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  • Christopher Clarke

Femme in Public

Alok Vaid-Menon is a revered non-binary activist, scholar, poet, writer, and comedian. Alok has devoted their life to envisioning and fighting for a life that is beyond the gender binary. Through poetry, Alok criticizes and critiques the binary, while simultaneously providing us with a glimpse of an alternative life—a life of perpetual love for humankind. Poetry is an essential medium, through which individuals can transcribe the undeniable truths of human existence—it is critical to our survival, which makes it a powerful entity. Audre Lorde said it best in her essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” in which she writes in opposition to the beliefs that undermine the power within poetry. Lorde explains that our bodies and thoughts are the foundations from which all poetry is formed, which makes poetry an inherently political necessity: “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

We write poetry because we must make sense of the truths that exist within us if we are to survive. Poetry is an act of survival; in the most literal sense, poetry is carework—we need it to survive. Carework refers to any act of caring for another individual—paid and unpaid. Poetry—like any form of literature or art—creates a relationship between the creator and the audience. A poet faces the vast emotions and entities that constitute human existence, and transcribes them. Poetry is not a luxury; it is as if the poet is saying, “these are the undeniable facts that I know to be true” and, “If I do not write them down, I will simply perish.”

Like poetry, humans depend on carework to survive. Carework is a relationship—acts of giving and receiving constitute this specific type of relationship. In a sense, poetry can also be thought of as a sort of relationship: the writer gives themselves entirely to the poem, while simultaneously asking the reader to give a part of themselves in return. The subsequent gains from this exchange are crucial to the existence of humankind—especially the existence of marginalized people. A poet is like a teacher—they give their entire beings to their work, hoping to reshape the world into something better. Patrick Califia, a transmasculine writer, also offers a revealing definition of why he writes: “Why do I write? I write because I have to, because it is all I know, because it is my truth, because I am compelled, because I am driven to make the world acknowledge that women like me exist, and we possess a dangerous wisdom.” Before his transition, Patrick identified as a lesbian and wrote many books on gender and sexuality. Although Patrick is talking about prose, not poetry, the sentiments remain true.

The “dangerous wisdom” that Patrick mentions lies within all marginalized people. Convoluted myths and falsehoods about marginalized communities circulate in the dominant society, hidden as truths. But marginalized people know that lies masquerading as facts are fallacies—we know it because it lies in the essence of our being. When we identify and transcribe this “dangerous wisdom” through poetry and prose, we are offering the world an alternative way to live.

In their poetry collection, Femme in Public, Alok Vaid-Menon details their life as a femme (a queer person who dresses or acts in a feminine manner), gender-nonconforming person. Alok uses their “dangerous wisdom” to imagine a future beyond the binary, as well as what that might look like. Alok starts off their poetry collection by posing a question: “Q: WHAT FEMININE PART OF YOURSELF DID YOU HAVE TO DESTROY IN ORDER TO SURVIVE IN THIS WORLD? A: I’M TRYING TO FIGURE IT OUT”

Here, Alok reveals the gender binary as an entity that forces individuals—especially individuals assigned male at birth—to kill off the feminine parts of themselves. The binary does not allow room for the complexity of the human soul. Most individuals are neither solely masculine or feminine, but the binary eradicates that fact—it creates predetermined categories based on one’s assigned sex. For individuals assigned male at birth, destroying our feminine parts is a method of survival—an act of getting by, unwhole but alive. But what would life look like if we didn’t have to walk around with pieces of ourselves? What if we could step outside as our whole selves and be loved for it? Throughout the rest of the poem, Alok poses a series of questions encouraging the reader to envision a more radical future. In the last lines of the poem, Alok poses a final question to themselves: “Is it that I don’t remember anymore or that I never knew?” Within this question, there is raw vulnerability, which allows the reader to connect to the speaker. As gendered people, we have all had to kill off parts of ourselves to fit the binary better. In this layered question, Alok is revealing the truth of what it feels like to try to make yourself more whole—you ask yourself, was I ever whole? Or, have I never known what it feels like to be genuinely myself?

Watch Alok perform their poem, “Trans/Generation.”

In their poem, “they will say,” Alok records the plethora of lies that society creates about people who exist outside of the binary. For example, Alok writes about society’s constant attempts to erase gender-nonconforming people—until they need someone to blame. Alok writes, “sometimes they will not say, / so they will spit, point, grope, laugh instead… / they will say the wrong names and pronouns when we are / gone. / They will say it is our fault. / They will erase us from history….” At the end of the poem, the tone shifts when the speaker counters patriarchal beliefs about femininity: “they will say that femininity is not powerful. / but I have stopped traffic simply by going outside. / I have suspended time. / I have made everyone watch. / I have shed every category, word, and lie. / I have etched myself so deep inside, / they will never forget me / i have found a way to live forever. / they will say that femininity is not powerful, / so i will put on my dress. / so i will go outside. / so i will prove them wrong.” In this masterful poem, Alok is countering the cultural and patriarchal devaluation of the feminine. Through pointing out the logical fallacies, Alok renders invalid the patriarchal practice of devaluing the feminine. If femininity is not inherently powerful, why is patriarchy so obsessed with trying to undermine and diminish it?

Poetry is an inherently political entity; it allows us to bring our dangerous knowledge into words so it can be thought. Through poetry, Alok explores and shares their experiences as a femme, gender-nonconforming person in today’s society, serving as a lighthouse guiding us on our journey to a more honest and radical future.


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