Alok, the transfeminine writer and performance artist, writes poetry that expands and materializes the abstract nature of the foundational queer and feminist theorist Judith Butler’s theory on gender as a collection of performances, enacting ideas like those found in feminist disability studies, with thinkers like Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. Performance theory is commonly understood as an explanation of binary gender expression as composed of learned performances and signals rather than natural, inner essences in individuals (McCann). However, does Butler leave enough room to discuss the bodies themselves, underneath the signals, apparatuses, and performances that constitute a gender? There may not be universal inner essences that violently protect the binary, but I argue that each person does have an inner essence of their own. Additionally, the way folx are perceived, their gender as a huge part of this, is related to race, femininity, and body type. As Butler theorizes, gender and sexuality are not linked, but we must delve further into the real-world consequences of different gender performances and the bodies underneath.
Alok’s poetry creates a space for this work. They are a gender-nonconforming thinker, speaker, and spoken word artist, and they help me answer questions and ask new questions about where I feel Butler falls short. How do differences in bodies affect the signals, the way we perform and how our performance is registered, or affect the way we feel about ourselves generally? For example, my own life experience includes a hypercritical view of my body as one without a flat stomach. One that has gained weight, one that wants to let its body hair grow as a more feminine person. I try to accept myself, and the structures presented make it hard. In Alok’s poem, “anatomy lessons,” they dive into the word “hard,” how it rightfully brings physicality to these feelings. They are real, not abstract (Your Wound 7).
Bringing in Alok’s voice, one that makes space for feeling, along with some thoughts from Garland-Thomson in feminist disability studies, I want to explore how radical love and self-love fits in here, in the questions about the bodies under the performances. One of Alok’s messages they repeat often is that we do not have to understand to have compassion. In our world, people give up and judge before seeing others as fellow humans. If we relinquish some control, sometimes, and just see where love fits in on this hunk of rock called Earth, that could help someone like me—who knows logically that my body is perfectly OK as it is—take a break from the constant critique and inner back and forth dialogue, in order to move forward. Alok’s radical love and appreciation for themself can bring more color into black and white ideas of gender performance that can not only help us understand how our structures work, but also help us take care of ourselves within—or without—these structures. The feminine beauty ideal is brutal, constant, and difficult to negotiate with or break out of. Alok’s love also comes in the form of raw vulnerability, anger, and fear. After everything they have been through in hostile environments, they still emit pure love into the world, and this is something Butler can learn from, to expand their theory to include the nuance of perception and the individuality of gender, while also theorizing ways to make genderqueer lives more livable. Finally, intertwined with this will also be thoughts on poetry in general as a space for radical feeling, exploration, destruction, and revision.
I have anxiety about my body that I distinctly feel in my body. I feel it in my chest. But in the moments I can truly love myself, I feel quiet and peaceful. I am sure many other feminine bodies are caught in this struggle. I witness it around my own family and friends every day. It is important to dive into this struggle and theorize about it in a way that can improve conditions. What Alok teaches us and adds to the conversation can change the world. I will show this through their poetry.
First, I want to lay the groundwork for feminist disability studies with these quotes from Garland-Thomson’s work. In her essay, “Feminist Disability Studies,” she brings Judith Butler into the conversation, citing them as a feminist theorist who has “made a strong but often abstract argument for strict constructivism that often neutralizes bodies” (1581). In contrast, Garland-Thomson references biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, who “addresses how [performance theory] actually operates on the materiality of living bodies” (1581). This is my endeavor as well, using Alok’s voice to guide me. Garland-Thomson also discusses fat studies:
Fat studies is an emerging field that draws primarily from feminist and disability theory. The abundant scholarship on the slenderness imperative critiques the ways femininity disciplines and pathologizes the female body. The newest scholarship on fatness similarly challenges oppressive body size norms, but it adds a feminist element that slenderness analyses cannot: that is, fat pride as a kind of transgressive positive identity politics. New scholarly work in fat studies uses disability theory to examine the stigmatizing of female fat. (1582)
I argue that this encompasses feminine bodies as a whole. Alok, transfeminine and not afraid to not be slender, is often misgendered as a man and mistreated for trying to be feminine, Brown, and hairy all at once. Fat studies and feminist disability studies work together to theorize about how life can be more livable, beyond the abstract. Through this work, we all can “reimagine more deeply what it means to have a dynamic and distinct body that witnesses its own perpetual interaction with the social and material environment” (Garland-Thomson 1582).
