Words by willow Defebaugh
Photographs by Vivek Vadoliya
Who gets to determine another person’s reality? Alok Vaid-Menon has become a global leader in the trans and nonbinary liberation movement. Here, they speak with fellow luminary Munroe Bergdorf about the rise of fascism in the U.S. and U.K., the dangers of dictating what is natural, and the power of trans imagination.
The first time I saw Alok Vaid-Menon—or simply ALOK, as they style it—perform was at the New York Comedy Festival in 2021. Though they are a comedian, calling their set a comedy act would in no way do justice to the many shades of their kaleidoscopic performance. With effortless fluidity, they transitioned from instigating eruptions of riotous laughter to spoken word monologues that left the audience shattered.
Of course, it isn’t surprising that ALOK’s art contains such multitudes. The author, speaker, and self-proclaimed fashionista has become a worldwide symbol and advocate for trans and nonbinary liberation. Not nonbinary as in somewhere in between, but somewhere else altogether: somewhere beyond. Not trans as in strictly transgender or transexual, but trans as in transcendent: rising above and existing outside of constrictions and constraints.
ALOK is well versed in the art of rising above. On social media, their work is frequently met with verbal violence. And yet, most often their responses are compassionate and kind, expressing empathy toward the inherent hurt that must exist in anyone who would wake up and choose hostility, recognizing that any hatred is ultimately a reflection of the same source, the same systems they are attempting to dismantle with their words.
In addition to their profoundly personal poetry and prose, ALOK writes thoroughly researched book reports about fashion history as it relates to gender, the racist roots of the bioessentialist sex binary, and the rich history of gender nonconformity that exists outside the seemingly inescapable annals of whiteness. As they tell Munroe Bergdorf in this interview for Atmos, trans people offer a more prismatic vision of the world—one that is free from the confines of colonial categorization, colored with hues of potentiality.
I was thinking a great place to start is the ways in which trans people are framed as violating the precepts of nature or being against nature. What we hear, especially from TERFS [trans exclusionary radical feminists], is the idea that we’re unnatural or artificial. And I’ve always found that to be just so wrong because in so many ways, transitioning for me was about returning to nature. I was curious what your relationship to nature is as a trans person and what it feels like when people police trans life from nature?
I think it’s always important to acknowledge that the lens through which we are seen is not an inclusive one, and it’s often one that is being seen through the eyes of largely a white supremacist lens. So in these people’s eyes, we are violating the way that they see nature. And the way that they see nature is dictated by a set of rules that have been constructed to not include us. I was raised in nature. I was raised in the countryside just outside London, and I didn’t have many friends growing up. So that’s really where I found solace and where I was able to think and feel safe. For me, nature is safety, and it is a place where I can get back to the core of who I am without all of the noise and other people’s definitions. For me, transness is natural. It is who I am at my core. And through being in nature, I’ve been able to access my transness.
I resonate with that. I also think about who gets to speak on behalf of nature and how dangerous it is that when you call something natural, you erase that it’s a political choice. You make it seem as if it’s always been that way, absolute and permanent. I’ve been thinking about this a lot here in the United States with the horrific Supreme Court ruling and this continual obsession with the idea that the natural role of women is to give birth. That just haunts us for hundreds of years and is used to bludgeon trans women out of women’s spaces. And then also, now it’s being used to discipline even cis women from receiving reproductive care like abortions. I wanted to name that because I think that unfortunately the U.S. is a global influencer on misogyny and patriarchy. So I’m nervous actually about the future of abortion the world over. I have been thinking about this idea of natural womanhood and how that idea of a natural woman harms all women and fem people, not just trans women.
Well, natural womanhood is taking a body and assigning a purpose to it, rather than allowing that individual person to dictate their own purpose. And the people who feel that we have set roles because of how nature dictates our purpose in their eyes, I feel like they cherry-pick those things. I don’t see them saying that being gay or being trans is natural, even though that also happens in the natural world outside of the human race. There are other species that are gay. There are other living beings and plants as well. Mushrooms can have so many ways of reproducing. You can’t cherry-pick bits of nature to support your bigotry—and that’s really what we are seeing. When you take away someone’s individuality and their autonomy to make their own decisions and then call it natural, that’s massively unnatural. I think that goes against everything that is natural, to dictate someone’s purpose, which is the most organic thing. I think that’s the most precious thing about being human: the fact that we can make our own choices.
Yeah. That makes me think that maybe this idea of even trying to define nature is counterproductive and anti-queer. Because the power of nature is in its unruliness and its refusal to be categorized and contained. So I think we find ourselves in a trap where in response to transphobia and homophobia, we have to say, “Being LGBTQ is natural.” And I see the political utility of that, but I wonder if the next terrain of politics is to actually say, “As queer and trans people, we trust in the beauty and awe of nature so that we would never call anything natural or not. We don’t dare to speak for nature, we just submit and surrender to it.”
