The INTO Interview

ALOK Wants Us to Break the Binary. Like, Now.

· Updated on March 24, 2023

“There’s major energy in this room,” says Jonathan Van Ness before sitting down for a gender fluidity roundtable on the fourth episode of his Netflix show “Getting Curious.” Present at the table are nonbinary activist Joshua Allen, Passamaquoddy Two-Spirit activist Geo Soctomah Neptune, and nonbinary writer and performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon, professionally known simply as ALOK. They’re all talking about identity: Specifically the kind of identity that, for so long, was buried, hidden, or purposefully erased in an effort to make nonbinary people feel like a “new” creation, even though that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. “It was about joining a collective,” ALOK explains, discussing the old custom of queer communities giving debutante balls for each other, which gave us the term “coming out.” In the past few years, ALOK has remained one of the most visible members of the nonbinary and gender nonconforming community through touring, making educational content, and introducing the world to their vibrant, philosophical, and celebratory take on life outside of the gender binary. We spoke to ALOK about the power of coming together for “Getting Curious,” and what the future holds for nonbinary folks. 

INTO: How have things come together for you and Jonathan in terms of working together and having these conversations on the show?

ALOK: So [being on] the show is actually a full-circle moment, because I first met Jonathan when I recorded their podcast in the summer of 2019. We did an episode about the gender binary, and Jonathan had just come out as nonbinary that week. And they were just like, “I don’t know other nonbinary people, I don’t really understand a lot of these issues.” And so we started becoming friends after we recorded that podcast together, and kept having so many different conversations about the gender binary, about what it means to be a nonbinary person. And I feel like a lot of those conversations were able to make it onto this episode.

What sort of changes in acceptance and representation of nonbinary folks have you been seeing since the pandemic began? 

I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s generational. Gen Z has so much more gender literacy and an understanding of nonbinary genders, of the importance of pronouns, the understanding of gender fluidity. 

But then I feel like, for other generations, there’s actually been a considerable backlash. What we’re seeing across the country right now is an unprecedented amount of anti-trans legislation. And for me, that’s a direct response to the assertion that trans and non-binary people are real and have existed forever. And we touch upon this in the episode: I think so often people dwell and focus on the novelty of our existence, rather than paying attention to all the systems of discrimination that for so long have tried to disappear us. And so what we’ve also witnessed in the past few years, alongside increased nonbinary and gender non-conforming visibility, is a lot of people deriding us, belittling us, making fun of us, turning us into memes as a way to fuel this conservative agenda that essentially scapegoats us as the problem for what’s happening in the country right now.

“So many LGBTQ+ people have mistaken conditional acceptance as freedom.”

Just seeing how much the anti-trans activism has risen is insane, and it feels like a direct response to visible transness and kids advocating for themselves.

Yeah, totally. And I think that’s something that also is really related to race, and I was really happy that we touched upon it in the episode. The conservative line is that nonbinary identities are somehow “new.” We tried to show in the episode is that what’s actually made up is the gender binary. That, actually, people have existed for thousands of years outside of these Western gender norms. Those are what was made up. And so I think that the sort of inversion that we’re trying to get people to really understand is, it’s not that nonbinary people are new, it’s that the gender binary is new. 

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So much of our culture is arbitrarily dividing people and ideas and things into just groups of two. The binary is so strong. But it’s such a restrained way of seeing the world and existing in yourself.

Right. And that’s why I think the next generation of LGBTQ+ advocacy is less concerned with categories and more concerned with complexity. And what we’re seeing is a shift now to actually asking straight and cis society: “Do you see our humanity?” And what humanity actually looks like is that you have to get to know us for our individual stories, not just stereotypes that get recycled about what LGBTQ+ people are, or should be.

It’s going to be really interesting to see.

You know, one of the things that I see, too, is that people will be like, “Okay, you’re such an insignificant minority, why should we have to wait change the way that society works? Why should we have to change our language for such a small group?” But what I try to explain to people is that there’s so much social ostracism and punishment for living a visibly nonbinary, gender non-conforming life, that we don’t know how many of us there actually are. Every day, even as a visible gender non-conforming person, I’m targeted, and that targeting and harassment is about intimidating me back into the binary so that I won’t be visible.

What we’re seeing across the country right now is an unprecedented amount of anti-trans legislation. And for me, that’s a direct response to the assertion of trans and nonbinary people are real. 

And so I think that was really hard for me oftentimes, and I think what felt so powerful about this episode is that even though gender non-conforming people are the most visible in the world, we’re the most invisible in LGBTQ+ media and in LGBTQ+ advocacy. The strategy for LGBTQ+ advocacy has been, ”Okay, just make other people comfortable with your appearance, and that’s our anti-violence strategy,” when the strategy should have been: “You get to look like whatever you want, self-expression is important.” The focus should be, and the onus should be, on getting violent people to stop targeting us.

