What does it feel like to constantly be told to pick a side? To spend your life hearing that what you are is not what you should be? Before the Friday, October 17 premiere of the MTV/LOGO special "Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word," MTV asked the 23-year-old trans/national queer activist and Look Different Good Look Panel member Alok Vaid-Menon to tell their story of growing up gender non-conforming.
By Alok Vaid-Menon
Growing up [in Texas], I’d always say that I wanted to be my sister when I grew up. When you are a 5-year-old "boy," this [wish] is acceptable. But when you start growing a mustache at 11, things just get more complicated.
This is not your conventional trans narrative. This is not a story about being born in the wrong body. This is the story of being born in the wrong world. This is the story of being told who we are without our consent. This is a story of a gender that refuses to be defined by a body.
This is my story.
In my culture, there was always a space to be gender non-conforming as a kid. I was the dancing diva at every Indian dinner party, belly-dancing to all of the latest Bollywood hits as my aunties cheered me on.
But everything changed when I hit puberty.
Most boys are eager to tell you about the growing pains that become part of their lives when they shave boy and stumble into man. We are told that we are supposed be grateful for our burgeoning manhood, but for some of us, masculinity is nothing more than a form of violence when we realize that it’s not just our bodies that change, it’s society’s expectations of [us].
Suddenly, I was no longer allowed to dance. I was no longer allowed to wear colors. Every action was put under scrutiny. This is why the older boys in high school would roll down their pickup truck windows and tell me to go to hell. This is how I learned to fear myself more than I feared them: to walk around my small town in Texas with the constant paranoia of being bashed if I let myself deviate even a little bit -- that dash of color, that flick of a wrist, that sway in my walk.
The thing about gender-policing is that often you learn how to do it better than the people who started to do it to you in the first place. Over time, I learned to apologize for my body. Every time I would hear a recording of my voice I would wince, embarrassed at the tinge of effeminacy, disappointed in my failure to be normal. This is what gender meant to me: learning to deepen my voice, learning to hide myself in a button-up shirt that felt like a straitjacket.
. . .
Now that I’m older and I look back on my life I recognize that I didn’t want to be my sister growing up -- I just wanted to be me.
You see, we grow up in a country where we’re taught that there are only two genders. We are told that femininity is for "girls" and masculinity is for "boys," but there is no space for people like me: We who fall outside of these binaries, we who grow up not having the language to describe ourselves, we who are often erased from our cultures and histories and told that we are not supposed to exist.
And I wish I could tell you that it’s gotten totally better, but the truth is even in progressive spaces gender-policing is everywhere.
I’m told I don’t matter when I go home to my family and tell them that I am not their son, and they tell me I picked this "thing" up at school.
I’m told I don’t matter when I say that I use gender-neutral pronouns (they/them) but when people see my 5 o’clock shadow they immediately use male pronouns.
I'm told I don't matter when your building doesn't have a gender-neutral restroom.
Even in many LGBT spaces, we gender non-conforming people are told that we’re not "trans" enough, that we’re not "visible," enough, that we should just choose one gender or the other, that our genders are only valid if others say so. Sometimes it feels just as frustrating and as violent as it did growing up -- to not have control of my body, to have it always shaped by others’ assumptions.
I am fighting for a world where everyone, no matter what they look like, can self-determine their gender. I believe in a future where we don’t have anyone telling us how to express ourselves -- be that the bullies at school, the police, or even our own friends and families. I want every person questioning their gender out there to know that you are enough. That there is no one way to be a boy, a girl, or even transgender -- that there are as many genders as there are people on this planet.
Gender-policing isn’t just about individual slurs, policies, or bullies; it’s about a culture of assumptions. The only way we’re going to end it is if we stop just saying we shouldn’t make assumptions (that’s easy!), but actually also commit ourselves to the slow and deliberate work of doing it. Join me in creating a world where I can #livemytruth -- and where we all can.
Be sure to tune in to "Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word" on Friday, October 17 at 7 p.m. ET on MTV. Then catch up with Laverne and the cast on the MTV.com aftershow immediately ater the special airs.
For more on gender policing, visit Look Different.
Alok Vaid-Menon (@DarkMatterRage) is a trans/national queer South Asian activist and spoken word artist, as well as a member of Look Different’s Good Look Panel. You can read their work at www.returnthegayze.com