TRANSCRIPT: TransLash Podcast Episode 46, ‘ALOK’

Imara Jones: Hey, TransLash family. It’s me, Imara Jones. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast, a show where we tell trans stories to save trans lives. Well, we are finally approaching the end of Pride Month, a month that has gone on for quite a while now. Now, sadly, I have spent the last week of Pride with Covid. So, I missed out on so many fun activities. All I can say about Covid is that it is not fun. I have had all of the things that you’re supposed to have. I have three shots. I want to unpack slowly of it and it was still rough. So, whoever said that Covid is mild is not telling the truth and I want everyone to continue to be careful. But so many people threw caution to the wind throughout Pride, which makes sense because that’s what the month is all about. And in looking at all of the pictures and videos because I was laid up at home, one of the things that I noticed was the fact that Pride really is about the embodiment of our freedom, the way in which so many people were decked out in whatever way they want it to be decked out as an expression of who they are. And so, that got me thinking about the fact that our bodies are our first sight of Pride. They are where we begin in our journeys. This idea is more powerful than ever, of course, given the new abortion ruling which is about taking that very idea away from us. And at this juncture, this union of these two ideas is why so many Pride parades this year focus, of course, as well on the importance of body autonomy and abortion, right? So, it made sense then to talk to someone who, for me, is the living example of everything that I am talking about and discussing right now. That is Alok Vaid-Menon, who goes by, in many ways, just Alok. Now, Alok, as we know is a gender nonconforming artist and humorist and all of the things, but in so many ways, they show up as themselves wherever they go. I thought it would be really powerful for us to have a conversation about what it means for us to be who we are all of the time and the way in which our bodies are the first sight of our joy.

[Excerpt plays]

Alok Vaid-Menon: I just got to a place in my life where I wanted to not wait for freedom but live it and where I wanted to practice joy. And comedies are often framed as trying to make other people laugh, but I actually think comedy is about the cultivation of my joy and the sharing of it in public.

Imara: But before we get to that interview, even though it clearly is going to talk about trans joy, we’re going to start our episode, as always, with even more trans joy.

Something that warms my heart is trans people coming together in the community to celebrate and support one another. That’s why today, I’m lifting up the Gender Experts Party. It’s a twice-monthly open mic for chance performers and spectators at Metropolitan, a bar in Brooklyn, which I may have gone to once or twice. Octavia Leona Kohner is a comedian, and one of the founders and producers of the event which started in 2019. She says the Gender Experts Party is special because it gives trans artists a space to perform for other trans people.

[Excerpt plays]

Octavia Leona Kohner: I view Gender Experts Party as sort of a temple to trans joy. It was built explicitly with the idea that you could come and do things you could never do in another space because other spaces are places you’re expected to be the best version of yourself, either because you’re getting booked for them or because it’s with peers that you really are shy around trying to material around or you just are afraid for some reason. Gender Experts Party is a space where fear doesn’t exist because no one will judge you. I think it’s very important to create a space where trans people can be frankly gross, weird, off-putting, exciting, new, interesting, and different. And Gender Experts Party is an open mic but it’s an open mic you can go to and see things no one else has ever seen before because it’s the first time, but also because the people that come are weird.

Imara: Octavia, you and the Gender Experts Party are a trans joy. 

Today, I’m joined by an internationally acclaimed author, speaker, poet, and comedian, Alok Vaid-Menon. Alok is a mixed-media artist whose work explores the themes of trauma, belonging and the human condition. In addition to performing around the world, Alok started the #DeGenderFashion movement and headlined the 2021 New York Comedy Festival. They are also the author of Femme In Public, Beyond The Gender Binary, and Your Wound / My Garden. You might have also seen Alok on Netflix’s Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness, or on one of the many lists of movers and shakers that they have been featured in, including Huffington Post’s Culture Shifters and NBC’s #Pride50. Alok is currently on tour performing a unique blend of comedy and poetry that pokes fun at gender binaries while also grappling with experiences of loss, colonialism, and trans misogynistic harassment. Alok, thank you so much for joining me today.

