Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Thanks for being with us. Alok Vaid-Menon defies definition.
Alok: Hello. My name is Alok. There are many words that I could use to describe what I do, but I'm currently in a polyamorous relationship with all of them, and we're still very much in the process of figuring out our [bleep].
When I speak about the writer in me, the performer, they get jealous. The designer has been ghosting on the model for a while, and they're not really on good speaking terms. Yes, this is my roundabout way of letting you know that I use the gender-neutral pronoun they and them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: A gender-nonconforming writer and performer with Indian immigrant parents who grew up in Texas, Alok uses their creativity and public platform to explore themes of gender, race, trauma, and belonging. Advocating for and bringing visibility to trans communities. Here they are performing a spoken word piece called Daddy Issues in 2019.
Alok: "I'm 11 years old when my father tells me that the parking lot smells a lot like marijuana. To say that I'm scandalized would be an understatement. You see, I was the prude love child of my middle school's DARE program, which means that I was caught that the minute you consume drugs you become a very, very bad man. When my father insinuates that he knows the smell, I judge him to be an evil person and tell him to confess immediately or I'm running away from home.
He laughs and says, "The things you will never know about my past." I've never asked my father who he dated before my mother. I've never asked him about his first kiss. I do not know what he hoped his life would look like, or whether or not that came true. You see, there's this thing that happens when you call someone a father. He ceases to become a person and instead becomes a punchline for everything that you hate about yourself. He becomes a parable, a story that begins with your birth as if on that day two new people are born. Everything he is before this moment is now history, his story.
There's this thing that happens when you're trans. When you know you're not a man because you know you're not your father's son. And the moment you tell him this he becomes everything you're running away from. So in this way, being trans is another way of announcing 'I am running away from home.'"
Melissa Harris-Perry: Alok's LGBTQ advocacy runs in the family. Their aunt is the late extraordinary Urvashi Vaid, the beloved LGBTQ rights activist who spent more than a decade working for equality at the National LGBTQ Task Force. Here she is in 2014 when she accepted the GLAD Spirit of Justice Award.
Urvashi Vaid: Equality is not the finish line of our work. It is the starting point of a new era of LGBT activism focused on economic, racial, and gender justice for all. Let the wedding bells that ring serve as a clarion call to this new wave of LGBT activism through which we will secure the extension of the spirit of justice which we celebrate tonight for all people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When I spoke with Alok, I began by asking about their aunt's legacy and the impact she had on their own life and work as an activist.
Alok: Urvashi was a champion of love. We grew up in a traditional Indian household where our family was uncomfortable saying "I love you," but Urvashi learned how to say "I love you" from her work in the queer movement. She started to say it to my grandmother, her mother, and then my grandmother started to say it to me. She was the first person in my family to say those words to me.
I think on the other side of her loss, I'm really feeling that queer people actually teach the world what love is, clarify it. What she taught me was that love wasn't about having to make other people comfortable. Love was about being able to be my most authentic self even when other people didn't understand me or other people didn't agree with me. Love is about giving permission, not prohibiting.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to sit with that for a moment. Love is about giving permission, not limiting, not restricting. You said a critical thing there I don't want to miss. That that lesson is one that queer folk teach to the world, but also that the role, the importance, the humanity of queer folk is not just in this role as educators on the meaning of love.
Alok: Right. I think because we risk losing family, we actually understand the stakes of it, how urgent it is. Which means that the way that we navigate the world is with a kind of acuteness and sensitivity to the importance of connection and intimacy and friendship. At the end of her life, Urvashi had so many best friends at the hospital 24/7, and my mom looked at me and said, "I need to reconsider my life choices because I don't have this many people in my life who would show up for me." Because she says, "when you are brought up in a heteronormative society you're taught that just your romantic partner does that job."
What Urvashi did was create a romance of friendship. She always brought her best friends with us whenever we were taking trips or holidays. We knew them like they were our family too. My mom said to me, "Because of her I now have a family from her friends too."
It just really started to clarify for me, especially around illness and death and care-taking, how the strategies that queer people have implemented, and how to survive in a world that is inhospitable to us, actually are such a profound gift for this world. We teach people how to create enduring connection. Should we have to do that? No, but the reality of our situation is that we've found ways to muster intimacies that are potent and prolific and allow us to survive these difficult times.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Just last week the Texas Republican Party unveiled a 40-page anti-LGBTQ platform. You grew up in Texas. I'm wondering how you're feeling about where we are along this path to the world that operates in the love that gives permission.
Alok: I am so lucky that from a young age I had a protector in my family. My friend Ocean Vuong says that honesty is merely a vehicle for truth, but death is the only absolute truth. I think after Urvashi died, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. Having that experience as a young person, to know that someone had my back no matter what I look like or what I felt or who I was, gave me courage and sense of security so early on.
I think that because I experienced love that wasn't conditional, that wasn't aspirational, that witnessed me in my becoming, that caught up with me as I changed, that was open to dissent and critique, that's what allowed me to be free. Love sets us free. I just see it now that the way that we change people I don't think is by shaming them or intimidating them or harassing them, but loving them more than they could hate us. That's a lesson that Urvashi taught me, is that in the halo of love we allow people to actually expand and become free.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In an interview with the Chicago Tribune you talked about smirking when people ask you questions about definitions because you don't believe in definitions. Can you say a little more about that?
Alok: Yes. People are so obsessed with trying to define a standardizable definition. We see this now in the largest cinemas of politics when we're asking Supreme Court justice officials what their definition of woman is. There's just such a deep need to pinpoint an absolute and finite definition, and that's just not what the world is. The world is full of chaos and entropy. The world is constantly unfurling and unfolding. Every attempt to pierce a static definition is like trying to capture a stream of water in our hands. The amount that falls between our fingers says even more than the modicum of water that we've kept in our grasp.
