Alok Menon On Advocating For a Gender-Free Future
In celebration of LGBTQ+ History Month, Milk is continuing to highlight artists that are making a difference through their advocacy by creating social and political change in the world we live in today.
Alok Menon is a trans-feminine, non-binary performance artist, activist, fashion designer, and poet focusing on social advocacy to break down the gender binary. Their work aims to dissect and break apart our notions of how we view femininity and masculinity, but also informs us to look at gender identity as a human experience that doesn’t have to be defined by a label. Having toured internationally in over 40 countries, Alok’s unapologetic, politically-charged performances and words have gained global admirers who resonate with the artist’s message to fight transmisogyny and inspire and uplift marginalized groups. Milk caught up with the artist to discuss the main differences between performing in India vs America, their mesmerizing third fashion collection and the importance of documenting their life in their upcoming book out next year.
You had some pretty great street style looks for NYFW this season; do you plan your looks way in advance? Break down your getting-ready process for me?
It took so much fucking time. What I challenged myself to do every single day was to pick a different style. One day, I wore a men’s suit just to play with people’s expectations, people think I only wear “womenswear” or “Indian clothes,” think again!
I’m always trying to question, “What do you mean when we say ‘Indian clothes’?” Everything that I wear is Indian clothes. What does it mean to wear women’s clothes or men’s clothes? Everything I wear is non-binary because I am non-binary.
A lot of what I was wearing were things that I designed or things that I sourced from all across the world. And they’re rarely new pieces because I am also trying to challenge that ethos in the fashion world, it is a really unsustainable model. The fashion industry is a significant contributor to climate apocalypse; it is all about the latest. I’m always thinking about second-hand and vintage and recycling and repurposing old stuff.
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with #NYFW over i just want to say shout out to me for turning some of the most iconic street style looks!!! the versatility, the color stories, the cultural references, the camp, the range, the tenacity, the innovation…! style is alive + well darling + it begins with gender non-conforming poc! which was your favorite #??? im team @lisafrank #9 📸 cover photo by @callakessler at icons party ❤️
What is your definition of beauty?
Beauty to me is an intentional commitment to aesthetic engagement. What I mean by that is understanding that aesthetics is a form of communication in the world. I am trying to communicate a message, and that message shifts on a day to day level. Sometimes that message is, “Fuck you!” and that can be beautiful. Sometimes that message is, “I’m sorry”. Sometimes the message is, “Leave me alone.” Sometimes the message is, “I need help.” Sometimes that message is, “Love me.”
And all those are different expressions of beauty. I think the word ‘intention’ is really important. The mainstream beauty world, to me, is not beautiful because it asks us to subscribe to it without our agency. It tells us what’s beautiful without asking us what we find beautiful. I think the intention for me is the difference between fashion and style. Fashion tells us how to dress, style is us choosing how to dress. For me, beauty has to involve a choice.
You mentioned that gender-neutral clothing often falls on masculine aesthetics. The three fashion collections you have made defy this norm. Tell me about your inspiration behind these collections?
On the first level, it was a really practical concern which is, as a performance artist, I need really cute clothes to perform in. I wear a lot of things that are colorful and have prints. It’s hard to find clothes that fit me because they are meant for body types that are not mine, so I decided to just design clothes for myself.
As I was designing clothes for myself I started to question why there aren’t clothes being made for people like me more generally. So then I started to search for gender-neutral clothes, and as I stumbled on that market I was like, “Oh my god, why should I have to tone it down in order to be myself?” Isn’t that a counter to what I was trying to do? For me, I want to say a skirt is gender-neutral, yes, but that’s still to recenter the suit as the prototype that I’m operating from. I am still having it being referential to them and they are not even my reference point. It just re-centers the West.
Where we are from, a skirt is not even a gendered thing. Men wear skirts, you know? The silhouette of a skirt isn’t necessarily womenswear. So I think our aesthetic imaginary is so Western that we need to redefine our very silhouettes, so the point of entry for me is not actually gender. And if I’m decolonizing my conception of a silhouette, I move away from a skirt being gendered to actually being about color, fabric, textile, print, rather than gender.
I heard that you are currently writing a book, what can you tell me about it? How different will it be from Femme in Public?
I have a book coming out next year that’s a kind of political femifesto on why we should move beyond the gender binary. More info on that soon!
I am more in a writing space these past few months. I have been performing a lot for the past few years and while I love performance, there is something about it that leaves me feeling anxious. What I love about performance is that you have to be there to experience it’s magic, what I hate about it is that you had to have been there, it doesn’t really have a life beyond that incarnation. It feels dangerous in this climate where transness is so easily disappeared. If I don’t create a legacy for myself, it’s not a question of if but when I will be disappeared. If I don’t document now, I might disappear. That’s why I have a sense of urgency to write this down; if I don’t write it down, it might never make it.