Now, it is time to dive into Alok’s poetry and see how these ideas are explored and how they culminate. The poem referenced earlier, “anatomy lessons” from their chapbook Your Wound / My Garden, shows not only a separation between what we are taught and what is true, but it also shows how the body is more connected to the world than many think. At the end, Alok writes, “One day—when I die, rewind the heart attack. What / power precipitated it? Unfurl the tumor. What policy / prescribed it? Dissect the culture, not just my corpse. / Diagnose the world. Hold one big stethoscope to its / heart. Listen” (8). Their gentle yet firm call to listen is backed by powerful, real feelings. Alok refuses to believe that their pain is their fault.
This connects to a powerful piece in Femme in Public, entitled “massage.” Alok tells the story of the old White woman who massages him. Within this story is a story of the masseuse’s; she tells Alok about a client who came to her, in pain, not knowing the source. But as Susan dug deeper, her client remembered an assault she endured:
Susan sat there with that stranger and I’m pretty sure they / breathed the same air and I’m sure her cat meowed and / her clock on the wall ticked as she wrote “I believe you” / with her elbow on that woman’s back. / Susan tells me that her job as a masseuse is not necessarily / to get rid of the pain, but rather to bear witness to it. To / recognize it. To affirm it. She says that we live in a / country — a world — that teaches us at every level that / our hurt is a story we made up. And we internalize that to / our core and write it into every muscle in our body. “I am / wrong, I am wrong, I am wrong.” She says that sometimes / people just need to hear that what happened to them was / not their fault. (35).
This deep dive into the affirmation of pain, undoing guilt, is a necessary move. Alok’s poetry is one big unraveling. From their poem “trans/ generation,” they write, “can i tell you what it means for an entire body to be a / wound? / can i show you what it feels like to watch a gender rewind / itself?” (Femme 24). The pain is immense, but so is the power, and they use it to find the truth and love underneath the structures and conditioning. Alok, in their poem “here / there,” shows that a mantra is necessary for something as constant as this: “but what i do not see i still feel / but what i do not see i still feel” (Your Wound 22).
These are the bodies underneath the performances. We can discuss Alok’s gender, how they wear dresses in public, how it does not connect to their sexuality; but we are missing so much love and pain in that conversation if we do not truly take into account the body that is interacting with the world and what this means for that body. Performance theory needs to work together with feminist disability studies, fat studies, and people like Alok to both dissect the structures, create new ones, and make the current ones more livable for the time being so people like Alok can both survive and thrive.
A theme that permeates Alok’s poetry is dissociation from the body. This is essential to discuss when it comes to performance because we are dealing with bodies and minds that feel like they need to be separate in order to survive. In their poem “my body: an american horror story,” they write, “i drew an outline of my pain in chalk / on the floor of that office / & on the other side there was a body — / she told me it was mine” (Your Wound 10). This poem tells the story of Alok only realizing they have a body when the doctor asks where it hurts. This childlike tone and memory further the purity of the feeling, showing how we do not need fancy words to express something as raw and as real as this. In their poem aptly titled “dissociation,” they write, “I became the apostrophes themselves, / floating above, / always at a distance. I learned how to / exist in two places at once. Time travel was a Thursday / afternoon. Because the present didn’t belong to me, I / lived in the future” (Your Wound 15). The title of this poem on the page seems to float away, just like Alok has sometimes feels like they are floating away from themself. How useful is performance theory for people like Alok, who already understand and deconstruct the gender binary every day of their lives? How useful is theorizing about a body that partly feels like it is not even there?
So much of what Alok experiences is political because it intersects with their race, for example. This influences their performance, and how their performances make them feel about themself. In their poem “identity blues,” they write, “we have always been made to feel foreign in our own bodies — / a guest overstaying welcome, / a resident of a place we are constantly reminded we don’t belong to / isn’t diaspora its own form of dysphoria?” (Femme 21). Invoking the term diaspora, and relating it to dysphoria, is an extremely powerful and political move that shows not only their insistence to connect all aspects of their identity, but also the intense pain they feel. Those words are heavy, and Alok uses them purposefully.
Their pain has to do with separation: a separation between their mind and body, a separation between a body that is loved and hated, a separation between what they want to be and what the world tells them they are. In Alok’s poem “street tax,” which is a letter to the people who harass them on street, they state, “your word versus my body / your world versus my [ ] / who wins?” (Femme 10). Alok’s body is constantly clashing with something, and it is not their fault. It is verbal abuse versus their body, to the point where they feel blankness, like they cannot have a world in the same way as privileged bodies, which they express through empty brackets. This violence, whether physical or emotional, needs to be considered in performance theory to take it further and theorize change and livable conditions. In their poem “the bible belt,” Alok talks about a trans person who passed away. She is deadnamed and misgendered, and Alok solemnly preaches “that ‘rest in peace’ / is a luxury only afforded to bodies / whose violence ends with death” (Femme 29). The violence extends past the human life, past the social life, and into the afterlife, whatever that may be. Alok struggles to witness a world like this. In their poem “confessional,” they write, “i wish i could “love myself” out of systemic / oppression. trauma is a structure, not a feeling” (Femme 16). I will dive into Alok’s thoughts on love soon in the essay, but it is important to note that they recognize it is not truly enough—at least self-love—to save them and others. Alok’s love does, however, improve conditions in a soulful, connective way which is one of the reasons why it needs to be discussed. They create a space for respite. All this considered, Butler’s ideas need to be expanded. The separation that communicates that a person is not as real as they feel they are has material, severe consequences. Queer theory cannot further the pain its people are experiencing.
