The most controversial pronoun is ‘we’, not ‘they’

Alok Vaid-Menon, the gender non-conforming poet, is performing live in Kathmandu this week

Alok Vaid-Menon appears in ALOK by Alexandra Hedison. Photo: SUNDANCE INSTITUTE

“I’m standing by the post office. You won’t miss me,” promised Alok Vaid-Menon over the phone. Sure enough, there he was.

At the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, where temperatures dip so low even the red carpet is sometimes a parade of cosy sweaters, — the US-based gender non-conforming performer was dressed in cold-defying femme fashion. Indigo pumps, a blue-and-yellow frock ending in a cloud-shaped skirt, swirls of the same colours lining the eyes.

“I want to show that it is possible to look good here,” said Alok cheekily.

Words from one of Alok’s own verses seemed apt for the moment: “They will say that femininity is not powerful, but I have stopped traffic simply by going outside.”

On the day we met, the 32-year-old stopped traffic for another reason too. They were the face of a short documentary ALOK, directed by Alexandra Hedison and produced by Jodie Foster, which had just premiered at the festival.

For over a decade, Alok has combined art and activism. They tour the world with poems about queer and trans experiences, self-acceptance, and love.

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They will be in Kathmandu presenting a blend of poetry and comedy at the Spoken Fest on 16 February. “I haven’t been to Kathmandu since 2017, so shout out to Nepal,” Alok shared, with a beam.

The film ALOK spent two years in the making, after photographer Hedison chanced upon Alok’s work online and asked if she could trail them — as a “professional groupie” or “consensual stalker”.

The deep dive that followed, she said, “didn’t just inspire me intellectually, it moved me emotionally”. The 18-minute film, Hedison’s first, features Alok’s questioning of the gender binary, their imaginative force, and glimpses of their family and friends.

Quoting Greta Lee, star of the Oscar-nominated Past Lives, Alok said: “For so long I’ve been cast as the best friend but this is my first time as the main character and now I don’t know if I can go back.”

“The mainstream needs to move beyond token diversity. We deserve to have our stories be centered.”

Alok was born into a family of thinkers and academics, with roots in Kerala, Delhi, Malaysia, and the US. Although the Texas milieu they grew up in was conservative, the film shows their home was conducive to queer expression.

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The poet’s aunt Urvashi Vaid, a noted LGBTQ activist in the US, became their protector: “Because of that I was able to articulate myself and be taken seriously from a very young age.”

Where most media representations of South Asian families tend to be opposed to queer and trans kids, Alok noted their South Asian family grew up and transitioned with them.

Approaches to queer rights on the eastern side of the globe are quite progressive, in the poet’s view. “LGBTQ rights are often framed as just recognition in the US, but in India, for instance, there is actually an acknowledgement that there needs to be reparations, there needs to be economic support.”

What is the creative process like? “Procrastination is my process,” Alok chuckled. “It starts out like I’m writing for the first time every time and that’s so daunting. But if it was easy, it wouldn’t be as rewarding.”

As a performing poet, the writing is woven with sound, considering the music that lives within individual words. “Poetry is a kind of spell-making, you have to think about how to pitch and tune each word.”

So the poet reads aloud as writing progresses and edits based on the listening experience. Language is constantly evolving, Alok reflected, but people get upset when LGBTQ communities evolve it.

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Many object to the use of non-binary pronouns. “It is interesting when people say ‘Oh this stuff is all so new’, then why have you always had slurs for us in your languages? So there’s always been a context with which you acknowledge us, it’s just been pejorative.”

In several US states, disapproval of trans people is at risk of being written into the law. Our conversation took place in Utah where the House recently passed a bill seeking to criminalise trans adults for using bathrooms inconsistent with the sex on their birth certificate.

“Hopefully it’s not going to pass the Senate and get approved into law but the fact that they’re even indulging it is obscene.”

Through art, Alok would like to loosen the hold people have over gender. “Me and my friends are finding a way of looking at each other as individuals, not as categories. So this is not some idealistic future, it’s something that’s being lived right now.”

Equity will depend on people’s willingness to feel a sense of community with everyone around them. That is why Alok opened the film saying: “The most controversial pronoun I have is ‘we’. It’s not ‘they’, it’s ‘we’.”

Read also: "Nepal is ahead of many countries in LGBTQI+ rights", Nepali Times

Alok Vaid-Menon will perform at Park Village Resort on 16 February.

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