Metro Weekly

Interview: ALOK’s Infinite Transformation

A keynote speaker at Creating Change, ALOK has profound ideas on how the LGBTQ community can confront trauma and live authentically.

Alok
ALOK — Photo: Courtesy ALOK

“Memory of my childhood is always really hard for me, because I was so dissociated from it as a way to protect myself,” says ALOK, a 30-year-old transfeminine, gender-nonconforming author, performance artist and media personality. “It can feel really impossible sometimes to retrieve memory, because I was just absent psychologically so that I didn’t have to experience the pain that I was going through.”

They continue, “I remember being four or five and already having this deep sense that I was too feminine. Much of my first experiences of shame and bullying were actually from my predominantly white peers and educational institutions, like my pre-kindergarten and my kindergarten [classes].

“What’s interesting is that my parents actually were remarkably accepting,” ALOK adds. “I have an older sister and I insisted on wearing her clothes and my parents were totally fine with that. We were part of a tight-knit Indian community in my town, so we’d have dinner parties and potlucks, and at those I would wear my mom’s clothes and do a kind of Bollywood drag-inspired dance for everyone. And everyone was totally okay with it.”

Despite their family’s relative acceptance, growing up in a conservative Texas town exacted a toll on ALOK, prompting them to retreat from the larger world out of fear for their own safety. But even though they faced disapproval from some quarters of society, ALOK says their experience growing up in a such an environment fueled their current work, which is aimed at ending loneliness and promoting healing from trauma so that people can live authentic lives. It also taught them not to be complacent with the status quo.

“What I really want to do is just be real and honest, because I spent 18 years of my life living a lie, and that almost killed me,” ALOK says. “I made a promise to myself as a rambunctious teenager, that I would live a life that was oriented towards authenticity. It’s really fucking hard and scary and difficult, and I’m trying anyways, because it’s the only thing that makes life worth living.”

ALOK will deliver one of two keynote speeches at this weekend’s Creating Change, the annual national conference hosted by the National LGBTQ Task Force that serves as a rallying point for LGBTQ activists who can share stories and advice on how to be better advocates for their causes or movements.

In their speech during the closing plenary on Sunday, March 20, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., ALOK plans to address several themes, including the importance of healing as important work for LGBTQ individuals to undertake, the importance of showing love and support to LGBTQ people, and the need for vulnerability.

“I think it’s time that we really reconsider the ways in which you require people to be proud without actually creating the pathways where they can do that,” ALOK says. “I really wish that we could be vulnerable and talk about how difficult it still is to be gay, how difficult and lonely it can feel to be gay. And I wish that we could create public spaces to heal from that pain. So what I’ve tried to do is model my own vulnerability to give permission to others to be vulnerable, and to recognize that vulnerability is an asset and a strength to our movement.”

ALOK says part of the work they’re committed to is talking about how to overcome trauma, and understanding that trauma often is the root cause of some of the attacks against the LGBTQ community.

“When I look at the rise of transphobia over the past few years — the fact that there are 39 states in the country right now that have anti-trans legislation targeting trans young people — I understand that what’s happening there is unprocessed trauma. People are so afraid of trans people because they are afraid of themselves, and what we are is a mirror. We show that there are forms of creative expression that other people were taught they had to annihilate in order to be loved. We are asking to be loved in our difference, when everyone else has only been told that they could be loved by assimilating.

“So I think the next step of healing, which I would really like to see more, is committing to compassion and recognizing that compassion is not the same thing as enabling people, but it’s about empathizing with why people are the way that they are.

ALOK says they have tried to learn compassion for those who attack the LGBTQ community.

“What I noticed is that when I started to seriously prioritize my healing, I no longer really held onto bitterness or resentment. Of course I experience anger, but it’s not my predominant frame,” they say. “I’ve unlocked a kind of love and compassion and mercy for all people because everyone makes sense when we learn trauma.

“I think for a long part of my life, I didn’t understand that healing was political, and now I understand healing to be extremely political work because the reason that we target one another and we siphon so much vitriol to one another, is because we haven’t done that healing. I think about the people in my comment sections and I’m just like, ‘Dang, they must have been through a lot and they’re asking for help.’ When we come for one another, we’re asking for help.

“So I feel compassion for them because so often I’m marketed as the oppressed one, but I’m living life on my own terms, I’m not wearing someone else’s uniform.”

Alok
ALOK — Photo: Courtesy ALOK

METRO WEEKLY: How would you introduce yourself to someone unfamiliar with your work, who is meeting you for the first time?