Alok: [chuckles] There is no one else I would want to talk to when I was disturbed by you.

Imara: [laughs] Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. This is just going to be like one of our actual conversations, but it’s recorded this time. So, this is a very easy lift. I wanted to talk to you because we’re closing out Pride Month and one of the essential things that I think that you embody is being who we are as a political act. The reason why I wanted to contextualize that is I think in so many ways, the idea of Pride and being who we are in some respects has gotten commercialized. If we look at the way in which trans people and LGBTQ people writ large are increasingly integrated into marketing and commercialism for reasons that are good, I think, but also increasingly becoming identified with our identity. The politicalness of who we are as people is lost. And so, I just wanted to start out by getting your reflections on what it means in Pride to embody who we are and the fact that that’s inherently political, especially at this moment.

Alok: Mmm, they can care about how annoying that it is political. It’s really just what it is. Like, I think it’s strange when people tell me that it’s a political statement to maintain my body hair. It’s strange when people tell me that it’s a political statement to be visibly gender nonconforming. It’s strange when people tell me that it’s a political statement to love being queer because those are just things that are and they become politicized. What feels actually political is the division of billions of complex souls into 1 or 2 gender categories is the normalization of misery, torment, and anguish as the only way to live. It’s not that LGBTQ lives and bodies are political, it’s actually the fact that we are made political is the politics. Does that make sense? And so, I think what I’m really just trying to do is be myself. In the past, I would have said, like, being ourselves is a political action. And yes, of course, it is. But also, whose criteria am I seeing myself through? I am politicized by white supremacy and the gender binary, but in the quiet intimacy of my own self-image, I’m just saying, “I am,” and “I am” is more of like a spiritual embrace than it is of political interaction.

Imara: I mean, as a part of that, as a part of the very declaration of “I am,” I think about trans youth and the way in which their declaration of “I am” is being weaponized at this moment. Just that, that mere declaration, that’s all they’re saying. Trans identities can predate and exceed and be beyond as you say politics because it is essentially a spiritual thing. It’s something that you know inside of yourself. And one of the things that I think about is the way in which “I am” within the context of white supremacy, patriarchy, transmisogyny, and misogyny overall has always been weaponized against people.

Alok: Mm-hmm. Totally.

Imara: Yeah. I don’t know if you have any reflections on that.

Alok: Well, I guess what my reflection is is that it’s weaponized by other people but we can’t do that weaponizing against ourselves, I’m a really big believer in the power of self-acceptance and self-compassion. For the majority of my life, I anchored my purpose around being understood as being legible, being accepted, being included, and being seen. And then I was like, “I don’t actually want the systems in place to see me because I don’t believe that those systems should exist.” What I want is to see myself and be proud. Being proud of the person I am and that I’m becoming. I divested from this need to be understood and I instead reinvested from this deep spiritual inquiry of recognizing that I’ll never understand myself and that’s the joy that I continually confound any category, word, or framework that I use on myself. When I’m thinking about Pride, what I’m thinking about is, what if Pride isn’t about getting acceptance from straight society? But Pride is actually about developing self-concept and self-image as trans people and specifically as trans people of color. We’re proud of the very things that they politicize in us. We’re proud of the very things that they shame and weaponize on us where we accept ourselves and love ourselves more than they could ever hate us.

Imara: Right, and that’s the way in which even the trite saying of “Love wins.” I mean, that’s the way actually love does win because it’s not about recognition of that from the state or from other people. It’s actually coming inside of ourselves. As a part of this conversation around spirituality and self-recognition, one of the things that you have said for years is the fact that you are both man and woman and neither man nor woman, like in the categories and outside of the categories at the same time. And as that’s true, it makes me think about how we structure LGBTQ that the “T” is always at the end, the way in which it’s marginalized. But the way in which you’re framing it like the essence of being human is this idea of trans cis that is to say being beyond our limitations, and your spiritual inquiry, I’m wondering if you think about what the implications are being trans as a way to reshape the very idea of what human miss is.

