Alok Vaid-Menon is a gender non-conforming artist, writer, poet, comedian, and public speaker. In 2020, they released their book Beyond the Gender Binary, exploring their own experiences as a visibly gender non-conforming person, and the relationship our society has to gender-diverse identities. Giulia Castagnaro shares their views on Alok’s work.
One of the most memorable messages from Beyond the Gender Binary is Alok’s focus on the beauty of being trans. While they do discuss issues facing the trans community right now, such as the barriers when trying to access healthcare or the violence they face, their book also showcases the joyful aspects of being trans and gender diverse.
By the end of the book, Alok recognises that by being themselves, they were able to find the connection they had been searching for their entire life; a connection which would not have been possible if they had kept conforming to societal gender norms. Alok describes the act of being themselves, embracing both their masculinity and femininity, as a feeling of ‘coming home’ (page 23). Reclaiming a part of themselves that society had shamed them for also helped improve their mental health.
A key theme of the book is that receptiveness to transforming yourself should not be punished but celebrated, and that this self-discovery is part of the beauty of being trans and gender non-conforming. Trans, non-binary, and gender-diverse people dare to explore what lies beyond the gender binary. Alok reiterates how this capacity to transcend gender should be admired not feared, yet people fear what they do not know, and living in a world that has socialised us into believing that there are only two fixed genders – male and female – has led to people’s misplaced fears around gender non-conformity.
The book has received significant criticism and backlash from social conservatives, with some trying to block others from being able to read it.
In 2021, a Republican Texas state lawmaker Matt Krause compiled a list of over 800 books that he believed make students feel discomfort, guilt, and other forms of psychological distress, due to their explicitly addressing matters of race, gender, sexuality, with the purpose of reviewing their suitability and ability to be accessed in schools. Schools in Texas were subsequently asked whether they were in possession of any of the books from the list.
This list included Alok’s Beyond the Gender Binary, highlighting the lack of education and the degree of unwillingness within some communities to even acknowledge the existence of trans and gender non-conforming people. It is another sad example of the lengths to which the cis-heteronormative system can go in order to censor and silence trans voices.
Alok acknowledges the variety of trans experiences in the book, highlighting that gender dysphoria is not a mandatory aspect of everyone’s journey. Narrowing down trans and gender-diverse people’s identities to one standard experience is limiting and reductive. There is no universal way to be trans. As Alok states, you ‘do not need to be universal to be valid’ (page 60).
In a recent Instagram post, Alok professed that their book is not only political but also a ‘compassionate act of love’.
This love is felt throughout their book. Their words are able to capture the simultaneous beauty and pain that comes with being gender non-conforming or gender diverse in this world. Love for them is about ‘being able to experience people outside of norms’. It allows all queer and trans people a complexity that is often enough dismissed or not afforded to this marginalised community.
Make sure to buy your copy of Alok’s Beyond the Gender Binary online or at your nearest bookstore. In my opinion, it is very much worth spending your money on this incredible book.
Alok is currently touring, performing a one-person show. I saw their solo performance in London last July and it mesmerised me. Alok was able to capture an entire audience of all kinds of people, guiding us through an emotionally filled journey. Their show was a combination of comedy, poetry, and spoken word. It was beautifully mixed together to a point where one did not even realise that the mood had shifted from jokes and laughter to attentive and heart-breaking silence.
If you would like to experience Alok’s talent, you can book your ticket for their performance on their website.