Rather than seeking to pinpoint a definition, I ask people to experience me as a complex human being and to experience themselves as complex. To see us as stories that are constantly being told and shifting and changing. To refuse the temptation to think that the world can be reduced to the architecture of categories, and instead see the constant pulsating vibrational forces that actually are what it means to be alive. I think people fear that because they think that stability comes from being able to parse reality into easily identifiable groups and identities.
What I actually want to teach someone, as I've been living a fluid life for a while now, and stability actually comes from embracing change because it means that I'm not upset and afraid when the world shifts. I welcome it because, like the seasons, I change and that's okay.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Even in this context of change and this sense of fluidity, you nonetheless have and have articulated very real concerns about misinformation. Maybe pushing back against categories, definitions, narrow boxes, can you tell us a bit about that and how we should be thinking about issues of misinformation, particularly when directed with anti-trans legislative power.
Alok: The majority of information shared about trans people on social media is incorrect and comes from right-wing sources who are invested in promoting a culture of fear-mongering and disinformation as a way to distract people from their legitimate anxieties and concerns under a broken economy and escalating inequality, and find a convenient target and scapegoat in trans people. So many people think that they know us, but what they know is the misrepresentation of us. They prioritize other people's anxieties and projections over our realities.
It leads to a situation where even though we are experiencing some of the most vehement forms of violence and discrimination, people have the audacity, or even perhaps caucasity, to say that we are the dangerous ones. This has been an ongoing negative PR campaign since the inception of colonialism, where it's easier to demonize trans and gender non-conforming people than it is to implicate the system of the gender binary that is actually the structural problem that's causing people's misfortunes, not us. What I really am committed to is not saying that there's an absolute True, but actually saying that there are forms of misinformation that still need to be challenged.
In response to that, I don't need to say here is exactly what trans people are. I can say there's as many ways to be trans as there are trans people. I can say that there is no one static definition on what it means to be trans.
Do you see the distinction there? As I think that, oftentimes in response we have to meet people at a low frequency, and I'm not interested in indulging in a low frequency. It's giving when they go low, we go high, right? That I don't need to respond to a false allegation to say this is the absolute truth. I can still be polyamorous with truth while dispelling misinformation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's interesting we talk about meeting at the low frequency but not indulging there, not staying there, but finding folks and then trying to move from there. You've recently offered some tips of how to be a good ally. In some ways that is like 101, right? [laughs] It's like even the language of ally, all of that, and yet it's also where many people are entering, right? It is also 101. I'm going to ask you. In this interview that you did with The Washington Post where you shared some of this, for our listeners who are still entering into particularly trans identities 101, trans politics 101, what are your-- it's hard for me to say the words. What are your tips for being a better ally?
Alok: Yes, okay. In order to become a better ally, people have to become a better ally to themselves. The reason that people are so concerned and impressed with trans people is because we embody forms of freedom and joy that they thought were impossible for themselves. The work of allyship isn't external, it's internal. People have to actually look at the ways in which gender has contoured their lives, made them feel like they have to practice self-immolation and self-denial in order to be seen as real or safe or valid.
Then when you forgive yourself for the coping strategies you had to develop in a world that prioritized you being Barbie or Ken over you being a human being, everything that I'll say about transness won't be perceived or inherited as an attack, but actually an invitation on how to be more expansive and free with your breath. I think I'd take a departure from the common practice that allyship is about learning my pronouns or learning that people have always existed beyond the gender binary. Of course, those things are necessary, but it will never work unless people do the intimate work. You have to go in first.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love the language of the intimate work. You are a writer, performer, activist, creator. What are some of the projects you're working on next?
Alok: I am touring Europe starting tomorrow, which I'm really ecstatic about because pandemic has meant that I haven't been able to do that. I'm going to be probably so sleep-deprived but having the best time ever going all over the place. I'm sharing my new show, which is a hybrid poetry and comedy, one and a half hours depending on how I'm feeling on a given night. It's been exhilarating to create a space for queer people and trans people to laugh.
I'm actually saying that that's gender-affirming health care; it's part of it. That actually for so long we've been butt of the joke, and now I want to create a space where people can actually feel levity and delight. Because that's how we survive and endure impossible times is through finding beauty in bleak situations. I feel really excited by that show, and it's been a real triumph for me to be able to create and carve space in my life for joy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Alok, when did you fall in love with language, as you clearly seem to be profoundly and deeply engaged with the beauty of languages? I do a lot of interviews. I'm not sure even when speaking with poets that I've ever talked with someone who makes use of vocabulary in the ways that you do. It's really lovely. I'm just wondering if you think about that as you're responding.
Alok: I'd like to say that the natural language of human beings is poetry, and then it gets disciplined into the rote monotony of speech. I think our organic form is beautiful, but our beauty is too expensive for a world that wants us to be banal. My first language was poetry because my first instrument was my heart. I don't craft sentences based off of making sense, but rather making sensation. I think that's what communication should be about because the way that we truly understand things is never cognitive first, it's always emotional first.
That sentence unravels the entire fiction of Western colonial knowledge production which thinks that thought is more legitimate or real than heart, but that's a false binary just like man and woman. We know that actually there's a deeper way of reaching people than just the mind.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Alok Vaid-Menon, writer, performance artist, poet, LGBTQ activist. Thank you so much for taking the time today.
Alok: Thanks for having me.
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