Alok: Yes. I feel like trans people are reminding the world what humanity is and what humanity is divinity, that the parsing of those things and principles is violence. What I’ve been saying on stage recently, is trans people remind the world that heaven is a practice, not a promise. What that means is that it’s possible to build a transcendent kingdom here on Earth in our own bodies. The world teaches us that we have to delay gratification and rapture and that leisure, levity, and luxury will be there at the end. But what transness challenges is I want it here in the now. I want to live my life with that kind of lucidity, that kind of luxury, that kind of beauty, that kind of glamour, and that kind of magic. I think that scares people because they’ve been taught personally that they’re not entitled to that kind of creative force that they have to self-immolate and disappear in order to be loved. Transness says no we get to be expansive and infinite and still be worthy of love. And so, what I really am starting to recognize more and more is that the policing of trans life actually begins at an intimate level in people. When they’re policing their own joy, they’re policing their own ambiguity, their own ambivalences, their own spontaneity, their own gender nonconformity, and then that gets extrapolated on to trans and non-binary people, but it actually is not ours to hold. It’s other people’s lack of imagination. It’s other people’s grief that the fact that they’ve clipped their own wings, and when they see people flying, they’re more upset with the fact of our flight because that’s easier to demonize us than it is to reckon with their own pain.

Imara: Yeah, and that underscores why the assault on body autonomy right now is so ferocious kind of what you were saying. The idea of being free in our own bodies is the basis for restructuring the idea of freedom and anything else. That’s why I think there’s an attempt to clamp down on the imagination of what the body is and what the body is capable of doing as a way of limiting the imagination of what freedom is and can look like.

Alok: 100%. Like, it all has to do with sovereignty here. Like, if we have sovereignty over our own bodies and we can actually create the selves, the genders if we can fashion the lives that we want to live, what else is possible? They are trying to clamp down on possibility right now. The status quo works by dispossessing people of the ability to imagine an alternative. And what transness continually does is exhort us all to not just imagine but embody an alternative and to actually take what they posture to us as natural and see that as a political aesthetic, take what they submit to us as reality and see that as contrived and constructed. And then, nothing is permanent or absolute. And how can fascism work if things aren’t permanent and absolute? How can totalitarianism work if things are permanent and absolute? That’s why the elimination of trans people has always historically and continues to be a key facet of totalitarian regimes because trans people blow the whistle on how the restriction of bodily autonomy and creative self-expression is linked to these larger political macro systems of state-based dispossession.

Imara: One of the reasons why I love talking to you and people can probably hear is that I can go with you to very intense spaces that are intellectual, profound, and deep very quickly. Like, it doesn’t take much work to get there with you, which is why always being engaged in conversation with you is a thrill. And one of the things that you’ve done in a really powerful way and in a way that is being received so well with so much love is your Comedy Tour. And I’m wondering, what made you decide to go into comedy and actually show the humorous side of yourself as a way to reach people and to continue to find ways to express yourself?

