wear their own identity.
A messily curated top-bun is one of Alok’s signatures. But little else can define this style chameleon, whose only distinguishable red thread is fashion freedom. They are transfeminine, non-binary, multi-hyphenate incarnate. To know Alok is to understand love and its unconditional embrace.
In your own words, who is Alok? Self-narrate for us…
“Alok is a heart with two heels—neon pink heels. Alok is impractical, like a cardigan in the summer. Alok believes that things and people matter beyond their utility. Alok believes in the importance of clutter in a post-Marie Kondo imaginary. In other words: Alok believes that everything can spark joy. Alok believes that they could fall in love with everyone in the world. You don’t believe me? One time a few years ago they slipped and fell on a banana peel. It was like Mario Kart 64. Alok realized, then, that it is simultaneously possible to hold levity and gravity, comedy and tragedy. Sometimes, Alok cries instead of laughing and laughs instead of crying. It depends on the stage lighting, the eyeliner, and whether or not you texted them back.”
What do you love about yourself?
“I love that I can’t hold grudges. I love that I’m nostalgic about everything. One time, I actually cried when I used the same bathroom in a train station that I had used a year before. I love that I keep on loving, even though I’m scared of getting hurt. I love that I’m naïve and idealistic and have too many socks. Mostly, I love that I treat my friends like lovers. Because I love myself. Because my friends, they love me too.”
Fashion for you is an armor, an outlet, a means of expression and a way of life. That said, how would you describe your personal style?
“The world is so drab, impending apocalypse sucks, alienation is a real buzzkill—so I’m just trying to have fun and maybe bring joy to other people too. I’m less concerned with if things match as I am with if things make me happy. It’s all about being able to look in the mirror and have a reaction whether that be a ‘YES!,’ a chortle (I was really just wanting to use that word in this interview, we did it!), or some kind of feeling. I just want to feel in a world that is increasingly making that so dangerous and impossible.“
What elements go into your constructing of an outfit?
“Usually I begin with one article of clothing: a sock, a skirt, a shoe, and then I build from there. My roommate makes fun of me but every time I’m putting together a look I’m so dramatic. It’s like, ‘OMG I AM WORTHLESS, MY FASHIONISTA DAYS ARE OVER!!!’ That makes putting together the look even more exciting, like a triumph. SHE’S STILL GOT IT!! It takes so much time to put together my outfits and there are so many versions I have to cycle through until I settle on the right fit.”
Do you have a single favorite piece or outfit? What is it?
“No. I’m pretty non-monogamous when it comes to most things.”
You’ve always had a passion for design, but now it’s come into fruition. What does fashion design mean to you?
“When I was a kid I used to take bath towels and drape them around my body like they were gowns. I’d tell everyone I wanted to be a fashion designer when I grew up until people made fun of me for that so I just shut up. Designing clothes over the past few years has felt like a return, like coming home. I have such a vibrant imagination and it’s been so wonderful to be able to materialize the images I’ve had in my head for so long.”
Has makeup played a role in your gender expression?
“I don’t know if it’s about gender expression as much as it is about expression more expansively. I wish that we’d stop associating makeup with gender/femininity, because people of all genders can and do use makeup. For me, it’s more about extending my creativity—literally making my face a canvas. One time I made my eyebrows look like grass and drew flowers growing out of them. Thanks, @makeup! ☺”
I feel like there are two parts to change—1) shifting our own mindsets, and 2) shifting the mindsets of others. You have a beautiful understanding and love of your own identity, but I don’t think the rest of society has matched your pace. How do you wish others would perceive you?
“Yes, you’re totally right. What I’ve learned over time is that people have to do their own internal work before they can actually experience me in the ways that I deserve. People don’t accept gender non-conforming people because at a fundamental level they don’t accept themselves. True self-acceptance means that we’re not threatened by difference around us. The reason that difference becomes such a problem is it calls into question the stability of our own identity. It takes intention to recalibrate our relationship to beauty norms and reclaim our bodies from their billboards. I used to look in the mirror and be like: ‘What are you doing?’ Now I can finally say, ‘OH YEAH!! THAT’S MEEEE!’”
You’ve said “transfeminine people only matter when we’re fabulous.” This sentiment really stuck with me. Can you unpack this?
“Transmisogyny means that transfeminine people are only regarded for our entertainment value, not for our total personhood. People mine us for inspiration and rarely allocate the same attention to the full spectrum of our experiences beyond our glamor. We are reduced to one-dimensional aesthetic props, even though we contain so much more. The issue isn’t that we aren’t fabulous (because oh yes we are!)—the issue is that people will only hold space for us precisely when we are. We deserve to be respected in all our incarnations, experiences, moods, capacities. Our worth shouldn’t be linked to our ability to inspire or please.”
Creating and fostering safe spaces for trans folk goes hand-in-hand with loving and celebrating the LGBTQ+ community. Do you have a safe sanctuary? What is that space for you?
“The stage is one of the only spaces I feel safe anymore. People are much more comfortable with someone who looks like me on the stage rather than a subway or a street. Also, the stage is one of the only spaces we have to be honest. I feel safest when I can be honest.”
You’ve talked about your desire for more brands to take a public stance against transphobia. What would this public stance look like to you?
“There is an ongoing crisis of anti-trans violence and discrimination going on in this country and across the world. I’m always shocked by how so few people actually know what’s going on and the extreme realities so many of us are facing. It’s time for everyone—brands included—to speak out against anti-trans policies and legislation, to educate the public about trans issues, and provide tangible resources and support for trans and gender non-conforming people and our initiatives.”
As an artist, poet, and performer, you travel the world sharing your message—your joy, your beauty, but also your pain and your grief. What is your goal?
“I’m trying to create spaces where people can be their total and complete selves. So often we have to compartmentalize ourselves in order to get by in this world: restrict our delight, police our anger, repress our creativity. I just want to welcome all the parts of everyone: our paradoxes, our contradictions, our infinite becomings. There’s a remarkable power to bearing witness. I want to be experienced in my infinity and I want to experience everyone else in theirs.”