We Are Nothing (and That is Beautiful)
by Alok Vaid-Menon
Alok Vaid-Menon is a queer South Asian artist and activist who has performed and organized with queer movements in the United States, South Africa, Palestine, and India. They currently organize at the Audre Lorde Project, an activist organizing center for queer people of color based in New York.
Full transcript of video below:
I <3 Dark Matter.
Honored to make up 1/4 of the portrait for The Advocate’s Black Queer And American cover (other faces include fellow The Out List stars Twiggy Pucci Garcon, Wanda Sykes & Wade Davis).
On Wednesday, I delivered the commencement address at Columbia University and Barnard’s Lavender Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2013. Here’s a photo of me with active and graduating members of PROUD COLORS, a fly collective of queer students of color who are actively creating space for intersectionality on their campus. You can download their zines here.
Elated to hear that my dear sister reina gossett was a member during her time at Columbia. The legacy of fly brilliance is alive and well, y’all.
While reading, I was stunned to see that the news section of the magazine not only covered trans folks and restroom use, but also a story from a 29-year-old trans woman of color named Brandi Ahzionae.
In the one-page profile (on page 15), Brandy opens up about her journey towards womanhood, about having to leave home due to a lack of acceptance of her gender, about “turn[ing] to the streets,” about using drugs and partying as a means to cope and about daring to survive this hostile world by engaging in the sex trade.
"My life shifted when I met a group of fellow tarns sisters who provided love I’d never felt before," Brandi says. "They made me feel comfortable about fully transitioning."
Never underestimate the transformative power of sisterhood. We need more spaces dedicated to collective growth, learning and pro-sisterhood intent.
To have this story featured in a legendary black publication, one read by many black households, is a feat. When our stories are told not only in “mainstream press” (which is way far behind) and by the “LGbt mainstream” (which is also failing us and trans and queer folk of color miserably), but in the publications read by communities of color, true acceptance and growth occurs.
We hear often about the violent exiling of trans women of color, we hear about our vulnerability when it comes to HIV/AIDS, homelessness, sex work and sex trade, lack of employment, housing, shelter and education. But what we do not hear often is the stories and the voices of black trans women like Brandi, like Kiara St. James and Tanya Walker and numerous other sisters of color. My voice, Laverne Cox's voice, Isis King's voice is not enough.
I applaud you, my dear sister Brandi, for daring to be seen, for sharing your story with all of us, for carrying the torch and legacy of active resistance and survival that trans women of color have long uplifted. I also applaud the editors of Jet for recognizing Brandi’s resilience and brilliance - and embracing trans women as your sisters and daughters too.
Now we must call on the rest of our communities to do this embracing work and ignite change for all of our sisters.
The question I’m most often asked is actually not really about me. It’s about the man I love.
Is he gay now that he loves you?
Aaron’s identity comes into question at nearly every panel, every speech, every event we attend together. Our love is considered revolutionary - not because we love wholly, but because he loves me. Instead of being a man who chooses to love (which is revolutionary itself), he becomes the sexuality-questioning man who loves the trans woman.
The way he holds me, nurtures me, whispers in my ear to tell me, "You are the most relevant woman on my planet"… Those deep, inside-turning core beliefs of love and intimacy and true partnership are overlooked because I chose to be wholly me, discarding the sex assigned to me at birth.
This is what I thought of when reading Frank Ocean’s letter to the world. People reacted to the man he loved, rather than the fact that Ocean was brave enough to love and to act on that love - regardless of gender.
I understand deeply how powerful it is that this beautifully talented black man has stepped forward and shared his heart with all of us. But I’m also faced with contradictory beliefs: I want more to do so while toggling the irksome notion that more *have* to justify their hearts because of our judgments.
I feel love has no gender, no body, no boundaries. It is we who put such limits and restrictions and rules on something so intimate and pure. Yet I know definitions and words and labels help us shape our world, and I even reach to bell hooks for guidance, as she posits in All About Love, “Imagine how much easier it would be for us to learn how to love if we began with a shared definition.”
hooks goes on to quote psychiatrist M. Scott Peck: ”Love is as love does. Love is an act of will-namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love." (emphasis is mine)
And in Ocean acting to love this man by revealing his heart to him despite the boundaries we all put on him and the disappointing outcome of this unrequited love, he is revolutionary, and the bravest sort. But what is also implicit in his public letter to us is that he, in his act of choosing to love despite gender, Ocean also chooses to love himself without restrictions. And if more of our people chose to love themselves, they would protect their hearts and bodies in every act of love.
"I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore," Ocean writes, adding, "To my first love, I’m grateful for you. Grateful that even though it wasn’t what I hoped for and even though it was never enough. It was."
Lastly: "I feel like a free man."
Stay free and keep loving, my beautiful brother.