This story is part of a CNN series I wrote and produced on the Indian diaspora around the world. Read the stories here.
Alok Vaid-Menon is accustomed to standing out.
The 27-year-old transgender performance artist, who prefers to be referred to by the pronoun “they,” has had their identity challenged all their lives.
“People are okay with gender non-conforming people as long as we are entertaining them. The problem comes when we assert ourselves beyond our entertainment value, as full human beings.”
‘Home was a complicated space’
Vaid-Menon’s mother grew up in India’s northern state of Punjab before moving to New York in the late 1960s when her father got a job at a college in the United States.
Born in Malaysia, Vaid-Menon’s father moved to the Indian capital New Delhi in the 1970s before leaving for the US to further his education.
Both parents relocated to Texas in 1986 where there were very few Indians, Vaid-Menon says, but they bonded with other Indians whom they met in the first few years.
Vaid-Menon says the family accepted their child’s uniqueness. “My parents practiced a hands-off approach and led by example. I saw them reading books, keeping up with the news (and) having deep conversations with their friends, so I did it too,” Vaid-Menon tells CNN via email.
Growing up in the predominantly white, conservative town of College Station in eastern Texas was “complicated” for a child who had little in common with neighbors and classmates.
“I was made to feel foreign and unwelcome,” Vaid-Menon says. “Some of my earliest memories involve me being targeted and bullied because I was different from the people around me.”
And although there was a tight-knit Indian community, that had its own complications.
“Within that Indian community, there was a lot of homophobia and transphobia. There was no one space where I could be fully myself. I had to erase some part of me to make other people more comfortable.”
Then Vaid-Menon discovered art. “I started writing poetry when I was a teenager because I needed somewhere to process my pain.”
Moving to New York after college helped Vaid-Menon find kinship.
“I started to work at the Audre Lorde Project, a community organizing center for LGBTQ people of color, and quickly found the people that I had been searching for my entire life.”
“A lot of people ask me where I learned how to perform, but the truth is that I always had to perform in order to get by. I had to learn how to perform ‘boy,’ so people wouldn’t harass me. I had to learn how to perform ‘safe’, so that people wouldn’t fear me.”
While Vaid-Menon is opening up conversations about their sexuality, they are also trying to change the questions that are asked.
“People always want to know about the first time that we ‘knew’ we were different. But at my shows I try to ask, when did you know that you weren’t?”
Vaid-Menon also believes that conversations about LGBTQ people usually miss a major point.
“When people talk about ‘LGBT issues’, they are often speaking about issues facing cisgender gay and lesbian people. Bisexual and transgender people have been regarded as an afterthought.
“Even within the transgender community, those of us who are gender non-conforming are dismissed… because we are told that we are too much or never enough.”
While Vaid-Menon believes that “young people are increasingly challenging arcane gender norm,” they add that pushback comes from those in power.
“The powers that be are threatened by this assertion of trans and non-binary creativity and are trying their best to double down on demeaning and disappearing us. These past few years, we’ve seen an onslaught of terrible anti-trans legislation across the United States.”
“This is an orchestrated backlash against the assertion of our personhood,” Vaid-Menon says.
In fact, they say society also makes it impossible for them to be themselves.
“It’s not only tiring, it’s life-threatening… There are days I want to wear a dress, but I don’t because I know I’m getting home late alone at night. There are days that I want to wear pants, but I won’t because I know that people won’t believe me about my gender and who I say that I am.”
Vaid-Menon describes their identity as “constantly evolving” and doesn’t believe in having a fixed definition of themselves.
“When we define things, we contain them. I am in a constant state of transformation. It depends a lot on who I’m with, where I’m at in my life and what I’m doing.”