You’ve been critical of Pride as some people may only focus on celebrating over informing themselves about its history. In relation to LGBTQ History Month this October, what do you think people can do to be better informed?
I think the first, most important thing to do is to recognize that Pride was started by transgender and gender non-conforming people of color. The very people who are still continuing to bear the brunt of the violence. Until those communities are centered, then we have no cause for celebration. That has real tangible impacts to this week. Until this interview is published, on October 8 the court is hearing a case about a trans woman, Aimee Stephens, being fired from her job on the basis of her gender, by which they are going to be deciding whether employers have the legal right to fire people on the basis of their gender identity. And that’s in 2019, you know? That case is not receiving that much attention because she is transgender and that just speaks to a larger phenomenon: from the ongoing murders of Black trans women, the escalating rates of anti-trans violence, to the lack of trans and gender non-conforming leadership and representation in every industry, trans people are seen as unworthy of attention, respect, and resources.
You’ve mentioned that your parents are supportive of you; however, I’m sure there is a lot that you would have to explain the struggles you may face or threats of violence. Are these conversations difficult? What advice do you have for people navigating their relationship with family as queer people?
I am extremely fortunate that I have parents and a family that has slowly come to respect me and understand the way I am and what I do. The way I got to that was less through the political vocabulary and more through the emotional. I think it isolated them when I came in saying, “You’re problematic!” or that you say you did all these things out of love for me and that you struggled and suffered because you wanted me to live a better life and here I am living that better life and you don’t want me to live it? Isn’t that a paradox? This is what my “better life” is. I had to get them to realize that their repression of me came from their repression of themselves. Once they got that, it got a lot easier. I guess I would say to have tenderness for the fact that a lot of these things are profoundly emotional and a lot of people don’t know how to speak about emotional things in a world that dispossess them. Instead of saying they’re jealous or hurt or sad people often resort to homophobia or transphobia cause it’s the more convenient rhetoric because more straight people are deeply jealous of us because we have the audacity to say, “I am who I am”, and many of them don’t actually know who they are in the most fundamental sense, they just know who they have been told to be.
How was it working and touring in India recently? Do you feel like your content is better understood by audiences there, or does it in a way feel more isolating or overwhelming?
I often feel more understood by an Indian audience because so much of my work is about family dynamics and the intergenerational trauma of our people, but that being said a lot of it is about the gender politics of the Indian community. So it can also feel re-traumatizing to see our continual adoration for toxic cis masculinity and the gender binary at the expense of people like me. I feel like, despite even writing to and for our own community, trans artists and entertainers like me have to work twice as hard to even get a foot in the door.
What do you think of America often being portrayed as an LGBTQ friendly environment then?
It’s part of a PR strategy for America to position itself as one of the most LGBTQ friendly places in the world and that is just bullshit. I have toured the world I feel like the US is among the most vitriolic spaces. The amount of wrath that I experience in this country and the deep and entrenched gender roles in this country is extreme. Not to say there isn’t shit everywhere, there is, but I think what’s particular about the US is that the narrative is that we are so progressive than other places where you do experience violence you’re like “Yeah, it’s conservative,” whereas here if you experience violence everyone’s shocked, you have to deal with everyone being shocked as you are violated. There’s this additional burden of having to prove yourself amidst everyone’s disbelief.
What people need to understand about the US is that it is a culture that tells you to be yourself, but the minute you are yourself, you get punished for it. It’s a paradoxical society that actually punishes the very people being the most individualistic. It also is a society that pretends the entire country is New York City when it’s not.
What do you hope to achieve in the future? What are you excited about?
I have been doing a lot of internal, self-work the past few months. I feel like so much of my work has been focused on output that I have kind of neglected myself. That is the problem with advocacy; you are advocating for a community and then you forget that you are a part of that community. I began to ask myself, “Why am I saying I want a world where trans people of color are safe!” And then I wasn’t thinking of my safety. Or, “I want a world where trans people of color are loved!” And then I wasn’t loving myself. So I think that my future goals are to treat myself the way I want other people like me to be treated and to commit myself ferociously to the way I demand other people to be treated and demand that.
The next few years for me, I hope are an exercise in complete and perpetual glamour; an exercise in excessiveness. An exercise in so many things I was afraid of because I was trying to correct myself for other people’s projections. But other people’s projections don’t keep me safe, I do.
MAKEUP ARTIST: Jesse Genao
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