On the other hand, when Alok does feel grounded in themself, they battle feelings like the one expressed in their poem “pronouns:” “Being / trans means existing in the underbelly of language / … Always doing, never being” (Your Wound 20). When they do exist, they feel like they cannot quite reach what cisgender people can. The “Always doing, never being” sentiment feels strikingly familiar to Butler’s ideas about performance. If gender is something you do, not something you are, how can we reconcile this with Alok’s pain? I think Butler is right but only in a way that deconstructs the binary as is. What is after that? What can help people like Alok thrive? I think Alok has an inner essence that has been stifled by the binary, expectations, and the framework of performance. It is exhausting to feel like your most precious self is not seen as real, but rather as a behavior. This needs to be taken into consideration to expand ideas around performance.
Thus far we have explored how Alok deconstructs the idea of a body in their own poetry, showing the pain, dissociation, and entrapment that they experience. Now, I want to turn to specific places where Alok challenges beauty standards and embraces their own beauty, because it is important to set up this foundation for the discussion about love. In the beginning of their chapbook Femme in Public, Alok asks a question that I have heard them ask many times: “what feminine part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world?” (1). Reflecting on the answer to their own question, Alok writes, “what would it mean to own my body? what would it mean to have a self beyond my body?…what would it mean to have people say ‘i’m here’ instead of ‘you’re fabulous?’ what would it mean to no longer have to be fabulous to survive?” (1). Here, the idea of the body and the idea of beauty intersect. Because of expectations and pressures, Alok has felt like their body is not theirs. In trying to make it feel like theirs, they have sometimes only felt valuable when they are seen as fabulous. Alok is calling out this problematic behavior that actually furthers the binary, still stigmatizing Alok as abnormal in their genderqueer performance and essence.
Their beauty is a negotiation, but Alok realizes in “grammar lessons” that they can never really fix the explicit or implicit violence through explanations: “The body is three-dimensional language. Beauty is / the harshest editor. I could spend the rest of my life / articulating every detail, every grain, every follicle. And / still they would not understand. Because of what I look / like. No. Because of what they feel about what I look like” (Your Wound 18). Alok makes a consistent, powerful move in their poetry, acknowledging that so much of what they experience is not actually about themself, but about the unresolved feelings they innocently provoke in others. Still, amidst all of this resilience and foresight, Alok struggles. They have parts of themself that need validation. In “promise me,” they write, “Promise me that you see the femme in my hairy body. / Promise that you see the femme in my brown body” (Femme 13). This emotional poem, full of anaphora, again employs an element that feels innocent and pure, imbued with pain and hope. Amidst it all, Alok is able to love themself unconditionally. In their poem “our tremendous beauty,” they share that they finally found their own tremendous beauty “here: / in all of the places i was taught to hate, / here: / in all of the curves & creases, / bulges & breaches, here: / in this body, not theirs” (Your Wound 50). Through this, we can learn how to be honest and raw about our issues with our world, while also finding space to love ourselves despite it. This honesty and experience need more space in Butler’s theory.
Thus far, we have looked at how Alok, through their intimate poetry, discusses their qualms, hopes, fears, and loves about their body and the world it exists in. How does the way in which Alok is able to not only love themself, but also love others, especially those who target them, emphasize and boost their writing? Through the following examples, we will be able to see an impressive sense of unconditional love and compassion everyone can learn from.
In Alok’s poem “the deepest breath,” they imagine being at the funeral of someone they do not know: “when they ask how i knew her? / i will smile through the tears / ‘i didn’t’ / but / i loved her / because, once upon a time / she breathed. which means that the particles that touched / the deepest parts of her, she exhaled them / & somehow they found their way to me” (Your Wound 43). This is a common theme in Alok’s work. They are able to connect with others through the simple fact of humanity, which connects back to their poem “massage” discussed earlier in the essay and their daily encouragement to decide to have compassion for someone even if you do not understand them. Similarly, in their own home life, they talk about their grandmother and the space between them in their poem “trans/ generation.” Although she does not understand Alok, and this hurts them, they resolve that they “will not blame her for her own violence” (Femme 25). Instead, in solidarity, they join her in not smiling for the family photos, determined to stay connected amidst disconnection. Here, Alok truly practices what they preach, exemplifying the kind of compassion they wish for themself. While this golden rule is something we all learn about as kids—to treat others the way we want to be treated—it is not easy in the slightest for the victim of hate, abuse, and ignorance to be kind and open to people who hurt them. Our heteronormative society sets Alok’s body and mind up for failure, but they challenge this every day, making a difference for other queer folx, inspiring them to find moments of peace and power in the same way.