Alok: I just got to a place in my life where I wanted to not wait for freedom but live it and where I wanted to practice joy. And comedies are often framed as trying to make other people laugh, but I actually think comedy is about the cultivation of my joy and the sharing of it in public. So, yes, I laugh at my own jokes. And these are things that I find funny, and finding them funny allows me to survive and thrive. It’s funny because people keep on saying, “I didn’t know that you did comedy,” and I said, “Do you know anything about the history of trans people?” They don’t see our performance and our political history as a comedy, but how trans people survive is through art forms like Drag, which let’s be very clear, we engineered. We template it. We create it. We were actually saying, “You think I’m funny based on what I look like. Look at what you act like.” We reveal their bluff. We showed how foolish and absurd they were. And so, what comedy actually allows me to do is just resist the kind of PR campaign that has made being a trans and non-binary something that’s depressing, sad, and failed, and actually say it’s full of life, zest, fun, and joy, and it’s transcendent. And actually, what is pathological, miserable, and arduous is the world under patriarchy. Then, I think also comedy for me is really helpful as a teacher. It’s not enough that I’ve read these concepts and I get them because I know the majority of people aren’t going to read the books that I love, aren’t going to like watch the three-hour, lectures that I love. The joke is the ultimate vessel to actually get people to develop a kind of political acumen. So, for example, when I say things like, [chuckles] “We need to protect jokes from men and pants.” Protect jokes from men and pants. A joke like that is operating on like 10 different frequencies. It’s resourcing the dominant rhetoric that they use to demonize trans people protection and men in dresses. It’s reorienting the crisis not to be the existence of trans people, but men pretending to be funny. So, what I’m able to do is break down all these complex ideas in a really pithy way. And as a poet, that’s what I’m always invested in – using language as a spell, as a kind of incantation that does something. And what comedy actually allows me to do is reorganize reality to use surrealism, the absurd, and the abstract to say it’s absurd that they’re targeting trans kids when we’re facing climate apocalypse. It’s bonkers that there are hundreds of pieces of anti-trans legislation whenever we are dealing with economic collapse. And in order for you to actually see how absurd it is, you have to laugh at yourself. You have to laugh and see how absurd that is. And it’s interesting to watch how also comedy reaches a larger base than I’m used to because they’re people who just are looking for a good time. And places where people are going to escape or to tap out, that’s where I feel like we need to be. We need to be at the clubs. We need to be in the music. We need to be in the culture to show people that it is possible to still have a good time while learning.

Imara: Yeah, I think that that’s absolutely right. The other thing that you’re emphasizing with the comedy is the ownership of your own joy. That is to say that because you can make yourself laugh at your own jokes, you have the ability to make yourself happy, right? That’s one of the things that you are declaring at this moment. Who I am and what I am doing is actually not dependent. Again, I’m going back to this theme of the gays or the affirmation of other people that I can make myself happy. And I just think, for me, the way in which, you know, African-Americans have a history of creating joy in extreme circumstances. And even the way in which Drag, as we know it in the States, has some really important roots in African-American communities.

Alok: Right.

Imara: Yeah, and also this point that you said about like, I didn’t want to believe that joy essentially was a place that I was getting to, but it was something that I could create right now. I think it’s a really powerful emotion because in it, everything that you seem to be doing in so many areas of your life is literally taking power away from other people and their ability to define you.

Alok: I just really have enjoyed this tour. So many trans people are coming up to me afterward and saying, “I needed that. I needed to laugh.” I haven’t ever thought that comedy could be for me because I’ve always been the butt of the joke. It was actually really therapeutic and healing for me to be able to access my joy. And I was like exactly this. I feel like the way that we’ve defined the trans movement is resisting anti-trans discrimination, resisting murder, and violence, but not actually about promoting justice through leisure, liberation, and joy. I want to cultivate spaces where trans people can celebrate liveliness and being alive and relaxed, and recognize that there’s a reason that we’re fighting so hard. It’s because we love who we are, otherwise, we wouldn’t be fighting. And I think what comedy allows me to do is but there’s something sacred and precious here that’s worth holding on to and we’re going to hold on to it no matter what.

Imara: So, let’s actually listen to a part of your show where you’re doing this thing. I’m taking something that is essentially scary that trans people fear and turning it into a joke, creating joy, and creating a sense of power from it.

[Excerpt plays]

Alok: I believe empathy has to be a two-way street. The last time I was walking down the street, I thought about how much difficult it is for these genders would have if I got hit by a car, right? And I just died. Imagine the one non-binary intern at The Times reminding people that Alok uses they/them pronouns. “But that’s not grammatically correct.” “But they’re sad.” “So is grammar apparently.” So, as an act of empathy, I’ve ghostwritten some headlines should this ever occur: Crossdresser gets crossed, they/them were; Gay movement stopped in its tracks.

Imara: I’m wondering how you decided to arrive at the idea of creating comedy out of the prospect that a lot of trans people do face which is violence and death.