Right. If people were just taught to be more comfortable with the variety of human presentation and experience of life, it wouldn’t be a problem at all.

Exactly. And I really hope that one of the things that people take away from the episode, too, is this idea that you don’t have to be nonbinary to challenge gender norms. Because I think that one of the things that I’m seeing right now, is that people are saying, “Okay, there’s men, there’s women, and there’s all those other people over there who have their own category.” 

But actually, all of us can do our part to challenge the ways that we’ve internalized gender norms. When we see someone walking down the street, why do we assume is that a man or a woman, rather than asking “Hey, how are you? What language to use to describe yourself?” That’s something that we can all do, regardless of our identity. And we can expand our conceptions of what it means to be a man, or what it means to be a woman, or what it means to be nonbinary, and actually allow people to individually tailor what that means to them. 

And I think that that’s really hard, especially within the LGBTQ+ community, because so many LGBTQ+ people have mistaken conditional acceptance as freedom. Conditional acceptance basically says, “I’ll accept you as you tone it down if you keep it quiet or if you don’t make me uncomfortable.” And you have a lot of nonbinary and gender non-conforming people who are basically saying “Your discomfort has nothing to do with me and everything to do with you, and I shouldn’t have to make you more comfortable to get access to basic rights and dignity.” 

When we see someone walking down the street, why do we assume is that a man or a woman, rather than asking “Hey, how are you? What language to use to describe yourself?”

And so I think within our own community, we’re having a serious reckoning about the ways in which we’ve internalized gender norms, and gotten our worth from that internalization of norms. And when I’m talking about the next generation, it’s not enough to just say, “Oh, look, Gen Z people are identifying out of the binary more.” It’s not just about identity, it’s also about challenging the gender binary. And that I think is the piece that goes missing, that you don’t necessarily have to be nonbinary to challenge the gender binary.

It’s a classic case of like, the more options there are, the happier people will be. Even a lot of cis people, if you ask them what their pronouns are, they’re like “Oh, I’ve never thought about that.”

It’s because when people have only known themselves through what they’ve been told they should be. They feel threatened by the implication that there’s another way to live. And rather than asking, “Hey, can you teach me?” or “I’m curious,” they close up and they defend the idea that, “Oh, this is the only way it could have been.” 

So it’s actually more about them. But I think that that’s what’s so beautiful about the show being called “Getting Curious,” is that we’re not seeking to indict people and say that people are wrong and awful. What we’re actually saying is, get curious about the ways in which you’re having knee-jerk reactions to nonbinary gender non-conforming people. Because that might actually be a story that you’re unwilling to encounter in yourself. I know for myself, when I first started questioning my gender, I repressed that, like tremendously. And I would tell people, no, I’m just normal, I’m regular, I’m not like those people. And on the other side you’re able to be like, “It had nothing to do with them, it had everything to do with my own internalized self-hatred.”

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Right. Also in this culture there’s the idea of like, “self-expression is for kids and teens.” There’s some weird infantilization. 

And that’s a concrete thing that we can start doing today. In our workplaces, and our friend groups, and where our neighborhoods, or even just like where we’re walking down the street, can we create a safe enclave for people to experiment with their gender. Because, what you were saying right there about, like, “creativity is for young people,” is actually holding back so many adults who want to play around and figure out who they are but have nowhere to do that. And I think that, one of the things I always try to do is that when I see other visibly gender non-conforming in public, I often just non-verbally communicate like “Hey, I got your back,” like, “I see you,” you know. Because I think so many are so afraid and intimidated from actually figuring out who they are in public.

Totally. It can be hard. I’ve gotten a lot of like, “Oh, like, I would love to like wear makeup like that, but like I’m afraid.” And it’s just like, why should it be fearful? It’s just color and glitter.

Yeah, it’s pretty wild that people are fearing, like, glitter more than like housing eviction, the climate apocalypse, but yeah. That’s why this conversation, though, is not a minority issue. It’s because so much money, time, and energy is going towards fear-mongering around trans and nonbinary people when we could actually be working together to creating the conditions that would create a more equitable society for everyone. So oftentimes in my advocacy, people will say things like, “You’re so self-indulgent, this is selfish,” and I’m like, “No, we need to actually talk about how the culture wars creates scapegoats.” And the most recent scapegoat has been trans people, and especially nonbinary people. And we have to understand that this is actually a conservative project, that actually they’ll siphon off all the attention and the resources towards demonizing us, rather than actually addressing the things that seriously matter.♦

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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