ALOK: I would say my name is ALOK and I’m an artist and I’m trying to create a world where we can talk in public about the things that we care the most about and where we learn how to love one another again. I would say that I’m a poet and that doesn’t mean that I just write poetry, it means that I live it. And I would say that I’m trying my best to hold onto hope and to challenge cynicism and to actually make a difference in the world.

MW: Let’s talk about your childhood.

ALOK: I grew up in a small town in Texas called College Station, Texas, where I spent the first 18 years of my life. I think it was really foundational for me because I was made to feel my difference really early on, in all forms, and that confronted me with that huge existential question of, “Who am I?”

It seemed like everyone else around me had an identity or had a home, and it felt like I didn’t. From a really young age, I actually started to question the world. I would ask my parents, “What would life be like if I was born an ant? What would life be like if I was born on a different planet, in a different city, a different country?” I had this deep awareness that I was different, I just didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I was. As a gender-nonconforming kid, I experienced a lot of bullying, constant commentary on my femininity. I think it’s so ironic that my bullies would call me a girl, and then when I, later in my life, started to identify as trans, people would say that I was a boy, which is so funny to me.

MW: Are there any traits you see in yourself today that have carried over from childhood?

ALOK: I think one: my sense of imagination. Because physical danger was so real for me, I really retreated into my head and I became a major bookworm and just started reading hundreds of books. I had a really vibrant intellectual and imaginative life in my head because that was the only place I could be free. So in some ways I refer to dissociation as an “artist residency” because I was just in my head dreaming and imagining my future.

Oftentimes people ask me, “Are you surprised by where you’ve ended up or what you’ve accomplished?” And yes, to some degree, but also to some degree, not, because as a young person I really dreamed myself into existence. I really do believe in the power of daydreaming still.

A second thing is I was a worrier, and I still am, because I had to become really hypervigilant about other people’s reactions to me. I had to confront, I think, as a lot of queer kids do, the existential reality of danger. So because I couldn’t control that, instead I tried to control my life. I worked extremely hard in school. I tried to be a perfectionist. I tried to control everything that I could, under this idea that my self-discipline would somehow keep me safe, and it didn’t. So I think a lot of what I’m trying to do as an adult is to un-learn that deep worry and anxiety that pretends like it’s saving me and protecting me, but it’s not.

A third thing that I really still carry in me is a deep desire to be a performer. From a young age, I had no shame. I would dance around all the time, wearing whatever I wanted to wear and I just loved the stage. And then I was made to feel like that was too “feminine,” that love of dance and love of being a performer was something that boys didn’t do. So I kind of buried that in me and I’m so glad to have been able to unearth that later in my life, because I really do feel most at home on the stage.

MW: When you are on stage, what internally happens to you? What sort of process do you go through in a performance head space?

ALOK: I think the stage is one of the only places in American culture where we can be honest anymore. I think what is so ironic about the stage is they say that we’re performing, but really the world performs all the time and then at the stage we actually get that authenticity.

I think that’s why people flock to see movies or plays or comedy or poetry: it’s because they know that the stage is a space for truth-telling. For me, the stage was the first place where I could be affirmed for my gender. People were comfortable with me wearing a dress or makeup on stage, because there’s a frame of reference for it. But then I realized it was not just about what I looked like, people were more comfortable with me saying what I actually felt.

So I think my first therapist was the stage. I started performing and just saying things and feeling things and I began to really figure myself out. I think what I love about the stage is the tradition of experimental performance, and it’s such a metaphor for me of what it means to be alive. We have to experiment, we have to figure it out. So often I get messages of people saying to me, “How do I know what I am? I’ve been living my entire life with the parameters that other people have given me. I don’t know who I am on my own terms. What do I do?” And I always say, “Experiment,” because something like an open mike taught me so much about myself, because for the first time there were no rules. You just kind of have to make it up and see what happens and see what you like and see what you don’t.

I think also when I’m preparing for the stage, it feels really sacred to me. It feels like a beautiful spiritual practice of returning to my body. It feels like the alignment of my spirit, my body and my mind, and I think that was so difficult during the pandemic. I’ve been touring all over the world for over a decade now and for the first time, I had to stop for a sustained period. It was really hard for me because I don’t think I had realized how foundational and essential it was for me to be a performer, how much I missed that sense of, in presence, live art.

I often say the thing about live art is it’s actually what it means to be alive and not just to exist. I think that there’s something very beautiful about being witnessed, having an audience see you in your complexity, and I wish that for everyone in the world.