Alok: I wanted to do multiple things with that joke. One is to parody how absurd it is that cis people are more concerned with grammar than trans life. I just wanted to show how to use hyperbole to show how ridiculous it is that, like, here we are, literally fearing violence and death, and cis people are literally concerned about the fact that we use they/them pronouns. Then, second, I wanted to show that [chuckles] this idea of empathy being a two-way street is often used to discipline and police trans people into being like, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds like you need other people. You’re such a small community.” And so, I was using that metaphor of a street really literally. Trans people are getting run over on this empathy to a street. It’s not an equal playing field. It’s not about us doing tit for tat or showing up for other people. We had to be very clear about what the power relation is there. And the idea of ghostwriting as an act of empathy is also another dark humor of showing, “How am I supposed to show up for you when we’re literally dying? We’re literally being attacked.?” And then, what I’m trying to do with the headlines there, I think a lot of times people will say, “Trans people can’t take a joke. You take everything so seriously.” “No, darling. I can make jokes. I can joke about even the scariest things in the world.” But this is how you do it in a way that’s actually about camp and punching up, not actually about belittling us and degrading us. And so, what I love about comedy is that there are so many complex ideas going on here. So many deep concepts whereas as an academic, I could study comedy and see how much cultural work is being done here. I think that comedy doesn’t get seen, and I can say this as a poet. Poetry gets seen as having deep meaning, metaphor, and political subversion, whereas comedy is just seen as of the masses in a different way. And so, it’s not afforded the same kind of political or analytical complexity. But as someone really doing comedy, now I’m like, “Hey everyone, this is actually really intense and powerful political work. It deserves to be seen as such.”

Imara: Yeah. Uh, maybe you can go straight for Dave Chappelle. Teach him a thing or two, right? One of the things that has been a reality for you and for our entire community in the midst of your Comedy Tour was the loss of your dear aunt, Urvashi Vaid. You joked about headlines there but recently you’ve had to read headlines for this person who is a legend in our community from leading the task force to writing books, to revolutionizing so many different movements in this country through her life, her power, and her voice. And I’m wondering what it has been like for you to experience this very personal loss of this legend in our community, but for so many people is just headlines about the person. For you, especially, is personal. I’m wondering if you can talk about what that journey, what that mash-up is like for you at this moment.

Alok: It’s been brutal. It’s really surreal to see a headline of someone you know and love dead. The text makes it feel so much more absolute and permanent. And then, to read it and be like you didn’t know her and you knew her, I don’t want to say that like people didn’t know her. You began to realize how everyone has a different relationship with someone and they’re all true and they’re all correct. I feel like a real danger in the way that we put people on pedestals. And I feel like my friend, Ocean Vuong calls this the trap of fame and visibility is being made into a living ghost where a narrative or brand of someone supersedes their actual reality. And I think what I was really struggling with was how to reconcile the grandiose ways in which it was written about with the grotesqueness of her dying of cancer. With how cruel that disease is and how it destroyed her body and pulled her apart and left her fragile, I feel like what we do to stave off the reality of sickness and the reality of death in this culture is we have to lionize people. But I wish that we could also just hold the pain, the existential pain of knowing that certain people die from cancer and certain people get cancer. That has to do with the very political systems that she was challenging. Cancer is related to structural misogyny and racism and all the systems she spent her life combating. And so, what I felt sad by is reading the text saying that she died and I was like, “Can we have a conversation about the illness as murder? Can we have a conversation that actually politicizes sickness when people are saying it was an untimely death or was too soon? Shouldn’t that compel us to actually think about how illness is a continuation and an extension of racism and sexism and all the things that were getting rid of? I mean, I think about Audre Lorde. I think about how many feminists had breast cancer. I wonder why we still continue to make illness and medical issues flat and apolitical, why we continue to make people flat and apolitical, and how we can really hold the non-binariness of death which is that people are spectacular and they were in extreme pain, which is that people were legends and they were navigating clinics where they had to argue to get medicine. How can we hold both? Because if we’re really invested in humanizing people, I don’t think headlines or fame is how we do it.

