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Alok Vaid-MenonIllustration by Photo illustration by The Globe

“Style is visual poetry. It’s a way of communicating who we are – on our own terms,” says American poet and LGBTQ icon Alok Vaid-Menon.

For years, the 32-year-old trans-feminine artist has dedicated their professional career to human-rights activism. With three acclaimed books, an international comedy tour, a fanbase of 1.3 million on Instagram and a cameo on the final season of Sort Of (now streaming on CBC Gem), Vaid-Menon’s mainstream presence continues to demystify and deconstruct the notion of the gender binary.

“What I’ve continually tried to uplift in my work is that trans rights are not a minority issue; they are about everyone. We all benefit from a world beyond the gender binary because it’s a world where we celebrate people for who they are, not who they should be.”

The Globe and Mail spoke with the Beyond the Gender Binary author – while they were back home in New York during a brief break before restarting their comedy world tour in Europe – about leading with love, the ritual of reading and the world they are manifesting.

First, how is the world tour going?

I’ve been touring my comedy show BIOLOGY! across the world for the past two years. At this point, I’ve hit almost 40 countries, and I’m still having the time of my life! It’s a show about many things, but mostly about our shared humanity and how transphobia prevents us from remembering it.

With the show taking you around the globe, is there a place that you just love visiting?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Cape Town, South Africa; it’s the city that first gave birth to the silly idea that I could be a writer when I wrote my first collection of poems [Femme in Public] there years and years ago. It’s genuinely one of the most gorgeous places on Earth – and I don’t just mean the lush flora and fauna; I mean the people, the political movements, the artistry, the scholarship. There is so much to experience there, but some musts are strolling around Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, eating Cape-Malay food in Bo-Kaap, seeing great art at Youngblood café, maybe a sunset dinner at the Bungalow. I’m getting nostalgic thinking about it now.

Does music feature in your creative process?

I started writing when I was a teenager in my bedroom with all the lights turned off, listening to my favourite emo bands, like Colour Green by Sibylle Baier and Plans by Death Cab for Cutie. I still return to some of those albums to get me in the mood to write. I travel a lot, so music is a grounding practice that allows me to feel rooted enough to write – be it in a hotel room, on a train or in a car. Before I write, I just sit there and soak up the music, and usually, I cry. It’s not always about sadness; it’s about wonder. Like, “Wow, someone in the world made this magical thing” that is so human, precious and beautiful. I’m astonished and humbled – and I want to give that gift of amazement back to the world. In a world structured by so much dehumanization, art can do the opposite of that, remind us how fragile and fabulous it is to be human.

As you said, ‘Style is visual poetry.’ What fashion designers or labels keep drawing you back?

I really love Indian fashion brands like Papa Don’t Preach, NorBlack NorWhite, Bodice and Jodi Life. My hack is to focus less on what clothes look like and more on how they make me feel. If I don’t feel ecstatic, then I’m not interested! Life is far too difficult to not intentionally cultivate delight when and where you can.

So, what is always inside your beauty bag?

Because I’m in glam so much for work, my day-to-day look is quite simple. I’ll always have moisturizer, sunscreen and lip gloss on me. Also, a Theragun [hand-held massager] and a Nintendo Switch – relaxation and fun are also beautiful!

Even though you are regularly the target of awful, dehumanizing abuse (both online and IRL), what’s remarkable is how you choose to respond with love. Can we dig deeper into that?

How we treat people [reflects] what we think about ourselves. I know that it has nothing to do with me. People who feel compelled to judge and condemn other people for their appearances have unresolved insecurities about themselves. I’m just caught in the crossfires of their internal war. These people do not believe they are worth of joy, freedom, peace – would rather waste their time hating me. I feel mercy – their life is worth so much more than that. I believe they are worth so much more than hatred.

Do you remember a time when you started to show yourself compassion?

There are so many. During quarantine, I returned to my childhood home in Texas for almost a year. I would wake up every morning looking at the same ceiling where I grew up as a suicidal teenager. In the quiet of it all, I did a lot of retracing of my life and how I survived. And I found so much compassion for myself, so much context of why I made the decisions I did when I was younger, and a profound sense of integration. It helped me better see everyone around me as complex works of art.

You’re an avid reader. How does getting cozy with a book help you chill or escape?

Every time I have a conversation with someone – and they mention a book that moved them – I write it down and add it to my to-read list, which, at this point, has hundreds of titles. I’ve been working my way through it for years, so I’ll jump from contemporary fiction to poetry to history to theory – it keeps me on my toes. All of it feels relaxing to me. Reading is one of the first rituals I had in my life. From a young age, I learned that we get lost in books to get found in ourselves. Learning is the most thrilling part of being alive.

Finally, what kind of world are you manifesting?

One in which everyone is able to pursue the truest version of themselves. One in which we celebrate complexity. One in which we affirm the sacredness of everyone – and everything.

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