Alok
ALOK — Photo: Courtesy ALOK

MW: What are your relationships like with both your biological family and your chosen family?

ALOK: It’s been a work in progress with my parents. As a kid you think your parents are superheroes and have all their shit figured out. As an adult you’re like, “Oops, plot twist.” My parents are also deeply flawed and have so much trauma and have not processed a lot of things. And at first I think there was a lot of anger in me to be like, “I was making it so obvious to y’all that I needed help and that I was queer and you put me in this small town. What the hell?” But then I’m like, “My parents weren’t emotionally honest with themselves — how are they going to be emotionally honest with me?”

What I’m trying to do is introduce all of this language around mental health and healing into my family, when we didn’t grow up with that. We didn’t grow up asking each other how we felt. We didn’t grow up talking about mental health. When I first started writing poetry, my grandmother specifically would read my poems and see me talking about being suicidal as a kid or struggling with my mental health and then freak out, like she had done something wrong.

Our framework on mental health was you pretend like it doesn’t exist, or you work your way out of it. So in a lot of ways, it feels like I’m introducing a completely new vocabulary, a completely new paradigm. But what I’ve noticed is that the more I focus on my healing and my freedom, the more I see it inspiring my family. I think one of the joys of growing up, in some ways, is that our parents eventually become our children. They begin to see and learn from us how we have access to knowledge.

In terms of my chosen family, I’m a friendship bitch. Friendship is my number one art form. It’s my reason I’m alive. I love making friends. I love maintaining friendships. I’m constantly on long dinner dates with my friends, all across the world. My group chats are amazing and friendship for me is the best part about being queer.

A lot of people always ask me, “How do you manage all of the backlash you receive or being so visible or your job, which is so grueling?” and it’s just because I have so many best friends who anchor me to this earth and help me joke and not take myself so seriously and help me dream for myself and remind me for who I am.

I just really wish that we lived in a society that recognized that friendship is what keeps us alive. We glorify romantic love, and it’s important, but who are you going to go to when you break up? Friendship is where we go to when we really need a kind of endurance, and I think what I love the most about my chosen family is we are making it up as we go along, kind of this idea of improvisation or experimentality.

In the keynote, I quote bell hooks, who is a big inspiration for me, and bell hooks teaches us that many people say that they want love, but they can’t because true love requires courage, true love requires us to acknowledge that what we grew up with wasn’t love, and we have to confront our pain and our lovelessness before we can love each other.

I think that’s what my friendships do. We’re coming to each other and we’re like, “My parents really messed me up. I grew up with a lot of trauma and people didn’t love me and I want to learn how.” So we’re learning how, and of course we make mistakes and of course we are mean and wrong and brutal, but we come back to each other and we find ways to heal through it, and I think that’s a template for me for what the world looked like, like what a democracy felt more like friendship. I think friendship is such a miracle in a world that often feels so cruel.

MW: How do you cultivate relationships in an era where it can be so difficult to forge personal connections?

ALOK: I really think vulnerability goes a long way. When I first moved to New York almost a decade ago, I would meet people at a party and it would be that very like, “Yeah, we should get lunch,” and then we never do. But what I would do is I would text them and be like, “Hey, I’m really struggling right now and I was wondering if we could meet up for coffee on Tuesday at 3 p.m.,” like being very specific about the follow-up and intentional that I was looking for meaningful connection.

People are so surprised by that, because people are often playing pretend and fake, and when you actually are vulnerable, it kind of glistens through, and it also magnetizes the people who are interested in that and it repels the people who aren’t. So there’s a lot of people who are going to be scared of vulnerability, but those aren’t the people who are interested in really building a relationship with you.

I think the second key to cultivating relationships is really finding people through shared hobbies. So many of my friends came from the artwork that I was doing, the performances I had. So many of my best friends, we toured together. It’s about finding some mutual thing that you both are invested in. Maybe it’s a sports team, maybe it’s some book that you like. I recently decided I need to start going to more Comic-Cons because I feel like these might be my people. I recently binge-watched Avatar: The Last Airbender on Netflix. And I was sitting here like I’ve never wanted to “stan” something so hard in my entire life. I literally loved this so much.

So I went down this wormhole and I found that there’s hundreds of thousands of people across the world who are obsessed with this show too. There’s a point of commonality there, and I’m like, “Oh my God, maybe these are my people. What the hell? I’ve been missing out?” So I think it’s about interest.

Alok
ALOK — Photo: Courtesy ALOK

MW: What do you mean when you say in your Creating Change keynote, “Authenticity is not a destination, it’s an orientation”?