Imara: One of the things that you wrote about in your tribute to her is that: “To the world, she was all of these things,” but for you, she was your Massey, right, which I believe is Hindu for odds. And I’m wondering in this very personal experience of growing up as a queer person before you maybe even had the words for your existence, what was the biggest stamp you think that she left on you that you continue to live?

Alok: I’m really lucky because, at a young age, I had a protector in my family and someone who templated the fact that I didn’t have to disappear myself to be worthy of parental love. I knew that she loved me no matter what I look like or act it out, wore or dressed, or any of my gestures. And that was an unshakable truth in my life that I think allowed me to develop a kind of self-conviction earlier on in my life than maybe some of my peers. That’s an incredible form of power and privilege to be loved at such a young age for being a queer person. That’s why it really upsets me. This conservative fear-mongering that having LGBTQ people around young people presents a sense of danger. When in fact, it was the opposite. I don’t know if I would be alive if I didn’t have her there. I don’t know if I would be able to exist in the fullness that I do if I wasn’t actually exposed to and alongside LGBTQ communities as a young person who made me feel, not only possible but beautiful, who made me not only possible but powerful. So, even before I had any of the vocabularies to diagnose what heteronormativity or racism were, I knew that they were wrong because I met fully fleshed-out queer people of color who were powerful, who mattered, and who were my role models. And I think what I’m feeling deep pain about right now is the next generation of trans people because I grew up being bullied in schools but not really by politicians. And I just imagine what it must be like to be a young trans person right now and have to deal with adults making millions of dollars off of like belittling and doubting you. And I feel really called to bring the same kind of love that I experienced from Urvashi as a kid to the next generation of trans people. It feels like a very growing-up moment for me where I’m like, “Okay, I’m the adult. Like, she was about my age when I was born. And now, I feel the same call to do the work that she was doing which was really loving a generation before they could love themselves,” and I think that’s what so many of our queer ancestors did. I think about Sylvester who loved their femininity and loved their gender nonconformity, gave permission to an entire generation of people to be more swish and more feminine if you will, and call each other queens of the clubs. It’s about love that gives permission. Love that permisses, not love that prohibits. And I think that that’s what trans young people in this country really need right now. So much messaging that’s like this world would be better if you work here, but what I’m saying is I need you here actually. I need you here in your fullest and most actualize form, and I’m deeply sorry that there are people who would make you feel the opposite of beautiful because of it, but know that I think that you’re precious and sacred, and I’m in a fight in the same way that whatever she fought for me.

Imara: When you use the words that you grew up with a protector in your family, it struck me so deeply because it made me realize how essential that is. It really made the loss of her even more profound, for me and my spirit, because I could feel what that means for you, what that means for all of us whenever we’re able to have someone who is like that for us in our life the first time that we feel protected because there’s no way that we grow as people without protection. The essence of feeling safe as a child which allows you to have a chance at growing up in a way that feels good and right for you is that particular idea of protection. As you talk, I hear so much of her. I hear the emphasis on the body as a sight of liberation, the systemic analysis of the way in which politics works the exhortation for us to be radical. There are just so many ways in which as I think about our conversation and as I’m having to dry my eyes right now, that, you know, I just hear her right now so much through you, and what you’re doing is a powerful embodiment and next function-level visionary step of so many things that you were able to receive at a young age.

Alok: You know, the universe is always giving us signs if we take the time to notice them.

Imara: Yeah.

