Five questions with social justice activist and artist Alok Vaid-Menon
Photo Credit: Bryan Chen
What was it like growing up?
I grew up in a small town in Texas which was overwhelmingly white and conservative. I thought that all queer people were white and never thought I could be a queer South Asian. It would be easy for me to dwell on how hard it was to experience racism, gender policing, and religion shaming in a post 9-11 climate, but I think in comparison to many I had it quite well. My family’s caste, religious, and class privilege meant that the brunt of oppression I faced was psychological. Fortunately, I grew up in a family of Indian leftists who taught me early on how to be critical of power and the importance of sharing our politics.
How did you come out?
I don’t really identify with the traditional ‘coming out’ narrative. My family and community always knew that I was ‘queer’ before I had the language (in English) to express it. I used to belly dance at all of the Indian dinner parties, only wear my sister’s clothing, and hang out with all of the girls. There was always a space for me in my community to be queer and that quiet acceptance is something that I hold dear. When I did decide to use words to express myself my family was gracious and accepting. My dad even said, “Finally!”
What has been your inspiration in life?
My inspiration in life have been the radical activists of color from Sylvia Rivera to the members of the Ghadar Party to the Black Panthers who resisted capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy before me in order to pave the way for my generation. I am indebted to the tireless struggle of our ancestors who resisted white supremacy, to our mothers who continue to resist violence, and to our comrades who continue to resist US sponsored state terrorism and islamaphobia. Activism gives me a reservoir of hope and a conviction to fight back and make the world a better place.
What has been some of your greatest achievements?
My greatest achievement has involved rejecting the middle class model minority Hindu fundamentalist upbringing my community raised me with which means that I refuse to be silent. I am building a life that is about measuring my worth by my resistance and not by how much money I make. In that struggle I have made some of the most brilliant friends and comrades. Through my role as a poet with DarkMatter (darkmatterrage.com) and an activist with the Audre Lorde Project (alp.org) I have been able to help radicalize and mobilize other (queer) people of color to get involved with the resistance.
What is your message to the world?
It’s not going to “get better” unless we fight like hell to make it better. We have to unlearn all the lies we grew up with that our families, schools, and governments taught us about ‘change’ and ‘progress.’ We have to refuse to apologize for our identities, wants, desires, and dreams. Nothing in this world will change unless we rise up against injustice. It’s not enough to fight for ‘equality’ for ourselves: ‘gay rights’ will mean nothing for the majority of us. We have to fight in solidarity with all oppressed peoples and that includes resisting the co-optation of our identities and struggles by the Western world in service of their imperialist agendas.
Alok Vaid-Menon is an activist and artist based in Brooklyn, New York. For more information on Alok check out their website: http://returnthegayze.tumblr.com/