ALOK: I think a lot of people think that there’s this thing called truth that’s absolute and final, but what I’m learning in my life is that there are always many truths and that truth is constantly mutating, that nothing is really fixed and I think that’s why people are terrified by gender-nonconforming people. We reveal that nothing is fixed and that fluidity is the order of the universe. People would have you believe that fluidity is chaos, but it’s actually just the way that the world works. I mean go and consult the seasons and the water and see how everything moves.

What I’ve learned is that living is a series of shedding every new story that I have for myself. So I live in a story for a while, maybe it’s a year, maybe it’s 10, and then at some level that doesn’t serve me anymore. I notice some itch in me that says, “Okay, strive towards something else,” and I go there. I really hate how our culture is obsessed with this idea of contradiction, like, “Oh, you used to believe this and now you believe this.” Why do we think that’s a bad thing? Of course people are changing and evolving.

I think that’s what’s so beautiful about being trans: we show that transformation is possible. But I think I want to add to that and say transformation is infinite. It’s not that we arrive and land, it’s that we’re constantly arriving. It’s not that we become, it’s that we’re constantly becoming.

I think what’s beautiful about the stage is it’s one of the few spaces where you can really model that for the world. But increasingly I began to realize that the things that I do as an artist aren’t just confined to the stage or to the runway or to the TV screen, it’s the way that I want to live. I want to bring that sensibility everywhere. I want to allow the people around me to feel like they can change. I want to recognize how porous we are and how we’re constantly changing. So in that way, I think authenticity is a kind of North Star for me, a lighthouse, and it shifts and it changes who I thought I was, I didn’t end up being, and I’m excited for what the future holds because I don’t really know what I’ll move towards.

MW: What worries you in this world or in this current time that we find ourselves in?

ALOK: I think the first and foremost thing is the physical safety of gender-nonconforming, and especially transfeminine people. So many of my friends and myself fear every single day we go outside. I think it’s sad to me because as a young person, I believed that when I grew up, the bullying would stop and it didn’t — it just looks different now. It looks like strangers on the street, it looks like my comment sections, it looks like this constant message that I’ve been told my entire life: “If you just disappear yourself, then life would be better.”

So I’m worried for my safety and I’m worried for the safety of the people that I love. But then I think I’m also worried about the people who target us, because the reason they’re targeting us is because they’ve been misled to believe that we’re the problem, when in fact there are so many other bigger problems.

What I’m worried most about right now is that in this country there’s an explicit effort to scapegoat LGBTQ people — and especially trans people — as a way to redirect people’s legitimate fears into something that just buys Republican leaders votes and money. We’re being used as cheap shots for political and financial gain, so I worry that people believe all the lies about us and don’t actually experience us as human. They just see us as one-dimensional tropes that have been manufactured for profit for the right-wing.

The larger worry I have is that we don’t know how to see each other for who we are. We only see each other for what we want one another to be. We mistake projection as reality. I worry that we’re forgetting how to love and that, especially in the LGBTQ movement — a movement that should have and continues to advocate for love — we’ve forgotten how to love. And I worry that if we lose that ability to love, we lose everything, because that’s what makes life worth living.

MW: What do you make of this larger effort to censor or ban books, certain types of speech, or altogether erase queerness or gender-nonconformity, and how should we push back against it?

ALOK: I think that there’s a tendency right now in LGBTQ communities to belittle and scoff at these kind of people, like they’re just stupid. Like stupid Southern people or stupid Midwestern people who are unenlightened. I don’t think that that works — that just makes us feel good. And I think we are so obsessed with being righteous, myself included, that we lose an actual strategy and tactic. If we want to win, we have to understand these people are traumatized and they don’t even know it and they’re operating out of fear.

They are so fearful that their way of life is disintegrating. What’s occurring is the only way that they know themselves is through racism, homophobia, and transphobia. That’s become their identity. They mistake dissociation as a personality and self-neglect as a virtue. And they’ve been living in pain for so long that when we have the audacity to say, “You don’t have to be in pain,” they retaliate against that because they feel like pain is the only way to be.

So what’s happening right now is that when we’re trying to create a world without homophobia and racism and transphobia, they don’t feel like they belong in that world because they don’t know who they are without those pillars of their identity. So what I try to do is actually respond with compassion, kindness, and education. I say, “Oh, I’m really sorry that you’re feeling that way. That’s just completely incorrect. I love you and there’s space for you here.”

