Being Femme in Public: An Interview with Alok Vaid-Menon
Alok Vaid-Menon is a gender non-conforming artist, writer, and educator. Their eclectic sense of style, political comedy, and poetic challenge to the gender binary have been internationally renowned. On November 10, they visited campus and gave their performance, Femme in Public, based on their chapbook of the same title.
On October 21, the New York Times reported that the Department of Health and Human Services is spearheading an effort to legally define sex as solely biological under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination. In the Department’s memo, it states that the government defines sex “on a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.” This move effectively reduces legal gender to either male or female, determined by one’s genitalia at birth, and any individual dispute to this requires genetic testing.
Last week, the Tufts Observer spoke with Alok about Trump’s new memo and its effect on trans, non-binary, and intersex people.
Wilson Wong: Laws play a huge role in establishing the conditions we must live and organize under. What are the ramifications of this definition of sex?
Alok Vaid-Menon: The ramifications of this announcement are major because… some of the biggest issues facing trans or gender nonconforming people is the denial of services and the denial of economic opportunity on the basis of our gender presentation. Without these protections, this gives permission to employers and other social service providers to deny services and opportunities to trans and gender-nonconforming people… This is an endorsement at the highest level, which gives the O.K. to police and attack femme people. Even though it’s being justified and couched under science, it’s really important to understand that the government has shifted their definition of sex as a way to exclude femme people. The government used to define sex by birth certificate… then they moved to genitalia… and then they moved from genitalia to genetic testing. They always try to move it as a way to exclude trans people. So, in this way, I reject the premise that it’s based off of science, and I think it’s actually based on transphobia and intersex erasure.
WW: That speaks to the fact that this isn’t something that came out of the blue. I feel like I’ve seen many progressives or radical leftists speaking out about this issue as something ‘novel,’ but I think it’s very typical of mainstream media.
AVM: Yes, and I think about this a lot because it’s a really awkward moment when progressives are like, ‘Wow, the Trump administration is so transphobic!’ and I’m like, ‘You’re not? What?’ [Laughs].
WW: [Laughs] Right, can you talk about how progressives actually normalize the very conditions that enable people like Trump to perpetuate transphobia?
AVM: It frustrates me because no ideology has a party affiliation. Like, transphobia has no party affiliation in the same way that white supremacy has no party affiliation. And we have to do a deep revision to think through the very terms and logic that we’re using to define gender and sex, which are rooted in foundationally racist and transphobic ideas.
It’s really important to talk about transphobia and its connection to racism because the current binary separation between gender and sex has a history of colonial construction. Indigenous peoples throughout the world have always had different parameters to define gender and sex than what we’ve come to view as normal and biological. The presumption that there is such a thing as the gender binary is already doing the work of coloniality, and that’s completely normalized within mainstream feminist culture today… So much of progressive politics is actually about stabilizing the gender binary versus recognizing what I believe a project of truly intersectional feminism should be about, which is constantly challenging the gender binary. It’s not about making it so that people have to be a man or woman in order to be real, in order to be legitimate, and in order to be beautiful.
There have been times in the past week where, instead of taking a serious reckoning, many LGBT, or better put, ‘LGB’, folks are not actually taking the opportunity to rethink their own understanding or definition of gender and sex. The truth is that mainstream feminists and gay movements have mobilized a transphobic understanding of cis, gender, and sex. It’s also important to acknowledge, here, the erasure of intersex people.
WW: You talked about mainstream gay movements perpetuating transphobia through our reductive understandings of gender and sex. What are some specific examples?
AVM: One of the things I talk a lot about is that the term ‘gay’ didn’t actually just used to be specific to sexual preference. Gay was mobilized as a political identity… about challenging a heteronormative project, including the gender binary. When we look back at people like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, they weren’t actually using the vocabulary of transgender to describe themselves, but were using the vocabulary of “We, a Gay,” and these were political signifiers to challenge the respectable, normative gendered categories of tradition. But then, the gay movement made a very strategic political play to make ‘gay’ about the arts and [sexual] relationships versus gender difference. From there, we saw the creation of sexual limitation that made distinct gender identity.
WW: And what about mainstream feminist movements?
AVM: In the 70s, we saw the emergence of the Third World and Black Feminist movements that were challenging the idea that there’s a universal experience of womanhood—basically saying it’s a very different thing to be a woman of color, a Black woman, than it means to be a White woman… There are multiple womanhoods that are dependent on race, class, and gender. And part of the subtle ways transmisogyny operates is that when they say women’s rights, often times they just mean white ciswomen’s rights; they might say intersectional feminism, but they’re not actually thinking about what it means to center the lived experiences of Black women, women of color, Indigenous women, and trans people. What I want feminism to understand is that you have to take seriously histories of racism. And when we understand that the imposition of the gender and sex binary is an act of racism, the priorities around feminism become very different.
WW: What are concrete action items that anyone in support of trans and gender non-conforming people should acknowledge or do, particularly for feminists or progressives?
AVM: The first thing is to stop talking about trans people as a distinct and separate monolith because I think all of us have the potential to be gender non-conforming or trans. What I reject is allyship that’s based off of, ‘It’s ok if you do that, but I would never.’ You actually have to see yourself as part of the struggle because you could one day change your gender, and that’s alright.
Secondly, I ask of people, especially for students, to ask your professors to incorporate in their curriculum a deep and thorough investigation of colonialism. Because when we actually learn about colonialism, the world that has become naturalized to us will reveal itself as a recent historical construction. So much of violence against trans people is allocated under the idea that there is a natural way to be a body, natural sex, or natural gender, and that’s not historically stable. The more we actually learn about our histories, especially as racialized people, the more we understand the stakes of what’s going on. I see trans issues as part of a bigger continuum of racial justice.
WW: What do you hope to do with your art and more specifically, with your performance, Femme in Public?
AVM: At every level, we are taught to de-sensitize ourselves to the normalized machinery of violence, and I want to create moments where we can actually feel it and think about what healing from it looks like… What I’m trying to do with my work is not just create spaces that ‘talk about mental health,’ but also to be real about mental health, be real about all the ugly parts of society that we’re not willing to talk about or embrace, and also talk about our own love and loneliness and condition and diaspora.
WW: Those are all the questions I had, is there anything else I didn’t ask that you wanted to add?
AVM: We really need to learn how to be interdependent and one of the things that’s really upset me in the past few weeks is how we base what we have to show up for each other is still through foregrounding our separation. So, it’ll be like, ‘As a cisperson, I support trans people and trans rights.’ And I don’t think that’s what I’m actually asking for [Laughs]. What I’m asking for is, ‘As a person, I support people,’ and I don’t mean that in a post-gender moment way. I mean that we need to recognize that we’re all deeply implicated in each other, and we all actually need each other in order to be free. Show up as much for yourself as you are for other people and recognize those at faults in arbitrary separations.