Alok: And my sister gave birth to my first nibling a few weeks ago. I’m about the same age as she was when I was born. And I’m just sitting here, like, “Okay, Universe. You’re making things pretty obvious right now. I just think about my nibling not knowing what I’m doing now, just interacting with me as a relative and as a protector. And then, my nibling 30 years from now, Googling me, like I’m Googling Urvashi and watching video clips of me and being like, “What? Like, that was what they were doing? Okay. Crazy.” And it just is so clear to me that anger is the precision of love that we fight so hard because we love so hard and we know what is precious. And I now really see it very clearly that there was a plan. There was a plan. There was a reason I was born at this time on this Earth. And for so long, I would say this phrase that I still kind of agree with but also, I’m kind of breaking up with which was “I wasn’t born in the wrong body. I was born in the wrong world.” But I think now, I would say, “I wasn’t born in the wrong body and I was born in the right world because I was put here for a reason.” And I think we’re all put here for a reason and death gives me that kind of clarity. I have this person come up to me who knew her after my show in Seattle a few weeks ago, and she was like, “How are you doing this? Like, if you’re in grief, why didn’t you cancel the tour?” And I said, “I don’t think you know Urvashi because she would have been like, ‘Take your grief and turn it. Turn it. Turn it up. Turn it into anger. Turn it into a rage. Protest. Don’t keep quiet.'” After every show, I stop and I let people know I’m in grief. I think the majority of problems in this world come because people can’t say that sentence. Everyone is denying the fact that they have grief. Through the denial and suppression of grief, that manifests as violence and retribution and I refuse to do that. And so, I’m going to hold this grief with you right now. I’m going to say the way that I heal from this grief is mourning her through action, mourning her through protecting trans young people in the same ways that she protected me. It just makes so much sense. And I think that clarity, unfortunately, comes through death and that’s why the clarity of the trans movement is so precise it’s because we have all had sisters and siblings that we’ve lost. We know the stakes of this and we have to ask ourselves every day, “Am I willing to endanger my life for the world that I believe in and I create?” So many of us say yes and I don’t think we spent enough time paying attention to why we say yes. There’s more air time given to the reality of their violence against us, not through the security of our self-knowledge, not through the cosmology that we’re operating from. What I see as trans feminine people, what we’re doing really is that we understand that there’s a crucial distinction between living and existing that I would rather live with the omnipresent sense of danger than have the diffused sense of anguish that comes from living a lie, and that’s just existence. That may be within trans life, once again, is a return to what life should really be about, a kind of authentic embrace of our unruly and rogue spirits that I saw so demonstrated for me early as a young person and that I knew was possible. You know, Bell Hooks, who we also lost, says that most people don’t know love because they’ve only been templated the fact that love can coexist with abuse, but I did know love because I saw it in Urvashi and I do know love because I see it in my trans sisters. That’s why I fight it’s because I love the ways that we love.

Imara: One of my favorite songs and lines by Sade is It’s Only The Love That Gets You Through. And I think what you’re underscoring for us is that that’s the thing that we have to embrace as the basis for our survival, that that’s the thing that we have to begin to embody as trans people and trans people of color at this time of attack and marginalization. It’s that embodiment of love because it is the only thing that will get us through. And from that, it’s flowing your connection to joy and to so many of the other things that you’ve underscored here. I think that all of that is really crucial. And I just want to thank you so much for taking the time to give us an understanding of the thought and the inspiration [chuckles] for this particular moment because I think that we’re going to need more of it.

Alok: Yeah, I do think that one of my frustrations right now with contemporary social justice vernacular, and maybe this explains my move to comedy in so many ways, is that the only way I was taught to describe myself was how I was oppressed as a trans feminine gender nonconforming racialized, you know. And actually, I didn’t get to in my introduction say, “Hey, here’s how I’m free,” and while I might not have rights, while I might not have safety, I have something that they don’t have – love. That recognition, that profound recognition that I have love for the very things that this entire society is denying and denouncing in itself, that’s the power that they see. The Elon Musks of the world seek that sense of ontological security but they’ll never get it because they mistake the mass hoarding of capital as protection when, in fact, it’s love that protects. I know that because of Urvashi. That’s what having a protector as a child gives you. It’s that sense of security that actually only love can give us. Nothing else actually can. And so, when I’m thinking about how bleak and impossible the situation is politically for us right now as trans people, I still do have a sliver of hope because I just genuinely believe in love. I’ve seen it work. I’ve seen compassion not be about being a better person but about being a person. I’ve seen how compassion can transform people. Listen, I hated myself as a young person. There’s this memory I have when I was 17 years old, or 18 maybe. I was viewing colleges and I came to see Columbia University when I was staying with Urvashi and I told her that I was talking to this cute boy on a train. Urvashi gave me a sex talk and I was so shy. I was like, “Oh, my God! Like, never.” And she was like, “Honey, you have an aunt who’s part of the AIDS movement, like, I’m never not going to talk to you explicitly about this thing.” And that’s just one of the many illustrations of her capacity to love me and be proud of me before I could love and be proud of myself. I didn’t even realize it at the time. I didn’t even realize how major that was to have an adult tell me at such a young and foundational age that I need to be concerned about these things: teach me about history; teach me to normalize talking about things that I was taught that we shouldn’t be talking about; teach me about safety. Now. I’m able to see on the other side of her death, the ways in which her love built up a kind of confidence and groundswell in me that allow me to do the work I’m going to do. So, that’s why I love the people who hate me because if I’m really committed to their transformation and to their change into our change, I have to.

