“The Intersection of South Asian and LGBTQ Identity: How Alok Vaid-Menon Makes Me Proud of the Brown and Queer”

When I learned that SAYHU was going to co-host a performance by Alok Vaid-Menon at UH, I was ecstatic. Alok’s work has been such an inspiring, shining example of what it means to be visibly queer and visibly brown. I have been following their work since their days in the poetry duo Darkmatter back in 2014. After years of reading their poetry, watching their videos on gender non-conformity and what it means to be trans (even during our summer institute), and of course, following their Instagram to see their amazing outfits… I was going to have the privilege of meeting Alok, one of my biggest role models, in how they express themselves so freely.
March 19, the day that Alok came to UH, was such a whirlwind of a day. Not only had I survived some of my worst midterm assignments, I was about to meet one of my favorite people (who I had never met before). Their performance was so invigorating. This might sound hyperbolic, but it I’m not exaggerating when I say their performance gave me the will to live, at least to see the end of this semester, too. I had been going through a rough patch at the time, really suffering from academic imposter syndrome. Once they were on stage, it felt like the Student Center Theater melted away. I sat in the front row and everything else was behind me. All I could see was what was in front of me: Alok, in a red dress with matching red lipstick, wearing thigh-high boots with a “practical” 6-inch heel, as they said. I knew what they were about to say would give me life. Give me hope. Give me strength. The whooshing they created with an instrument that sampled and looped recordings of themselves blowing into their microphone convinced my ears they were hearing wind. I got goosebumps as it took me away to another place for the next two hours.
I laughed, cried, and gasped out loud as Alok spoke their truth. From being lactose intolerant but still indulging in ice cream, to calling out all the Katy Perrys and Hillary Clintons of the world who have co-opted the movements of black and brown folks, to having to grow up as Indian-American in a conservative town after 9/11… Why did this have to be so painfully relatable? Seeing Alok be so real about the ways in which they have been wronged made me wonder: Why are we expected to carry this pain with us silently, because a “model minority” is expected to internalize all of this trauma?
The lack of visibility in terms of representation of the intersection of queer and South Asian is a space where all of this pain seems so go unseen and unheard. It was refreshing to see this experience embraced and understood. Alok’s presence as a South Asian, gender-nonconforming performance artists reassures me that I do have a place in this world, whether that is in or outside of academia. I know it must not have been easy for them to come back to Texas after all the trauma they had experienced here in this state as someone who is South Asian and gender-nonconforming; both of those identities are marked as “other,” so that they are something to fear. But things are gradually changing. They must be because Alok was able to come to Texas and give a shoutout to all the “queer, southern babies” in the crowd. I grew up in El Paso, Alok grew up in College Station. Knowing that they are Malayali just like me, queer, femme, and unapologetically so makes me so proud of who they are. It also makes me proud of who I am. After all, as they said while reading from their book Femme in Public, “We are all we have.”
Joshlyn Thomas, SAYHU Cohort One