I want to locate this conversation now in the U.K., which is becoming increasingly a global epicenter of transphobia. One of the narratives we hear in the U.K. is this idea of London being an exception and the rest of the U.K. holding onto a nostalgia of what British culture is. And immigrants and Muslims and trans people and diversity are anti this natural way that the U.K. is. Why do you think that U.K. politics now has become so fixated on scapegoating trans people? And how do you see that as related to these human and white male constructions of nature?
I think a big part of trans people being targeted by this conservative government is a distraction technique, but also it’s a fear technique. It’s a ruse to get votes through a false promise of, “We’re going to protect you against this imminent threat that doesn’t actually exist,” which we’ve seen happen time and time again with multiple marginalized communities, from refugees and immigrants to gay people. It wasn’t so long ago that the same government was weaponizing homophobia under the guise of Section 28 and protecting young people from learning about same-sex relationships. Now we’re seeing the same thing happen again with protecting young people from transitioning or being “confused” about their gender identity. So it’s the same playbook, the same as what we are seeing happen in America with taking away the bodily autonomy of people with uteruses.
It’s saying that marginalized people do not have the wherewithal to make decisions over their own bodies, that there is a set way to be, and actions over your own future and your own purpose are not for you to make. And that’s a massive problem. It’s a linked issue. Because you take one right away, and it’s a slippery slope until the next one goes. I think that we often underestimate these white supremacist Republicans in their motives and how deeply entrenched they are within the political systems. I think that there’s a vested interest in the maintenance of white supremacy. And obviously, being trans and having access to abortion and people making the choice to not participate within that system unknowingly or knowingly is actively against the interests of it. Ultimately, all roads lead back to white supremacy.
“I think that’s the most precious thing about being human: the fact that we can make our own choices.”
One hundred percent. In the beginning, when you were speaking about nature not as a given but as a political aesthetic—it’s a political aesthetic of white supremacy that their conceptions of nature define biological sex and gender, which circulate as false universals. Like, “This is what it means to be a man or a woman.” But what they’re actually defining there is, “This is what we’ve defined to be a man or a woman under white supremacy to perpetuate white supremacy.” Because we know that these conservative forces aren’t invested in the preservation and maintenance of Black and Native life whatsoever.
Exactly. The preservation of white life underneath the ruse of religious freedom. But when it comes down to religious freedom, it’s not actually religious freedom; it’s evangelical Christian freedom. And it’s evangelical Christian freedom through a white lens because they’re praying to white Jesus. The way that Christianity is framed is not in its organic sense or a closeness to where it came from. There’s next to no acknowledgement that it’s a religion that was born out of the Middle East. The way that the West views the Middle East is not with a respect of that’s where their religion came from ultimately, that natural-born place of their religion; it’s with utter contempt. And the way that so many of the same legislators take money from companies that are actively harming the environment. They talk about purpose, like divine purpose and godliness, but we’re destroying the actual planet that their God created. It is full of hypocrisy. It doesn’t actually make any sense.
It’s so ironic that they say that they’re speaking for family values, when in fact I feel like trans people are clarifying what it actually means to have family values—like to love people for who they are and not coerce them into who you think they should be.
Well, exactly. You can’t talk about family values while you are actively putting minors in harm’s way by taking money from the NRA. The leading cause of child death is guns in the U.S. Yet you are taking money from the organizations that allow that to happen. Not only allow that to happen but cause that to happen. So it’s massively frustrating, but again, we need to get past this idea that this is a pro-life narrative. It’s not a pro-life narrative; it’s a pro-white-supremacist narrative.
Totally. And pro-criminalization, which we know will always target Black and Native communities first and foremost. Every time that there are these vexed moments online, you see so much social media frenzy and so much disinformation. And it can feel kind of impossible often when you see millions of people who believe blatantly wrong things and are committed to defending those wrong things. I’ve really admired how you’ve practiced boundary-making with your social media presence. I’ve been thinking about this phrase that comes up now, thanks to Gen Z, which is “touch grass.” It’s a way of saying, “Okay, get off your phone, get offline, and touch the physical world.” Because there’s a world outside of the way that social media renders it.
Yeah. With the algorithms on social media, we are increasingly being forced to participate online in a way where we are essentially fighting for our relevance but having to do it within a framework that is dictated to us. So why don’t we all just focus on real-life things that can’t be as constrained, that can’t be as controlled? I know it’s harder, especially in today’s society where everybody is essentially being programmed, but it’s so much more worthwhile and purposeful to focus on things that you can change within reality and recognize that the behaviors of people online do not represent their behaviors in the real world.
Social media has become almost like a vortex into a different dimension where people can be different people, people can say things that they wouldn’t say to another person in the real world. And I think that it’s really important to define for yourself what is reality and what is make-believe. And for me, social media really is make-believe because it is so subjective. Two people can look at the same thing and draw completely different conclusions about what that thing is, and information is targeted at people to almost manipulate the way that they will see their real world.
