“I’m actually very funny and charming and adorable, but people usually don’t laugh because they think they’re being transphobic. So for the next 50 or so minutes, you are allowed to laugh at me. Otherwise I might shank you,” Alok Vaid-Menon announced to a crowd of students in Lutkin Hall Friday night.
It’s this kind of sharp, political humor that has landed Vaid-Menon, a non-gender-conforming performance artist, into National Geographic, The New York Times and The New Yorker, as well as an HBO documentary titled The Trans List. That same sense of humor caught the attention of Northwestern’s South Asian Student Alliance and Asian and Pacific American Coalition, the groups that brought Vaid-Menon to speak at Northwestern.
Medill sophomore Nirmal Mulaikal, a SASA board member, said that the organizations brought Vaid-Menon, hoping to offer a fresh perspective on transgender and Asian American issues.
“Alok was interesting,” Mulaikal said. “They’re unlike anyone we’ve heard from before.”
Vaid-Menon did not disappoint. They fired off jokes rapidly, about everything from Donald Trump to white feminism to the problematic representation of trans women via Caitlyn Jenner to the differences between public toilets in India and the United States.
Vaid-Menon’s material reverses some of the racism and petty micro-aggressions that are familiar to many Asians and Asian Americans.
“All these white singers, what is up with their names?” Vaid-Menon joked. “How do you say these? Kah-tay Puary? J-J-J-Justin BurbBurbBurb?”
However, the conversation became serious as Vaid-Menon turned to the topic of the gender binary.
“The nature of gender is non-binary and fluid. If you think you are the binary, you are the exception – not me,” Vaid-Menon said. “The idea of transgender men and women is not a new one. We used to be worshipped before the British colonized India. Now nearly 50 percent [of transgender people] have attempted suicide because our families pretend like we are new, as if we haven’t been around for years.”
Vaid-Menon revealed that the harshest harassment they received was from other South Asians: from the “Indian bros,” from Vaid-Menon’s own father and grandmother.
“I spent my entire life being scared of my own people,” Vaid-Menon said. “My grandma thought that me being trans was something I did just to hurt her. But when she was dying, I made sure to show up on her bedside every day.”
However, Vaid-Menon doesn’t assign blame.
“[My grandma] telling me that I was her biggest disappointment in life – but that was not my oppression, that was hers,” Vaid-Menon said. “It’s less about good guys versus bad guys. We’re all being oppressed.”
Vaid-Menon believes many Asian Americans have lost their ability to express their pain.
“I wonder what it’ll be like to have the language to speak about mental health,” Vaid-Menon said. “Sometimes, I think my dad resents me, not because I’m trans, but because I’m honest and he can’t be.”
Mental health is an issue in the Asian American community, as more Asian American women have contemplated suicide than the general U.S. population. Because of cultural values and language barriers, many suffer in silence. Vaid-Menon wants to fight to give the language to express pain back to their father and other Asian Americans.
“I think to be Asian American is to be surrounded by unhappiness, but we’ve been taught that the only way to express our sadness is through white culture. You can’t be sad and Asian. I was an emo kid growing up. I listened to a ton of Avril Lavigne, and I would show up to her concerts in my then-girlfriend’s skinny jeans,” Vaid-Menon confessed. “I want to be the Avril Lavigne for sad Asian girls.”
Their message resonated with many students, including Jane Yun, a Medill sophomore and APAC member.
“I wanted to both laugh and cry,” Yun said. “There’s a lot I have to think through.”
During a Q&A panel moderated by Asian American Studies professor Doug Ishii, Vaid-Menon encouraged Northwestern students to increase dialogue surrounding Asian American and transgender issues, both on campus and nationally.
“Robin Hood this shit – this place comes with legitimacy,” Ishii said. “When you say these words, people take it more seriously. Take the ideas that are dismissed as too leftist and make it mainstream.”
Vaid-Menon added, “We are in a state of emergency. We have to treat it as such. About 30 trans women are murdered each year, and those are the only the ones we know about. People are dying, and we don’t even know how many.”
APAC and SASA will host a debriefing session about gender and sexuality this Tuesday, Oct. 24, at 5:30 p.m. in the Black House.
Editor's note: the author is a member of APAC.