New book: Celebrate Neurodiversity!

Sign up for updates and more!

Alok Vaid-Menon: Beyond the Binary

Alok Vaid-Menon is a nonbinary performer, artist, and designer. They travel the world telling stories, sharing their art and fashion, and advocating for joy.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Alexis Stratton and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan with sensitivity read by Schuyler Swenson. Narration by Anjali Kunapaneni. Joy Smith was our executive producer. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Once upon a time, in a small town in Texas, a young child named Alok Vaid-Menon was rifling through their mother’s closet, looking for something exciting to wear. 

Every month, Alok’s tight-knit Indian community gathered to have a potluck. Alok loved an excuse to dress up in their mom or sister’s clothes and perform! Alok had big dreams of being a fashion designer when they grew up.  

On this night, Alok decided to drape themself in a long bathroom towel and wear it like an elegant gown. Then Alok strode into the living room, and danced for their family and friends. They felt the lively Bollywood music pulsing in their skin, filling them with a dazzling glow. Everyone cheered and sang along. Alok felt so bright and alive. They just wanted to share this joy with the world.

I’m Anjali Kunapaneni. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebels who inspire us. 

On this episode, Alok Vaid-Menon: poet and performer, daring fashionista, and joyful advocate for gender liberation.

When Alok was in first grade, they heard some great news. Their school was hosting a talent show!

When the big day came, Alok stepped confidently onto the stage. Their song kicked on, and they spun, leapt, twirled, and somersaulted! They felt so free dancing up there. 

But when the song ended, instead of the applause Alok usually got from their family and friends, they heard something terrible: laughter.

The auditorium was full of people who were laughing at them.

Alok’s cheeks burned. Their eyes stung with tears. How could something that once gave Alok so much hope and joy now cause so much shame? After they left the stage, their classmates all said the same thing – boys don’t do that.

See, when Alok was born, the doctors said Alok was a boy. But Alok… didn’t feel like a boy. They didn’t feel like a girl either. They were just – Alok! Gender identity is about more than what a person looks like on the outside. It’s about how a person feels they are on the inside. And sometimes how a person sees themselves is different from how adults, parents, or even doctors might see them.

When kids made fun of Alok’s brown skin or teased them for going to a Hindu temple instead of a Christian church, Alok’s family was there for support. They understood racism, and could stand together as a community. 

But when Alok got bullied about their gender identity, they didn’t have anyone that understood. There was no where they could exist and be totally Alok.

After Alok kept on getting teased about their bright, fabulous clothes, they started wearing dark cargo shorts and simple sweaters. Instead of dancing on stage, Alok became quiet and studious. They didn’t share their feelings with anyone – except their journals. 

Writing became a great place of healing and self-discovery for Alok. As they dove into the pages, they felt a whole new world open up. There was space to learn and grow and express themselves here. They wrote about their sadness, loneliness, and pain. They wrote about things that fascinated them, like thunderstorms and sunsets. They wrote questions with no answers and feelings that floated in and out of view. Piecing together these words into poetry became a great joy and relief.

Alok knew who they were, even if the rest of the world wasn’t ready for them yet.

A few years later, Alok made the long trek from Texas to California, where they started college at Stanford University.

There, they met other people like them – people who were transgender, gender queer, and nonbinary. A lot of people think there are just two genders — women and men. This is called the gender binary and many people use it to define how they act and perceive others. 

For Alok, this binary didn’t feel right. As they talked more about gender with friends at school, they realized there were lots of people who defined and enjoyed themselves outside of the binary. This is what felt true to Alok. They were somewhere between the genders — or perhaps a mix of both. They began to identify as nonbinary.

Alok started performing poetry with a group of artists at Stanford. Up on the stage, they found a rhythm and momentum that felt exciting and powerful. Finally, they’d found a community of queer Brown artists and friends. And with them, a sense of belonging.

Alok also began enjoying fashion again and returned to wearing vibrant clothes. It was scary at first. One day, Alok put on a blue and pink vintage dress with a lovely lace collar. They felt very nervous walking through the campus, imagining people staring, judging, laughing, just as they had when Alok was a kid. 

But you know what? No one cared. Or was even really surprised! With each step they took across campus, Alok felt lighter and lighter. The sun was shining, the world was wide open, and they were becoming exactly who they wanted to be.

As Alok grew more confident, they experimented with hues, textures and patterns. They wore sparkling gowns, bold blazers and retro skirts, and. They paired dazzling earrings with a dash of red lipstick. They let their beard and body hair grow, and brushed it into dramatic swirls, spirals and twists. They truly loved experimenting and expressing their uniqueness.

This wasn’t always safe though. Strangers on the streets or on social media called Alok mean names. People even threatened and hurt Alok — just for being different.

But they wouldn’t give up.

They continued to write poetry revealing their hopes, fears and dreams for the future. They also worked on their performance skills, addingworking jokes into their poetry readings, so there could be laughter and reflection. 

Soon, Alok was touring, speaking and connecting with people from all over, building a community of art and understanding. 

They wanted everyone in the world to feel free to be themselves. As Alok wrote in one of their poems:

“because i’d rather be me than beautiful / because i’d rather be me than their beautiful / because i’d rather be my own beautiful.”

Today, Alok continues to dress in trendsetting fashions that defy the categories of “man” or “woman.” They perform their poetry and comedy on stages across the globe. And they design their own clothing collections, making exactly the kinds of outfits they want to wear! 

Alok pursues joy and art wherever it takes them. They love engaging with people and inviting everyone to be their authentic selves. We all have feelings, visions, and dreams inside of us just waiting to be unleashed.

So remember Rebels, just like Alok says: 

“It doesn’t matter where I end up, what matters is that I was the truest version of myself along the way.”