Alok Is Pushing Art And Activism Beyond The Gender Binary

To read about the rest of the Culture Shifters, including comedian Bowen Yang and entrepreneur Erica Chidi, return to the full list here.

When I last saw Alok, we broke bread at a candlelit dinner of fellow artists to discuss creative blocks. We spoke over an exquisite meal prepared by host and chef Lucien Zayan, who is the founder of Invisible Dog Art Center in New York City, a space where Alok has produced evocative, mesmerizing performances. I first witnessed the fierce, poetic beauty of Alok’s powerful presence in their show “LOVE HURTS”; the way they threaded together movement, poetry, technology and music reverberated long afterward.

Today, Alok must share their multitudinous selves — a 29-year-old nonbinary performer, poet, writer, public intellectual, activist and fashion icon — virtually. The breadth of their art has not diminished in this period, and Alok continually creates a world of abundance online. Their Instagram is a site of artistic and political revelation, where every post is embedded with care, vulnerability and truth. Their series of Book Reports showcases the breadth of their reading, teaching us about historic subjects of interest, like the history of Black dandyism or colonial eugenics. As they work as a continual advocate and organizer to raise funds for social justice campaigns, often centered on the livelihoods of trans folks of color, Alok has modeled for numerous brands and magazines, flexing their exquisite sense of fashion and vivid, unapologetic embodiment of femme.

“What society sees as academia, activism, art, theater, none of those matter as distinctions to me,” Alok said in a video call. “I feel like, I’m more genre nonconforming than gender nonconforming. So many people foreground my gender. That’s just so boring to me, because truly, the only identity that I’ve ever chosen for myself is artist.”

But how does it feel to be deprived of performing for a live audience, which is so intrinsic to their artistry?

“I genuinely thought that I would be in a deep kind of mourning that I wouldn’t be able to perform and travel anymore because those were so intrinsic to my life for the past eight years. What I actually found out — I was built for this shit. I know how to pick up and leave and build again. So, I just started to read. I’ve read almost 200 books. It gives me the same thrill as when I’m performing.”

As they continue to expand their intellectual and artistic endeavors, they’ve redefined the fashion landscape with their Instagram campaign #DegenderFashion, a call to banish the binary from clothing. In a talk at the Business of Fashion Voices in 2019, they declared, “Gender neutrality is not the death of fashion — it is the renaissance of fashion.” Asserting the beauty and lushness of body hair with #NothingWrongHair, a movement to decolonize Eurocentric, toxic notions of hairlessness as feminine or superior, they invite folks to share their own photos of hair, free and without judgment.

Alok and I traced back to an earlier conversation about beauty, how misogyny and femmephobia invades political resistance movements, renders beauty silly or irrelevant.

“Beauty is one of the least superficial things in the world,” Alok said. “Beauty is actually the substance of how people survive despite attempted genocides. Beauty then, is not actually about what we physically look like, it’s about a spiritual zeitgeist that allows us to continue to justify living in a world that sanctions us for dead.”

“I’m really trying to get people to realize, it’s not that ‘nonbinary people are new,’” Alok added. “It’s that gender-variant people, every century, have templated forms of living, loving and looking that were so revolutionary, so glamorous, with such splendor, that they had to be forcibly annihilated and extinguished because of their potentiality. The gift of transness is one of potentiality and metamorphosis. We actually show the world that transformation is not only possible, but that it is happening all around you.”

Alok was born and raised in College Station, Texas, a university town about 75 minutes outside of Houston. It is a place that summons common stereotypes about Texas, which they describe as a “strong kind of Confederate pride, a deep Christian evangelicalism, virulent racism and heteronormativity.” They spent 10 months of the past year living in College Station, a surreal, healing revisitation to childhood, during which they often felt disassociated and depressed. Yet, this return let them reimagine their formative years and explore home as new psychic terrain, beyond the specter of trauma.

“I searched so deeply for spaces, interactions, people, moments, ruptures, where I could actually feel like I was alive. Now I understand that my disassociation and other tongues could be understood as daydreaming,” Alok said. “A kind of 18-year residency in dreaming.”

Growing up, they lived within the “concentric circles” of an Indian, mostly Hindu, privileged upper-caste community, and a white conservative Republican milieu, along with other professors’ kids. In high school, as a precocious child immersed in feminist intellectual spaces, they’d tell people they wanted to major in women’s studies.

“The idea of feminist study was so important to me as a young person. Because it really made me realize that nothing was natural — it was naturalized. From the age of 3 or 4, I knew I had to protect my magic. Because I didn’t have words around gender at the time. I knew there was something about me that was different,” Alok said. “I didn’t know what it was, but if people found out, they could kill me. And so, because of that, I basically schemed, I was like, OK, I need to study. I need to plan. I need to strategize.”

“I have a new narrative where I’m like — I was a badass who was an organizer of culture and emotion and strategy. Who envisioned the person that I’ve become today.”

Alok is the author of the books “Femme in Public,” a poetry collection, and “Beyond the Gender Binary,” an educational guide published by Penguin’s Pocket Change Collective. Presently, they’re working on a new, self-published poetry collection, as well as formulating their magnum opus, a literary work they’ve been pondering for eight years.

“I see my job as a poet, as a death doula to basically account for the dead,” Alok said. “And a lot of that work was inspired by the passing of my grandfather and realizing, death is a ritual that no one taught me. I need to teach it to the world, because we’re talking about the devastation of a pandemic now, but we’re not actually talking about: Where does all that grief go?”

Alok counts among their inspirations late queer luminaries, like queen of disco Sylvester or writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag. In one of their readings about the tumultuous history of crossdressing legislation, Alok discovered a transfeminine foremother, an indigenous Mexican cavalry worker in the 1870s Southwest named Ms. Nash.

“I have an unshakeable sense of why I exist,” they said. “The reason that I exist came to me as I was reading history. I just really feel like, my best friends are dead. I truly feel like there have been people who have walked this earth before me, who were the people I was supposed to meet, waiting for me, my entire life. We write for people who don’t exist yet. We write so that they can exist. Because in a fundamental way, books produced me, they gave birth to me. And the dead created me … we’ve been born from the dead forever.”

By rooting themselves in this sacred ancestral trans tradition, Alok radically redefines what it means to be a descendant of a lineage that exists beyond blood or property or time, and they’ve come to see their own life and art as a memorial to their trans ancestors.

“Trans life ruptures every one of those paradigms, because what I’m actually saying is: Ms. Nash was my mother. I don’t know this person. We’re not connected by blood. I have an affinity with this person — I am living as her child,” Alok said. “What that means is I need to live the life that she couldn’t. My job is to produce the images, the words, the sensations, the spaces to curate the kind of conversation, exhibitions — to make freedom real.”

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