And what I find over and over again is maybe people aren’t ready to receive that love right now, but it plants a seed and it shows, “Wait, I belong here.” At the end of the day, everyone’s trying to belong. That’s one of the most fundamental human desires that there ever was.

So we don’t have to agree with them, but we can have empathy, like, “Oh my God, it’d be really hard if I lost my identity and my chosen family. That must suck.” Then the next step is doubling down on creating a mass movement around trauma and healing.

When I talk often about compassion and empathy, people think that I’m conceding ground, or that I’m enabling, but I really want to differentiate here. I actually think compassion is what’s going to work and I actually think compassion is what has worked historically. I think compassion is a form of political activism, and it has its own political tradition. Compassion isn’t about saying, “You’re allowed to do this. You’re allowed to pass this bill.” Compassion is about saying, “How do I respond to your passing of this bill so that we can create a world where hate is obsolete?”

Alok
ALOK — Photo: Courtesy ALOK

MW: How do you subjugate the natural urge to resort to anger when you see these attacks?

ALOK: Often, anger is grief looking for a home. We resort to anger because the pain is so enormous. What’s happening right now in Florida and Texas is extremely painful. It’s extremely traumatizing. It hurts a lot. I think the larger question is: where do we go when we’re in pain? We haven’t created that culture. We have to pretend like we’re good all the time. We have to pretend like we’re proud all the time, like we’ve got our shit figured out. And even in our own friendships, let alone even people having friendships — all the new data is showing that white men above the age of 30 don’t really even have close friends to talk to. So we have an infrastructure in our society where when people are in pain, they have nowhere to go with that pain.

What I do whenever I’m feeling grief is call a friend and I process it. I perform, I put it into my art. There’s so many places to put it, rather than meeting them at their same frequency. When we heal and when we focus on our healing, we can see when people are operating from a lower frequency and we can make the choice, “Am I going to meet them there, or am I going to do something else?” And what I find is that the more that I focus on loving and accepting myself, on accepting myself as a gender-nonconforming person, not as someone who could be straight or should be straight, but loving myself as a gender-nonconforming person in a society that is determined to eradicate me and hate me and make me feel ugly, when I accept myself, it unlocks in me this ability to do what I call emotional alchemy, to take the hatred that other people put on me and to turn it into something beautiful.

Look, I’m still doing this work too. Sometimes I want to cut a bitch, right? There are days where I’m like, “Oh my God, this is so infuriating. I can’t do this. I can’t return to compassion. I’m not a freaking monk.” Like, “Agh!,” and those [feelings] are there, but am I going to tweet about that or am I going to call my friend about that? I think also comedy has been really healing for me, taking my anger and putting it into jokes. It gives it more levity.

I don’t want to sanction that this is the one way to do it. This is the way that I’m doing it, and I think it works, and maybe there are other ways to do it.

But when I look at what’s happening in this country right now, we have to be honest that previous strategies aren’t working. So a lot of my turn to compassion in my own life is because I want to try something different. I’m not interested in even indulging the ways in which people dismiss LGBTQ life. We’re not an argument, we’ve always been. So I’m not going to have an argument about my life. The fact that I have to argue that I’m real when I’m breathing across from you says more about you than it says about me.

MW: What message are you hoping to send to the audience at Creating Change?

ALOK: When I introduce myself, maybe I should actually say, “My name is ALOK, and I’m trying to end loneliness. I think that’s my creative and political message and goal in the world — ending loneliness. And the way we do that is by acknowledging that we live in one of the most lonely times in the world. Even though we’re more connected than ever, that makes us feel more lonely because then we’re constantly like, “Wait, how am I consuming millions of pieces of content and then still eating takeout alone on my couch?” We’re constantly peering into other people’s lives being like, “Wait, they don’t look lonely. I’m the one, I’m the problem.”

I know what it’s like to live a lie and I think a lot of us as queer people do. And yet we come out and we still live lies. Why would we do that? Let’s actually do something different and learn how to be honest about who we are. It’s through that honesty that we end loneliness. It’s through actually being able to say, “I need you.” So what I do to my fans, to my friends, to my family, to myself, is I say, “I love and need you.” I think we’ve been taught that love is using each other, not needing each other and I really want to teach people it’s okay to need each other.

Creating Change 2022 will be held virtually on Saturday and Sunday, March 19 and 20. ALOK will be presenting their keynote during Sunday’s closing plenary, on Sunday, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Registration is required. Price is variable. For more information, please visit www.thetaskforce.org/creatingchange.

For more information on ALOK and their works, visit www.alokvmenon.com.

Follow ALOK on Twitter and on Instagram.

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