Imara: It’s that really interesting because I was at an anti-violence convening recently. And I said to them, I said, “You know I’m not going to get up here and tell you all the things that I’m against because you do know that when you say those words, what you’re doing is giving those things power.” Right? That the true work is envisioning what we’re actually trying to create and that’s the hard part. The easy part is to get up and say “I’m against,” and you know all of the buzz words. You know you get like virtue signaling through that but what we’re doing is just giving those things power. Continued centering of those terrible concepts, I think, is poison for our movement in our community. I think that what you’re doing by emphasizing joy and by emphasizing visioning in ways to take power, you know, is among kind of the last charges that Urvashi said publicly which was this emphasis on the need to be even bigger, bolder, and braver in terms of what we were doing with respect to movement and freedom. And I think at the heart of that boldness is love.

Alok: Hmm, totally.

Imara:  Well, Alok, thank you so much for joining us at this insanely busy time of the year which would be normally so for you, but in addition to all of that, you’ve decided to do a tour. [laughs] So, thank you so much. I’m so grateful for you and grateful to know you. I was so honored to have known your aunt in a very different way than you. Thank you so much.

Alok: Thank you.

Imara: Thank you so much for listening to the TransLash Podcast. Now, stick all the way to the end for something special. You can listen to TransLash wherever you get your podcast, but you know that already. Check us out on the web at to sign up for our Weekly Newsletter. Go there and sign up. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @translashmedia. Like us on Facebook and tell your friends. The TransLash Podcast is produced by TransLash Media. The TransLash Team includes Oliver-Ash Kleine and Aubrey Calaway. Our intern is Mirana Munson-Burke. Xander Adams is a contributing producer to the show. And our sound engineer, Digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano. The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK Records. The TransLash Podcast is made possible by the support of foundations and listeners like you.

What I’m looking forward to drumroll is that I’m going on vacation for 3 weeks in July. I’m super excited. You can find out about all of my adventures by following the social media at my name, Imara Jones, or on Instagram, I think I’m @imara_jones_, don’t ask. I’m looking forward to taking a break in the middle of the storm. It seems strange that I’m going to do so, but I think that we all need to do whatever we can to create as much space for ourselves during this moment whether or not it be a weekend or even longer. And I can’t imagine that my vacation is going to go untouched by the world or by the work because that’s just the moment that we’re living in and I accept that. But I’m looking forward to trying to get some space in my head to get some perspective on where things are and to catch up with the tremendous, tremendous changes we’ve all been living through over the past year, but the last 6 months in particular and even the last month. If we just think about what’s happened in the month of June until now, that has been a year in and out of itself. So, I need some time to kind of catch up with myself. So, I’m hoping that you will find ways large and small to do the same and you can follow my adventures on social media.

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Arizona bill, SB1698, would ban "dressing in clothes other than your assigned gender" while "singing, dancing, and monologuing" in public.

15 year ...jail sentences and sex offender registry.

I sing, dance, and monologue to my kid all the time.

This would criminalize me.


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