On Thursday, March 4, the Center for Student Engagement and the Campus Events Board hosted a Zoom lecture with ALOK Vaid-Menon as part of Culture Week, which runs from March 1 to March 5.
ALOK is a gender non-conforming writer, artist, speaker and performer. Their work explores themes of gender, sexuality, mental health and identity, and they have written two books: 2017’s “Femme in Public” and 2020’s “Beyond the Gender Binary.”
First, ALOK discussed the current violence against the trans community, including different legislations around the United States.
“What we can see across all of this is an unprecedented assault against trans and nonconforming life,” ALOK said.
ALOK shared a story about the early stages of the modern gay rights movement, focusing on Sylvia Rivera, a transgender activist who was also criminalized for her gender nonconforming expression in clothing. In telling this story, ALOK pointed out the ongoing history of trans and gender nonconforming people.
“What the crisis is is that we’ve politicized one piece of fabric … clothing has no inherent gender,” ALOK said.
ALOK discussed sentiments against trans and nonconforming people in society, such as the gendered perceptions about biology or history in erasing trans identities.
“This was never about science; this has always been about power,” ALOK said.
ALOK spoke about moving beyond the gender binary, an ideal which means individuals deciding their own gender in terms of what makes sense to each individual person, the freedom to choose gender as well as gender expression.
In discussing the gender norms in America, ALOK challenged participants to think about places in their own lives where they have felt societal pressures, such as wearing perceived gender-specific items of clothing.
“Make gender about creative self-fulfillment, about self-authorship,” ALOK said.
ALOK also spoke about the feelings of self-fulfillment of expression in trans identities, even when larger society may not understand.
“Trans existence is a well-manicured middle finger to the entire universe,” ALOK said.
ALOK also discussed speaking about gender in terms of shared values, such as values of freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Especially in Texas, where ALOK grew up, and in the South as its own section of American society, shared values are helpful in productive conversations about gender.
“It’s our revolutionary love that will help us win … we’re part of a sacred legacy of people that chose love over fear,” ALOK said.
Then, the lecture moved into a more general, free-flowing conversation between participants, which allowed the audience to ask questions as well.
In this portion, ALOK talked about the perception that trans people are weak or that they deserve pity from society, a harmful and untrue concept in itself.
“We don’t need to be rescued, we need you to remove your hand from our neck, there’s a difference,” ALOK said.
Dr. Deborah Penchoff, director of the Scientific Fellows Program at UT, asked ALOK about how to have these tough discussions with people that seem unwilling to take accountability.
“How can you create an environment that is positive enough to bring in these parties?” Penchoff said.
“Accountability is a gift when you’re actually interested in justice,” ALOK said.
The last event in Culture Week is the CEB Cultural Celebration, which takes place from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. March 5 in the Student Union Plaza.