So I think that it’s really important to draw lines and maintain those boundaries and focus on the real world, so that you can see social media and the online world for what they are clearly. Because you run into a real problem when the two worlds blend and you start conflating online with reality. They are two very different things. Focusing on making an impact if you want to make an impact, focusing on finding your joy in the real world, focusing on knowing who you are in the real world, rather than who other people perceive you to be online—all of these things are so important, and drawing the lines between them allows you to hold onto your sanity. It allows you to hold onto your purpose. It allows you to form connections in a way that is healthy rather than just based on validation.
Right. I just really worry because especially as trans people, we know that the majority of content shared about us is fallacious and incorrect. And so, so much of what we’re up against is an organized campaign that makes people think that we’re dangerous and monstrous when in fact we’re the ones in danger. And yet at the same time, as trans people, the only way that we can often find each other and get access to community and resources is through the very channels that are harming us. So it feels like this really kind of awful dynamic.
It really does. I think that’s why it’s so important that we build our own spaces and try to build them in places where we are not held hostage or perceived as violations by algorithms or content. Even down to facial recognition software and the way that’s coded, trans faces and identities and even the way that we talk can be seen as a violation or soliciting. Down to bigger bodies or Black bodies, the way that they are perceived by algorithms is massively different to say white skinny bodies, white cis skinny bodies. So I think it’s really important that we build spaces away from frameworks that are working actively against us, which is why I have spent significantly less time in spaces like Instagram, where content by marginalized creators is clearly being suppressed.
I do think it’s important that we have a presence, but I think it’s important that we understand the parameters of that presence. And ultimately, like the reality that we are living inside a white supremacist house, we need to understand that the same is true online. And so in recognizing that, we need to understand the importance of creating our own spaces and frameworks and allowing a space where we can communicate, where we can learn, where we can access community, where we can express joy, and we need to understand why that is necessary. I think that there’s such a will to assimilate within so many marginalized communities and be part of the frameworks that already exist without acknowledging that they are harmful to us. I think it’s also important that we recognize the need for our own spaces.
Absolutely. And I think we’re uniquely positioned as trans people to do this work. So much of what I think contemporary transphobia is, is people saying, “What do you mean you get to live in this form and live a good life?” We live other people’s impossible. It’s not that things are impossible, it’s just that people lack the imagination to make them happen. And so much of what transness is for me is that practice of imagination to create new and alternative ways of relating to each other.
“I think it’s perverse that they blame the collapse of the world on trans people, when in so many ways, we birth new ones.”
Yeah. Absolutely. And that’s what all civil rights movements and revolutions are born out of: the ability to imagine a world where we are not constrained by another community’s idea of reality. Reality is massively subjective, and it’s often not inclusive. Slavery existed for hundreds of years to the point where people were born into it and died within that and never knew anything else. So if people hadn’t been able to imagine a world where they weren’t enslaved, then we wouldn’t be free. I think even during that time, there would’ve been people that would never have been able to imagine that world, but we need to do that.
And I think the same is very true for the liberation of trans people. We’ve seen how the queer movement has taken so much inspiration from the civil rights movements and liberation of Black people. We need to get back to that. We need to be able to imagine a world where we aren’t ruled by exploitative governments, where we aren’t putting unnecessary amounts of faith in systems like the police, where we can rebuild society in a way that actually functions as it should.
Yeah, totally. And what I feel is urgent to say, especially with the escalating attempts to disappear us from public life, is that this is not just going to harm trans people, it’s going to harm the entire social ecology. Because trans people have unique powers historically to help the world transition into a more just, loving, and innovative society. And without us, that is the end of the world. I think it’s perverse that they blame the collapse of the world on trans people, when in so many ways, we birth new ones. The stakes of targeting trans people are not just about the elimination of a minority, I think they’re about the elimination of a potential world. And we should speak about it as such.
I think it’s very dangerous how this minority framing is working because I think it allows people to take a series of calculations that say, “Okay, well they’re only point whatever percent of the population, so it doesn’t really matter.” But I think the stakes are so much higher because within our lives, we represent alternatives to the status quo. We represent possibility.
SET DESIGN Freya Wentworth MAKE UP Tom Easto PHOTO ASSISTANT Ryan Rivers SET DESIGN ASSISTANT Guy Gibson LAB + DARKROOM Rapid Eye AGENCY East Photographic
This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 07: Prism with the headline “Reality Check.”
A prism is a multidimensional body that refracts, disperses, or in some cases, distorts light. Atmos Volume 07: Prism is a study of light, color, dimension, and perspective. It asks such questions as: How do we find the light in a world that can feel so dark? How do our identities shape the lenses through which we experience reality? How do we move past binary thinking and embrace a more prismatic or nuanced view of the world? How do ideas disseminate and refract? What role does transparency play in that process? What symbolism do specific colors hold, in both the human and natural world?