The number of places we can find examples of Alok’s love for others is a testament in itself to the immensity of love, care, and intention inside this human. In their poem “funeral,” when a woman claims that someone committed suicide in an inconvenient way by stalling the train, Alok says, “i want to hug her / say: remind me the purpose of ‘arm’ / want to love her / say: remind me the purpose of ‘heart’” (Femme 42-43). Alok is trying to bring compassion back into the daily language of life. Diving back into their poem “street tax,” Alok writes, “i need you to understand: / you were a stranger on the street but in that moment / you were every person in my life who wanted to love me / but ended up hurting me instead” (Femme 5). We can tell through their work that they have a deep belief in the humanity of others, something that I as a reader and human struggle with when confronting hate and willful ignorance. It is admirable as a radiating force of positivity in a way that is not toxic, but refreshing and healing. Alok does not just ask for vulnerability. They provide it as a leading example, as in their poem “care is our natural state:” “what if love, then, is the organizing force of the universe? / … i love & need you because i am honest” (Your Wound 51). For Alok to express that they need love in general, and need the love of their fellow humans who are doing the work of the oppressor, is a momentous expression of vulnerability. Furthermore, in their poem “fill,” they express a vulnerable sentiment in a similar way: “i wish we needed each other / i wish we could be more honest, / i am scared to death of love” (Femme 39). This sensitivity and intimacy can add to the conversation around performance theory and genderqueerness in general, in addition to shaping individual lives for the better.
Considering all of this, Alok is still firm in their assertions of self-love. They can love people without accepting their behavior, challenging them to be better. In their title poem “your wound in my garden,” they assert, “i am not a statue in your courtyard. / … you cannot bear to see it: / how i have made home here in your shame. / … you don’t know who you are without me. / i know who i am without you. / (this is why you hate me.) / (this is why i love you.) / your wound is my garden, / i have found life here in the places you have left for dead. / watch me bloom” (Your Wound 47-48). Even in this assertion, there is room for them to express love. They defy the self-inscribed right of bullies and wounded people to define them but can still extend tenderness in their direction. The peace in this gesture can be as life-saving to other genderqueer people as it has been for Alok, which is why it needs to be interwoven into discussions of gender performance.
By delving into Alok’s poetry chapbooks, we can see many of their poems experimenting with form, but a lot of the work reads like prose poetry and spoken word pieces. How does this add to the ideas discussed? Poetry, as a place of expression and experimentation, is the perfect place for Alok to direct their energy toward. Not only this, but the spoken word aspect—and Alok as a performance artist—also shows how these words need to be spoken. These ideas and feelings need to be taken off the page, listened to, confronted, and hugged, and Alok does this in their daily life, expanding ideas of gender performance through different kinds of performances and ways of existing of their own.
In their poem “impossible lives,” Alok asks the question, “What if this world was just one draft?” (Your Wound 46). We should take this sentiment to heart, let it swell in our minds and bodies, and decide what we will explore, ditch, or revise, and how we will do it. We should not be afraid of changing theories and mindsets to keep making more and more room for multiplicity and truth. Alok is a leading voice, taking Butler’s ideas and adding material to them, working with other thinkers to find peaceful places for our bodies to exist as they are, and for us to love them just the same.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Feminist Disability Studies.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, The University of Chicago, vol. 30, no. 2, 2005, GSWS 301 Canvas Page. Accessed Fall 2022.
McCann, Hannah. “Judith Butler Explained with Cats.” binary this, GSWS 301 Canvas Page. Accessed Fall 2022.
Vaid-Menon, Alok. Beyond the Gender Binary. Penguin Workshop: Pocket Change Collective, 2020.
Vaid-Menon, Alok. Femme in Public. Digital version, Self-published, 2021.
Vaid-Menon, Alok. Your Wound / My Garden. Digital version, 2nd ed., Self-published, 2021.
I owe a million “thank you”s to Alok as someone who has provided me with endless inspiration and comfort. Thank you to my professor at Montclair State University, Dr. Nicole Archer, who taught the class this essay was written for: Transnational Feminism. It was a joy to be able to explore Alok and their poetry even more than I already had.