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'Are you ready to heal?': Nonbinary activist Alok Vaid-Menon deconstructs gender

In a viral clip from the podcast "Man Enough," the nonbinary poet and speaker said the gender binary hurts everyone — not just trans people.
Image: Alok Vaid-Menon in Oxfordshire, England on Nov. 22, 2019.
Alok Vaid-Menon in Oxfordshire, England, on Nov. 22, 2019.Stuart C. Wilson / Getty Images for The Business of Fashion

Nonbinary activist Alok Vaid-Menon broke down the history of and problems with the gender binary and how people can fight against it in video that has gone viral on social media.

Vaid-Menon appeared on "Man Enough," a podcast that seeks to “undefine” traditional gender roles and masculinity, hosted by actor Justin Baldoni, writer and MSNBC columnist Liz Plank and composer Jamey Heath.

In the episode, which premiered Monday, Vaid-Menon said the gender binary — the idea that there are only two genders rather than a spectrum — and the traditional expectations associated with binary gender labels hurt everyone, not just transgender people, and these fixed ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman make it difficult for people to find out who they truly are.

Toward the start of the conversation, Heath told Vaid-Menon that when he listens to them speak, he asks himself, "Why do I not fight for them?"

He asked what he needs to "unlearn" and what he needs to do to help other men unlearn, in order to better support them, referring to trans and nonbinary people like Vaid-Menon.

Vaid-Menon's response, which broke down how Heath could actually better support trans people, has gone viral.

"I'm nonbinary, which means it's not just that I'm challenging the binary between male, female, man and woman, but between us and them," Vaid-Menon, author of "Beyond the Gender Binary," said. "And in your statement, you said, 'Why don't I help them?' as if this struggle is not your struggle. The reason you don't fight for me is because you're not fighting for yourself fully."

They said though trans and nonbinary people face violence and death for challenging traditional gender norms, they don't want people to fight for their rights "because you want to protect me or you want to help me."

"I don't need your help," they said, adding that they "have an unshakable and irrevocable sense of who I am" and don't need to prove anything.

Rather than telling cisgender people how to help trans people, Vaid-Menon said they reframe the conversation to ask cisgender people if they're ready to heal from the ways the gender binary has affected them.

"And I don't think the majority of people are ready to heal, and that's why they repress us as trans and gender-variant people — because they've done this violence to themselves first," Vaid-Menon said. "They've repressed their own femininity. They've repressed their own gender nonconformity. They've repressed their own ambivalence. They've repressed their own creativity."

"So I guess I would rephrase your question to be, 'Can you help me get free?' not, 'Can you help me help you?'" they told Heath.

They later added that people need to have compassion before "comprehension" — meaning they need to have empathy for trans people even if they don't understand them.

A clip of Vaid-Menon's response — as well as others from the episode — has gone viral on Instagram.

Trans activist and actress Laverne Cox and actor Billy Porter both shared clips from the episode.

"Orange is the New Black" star Cox wrote, "@alokvmenon with the full sermon. Know that you're divine."

Billy Porter, who stars in "Pose," wrote that he "felt this on SO many levels."

"I don’t need your help. I don’t need you to show up to 'protect' me," Porter wrote on Instagram. "I don’t need to be legitimized. That hatred you feel when you see us having the audacity to live a life without compromise, that hatred is for yourSELF."

Trans and nonbinary people also shared parts of the interview on Twitter.

"I wish I could explain my existence as a non-binary person with this clarity," one person wrote.

Vaid-Menon later said when they talk about challenging traditional gender ideology, cisgender men often feel threatened.

That response has deep historical roots, they said, noting that they've studied gender, sexuality and sociology at Stanford University. In the early 20th century, when women were advocating for the right to vote, men created postcards that showed women dressed up as men and men dressed up as women, Vaid-Menon said.

The message that men who opposed the vote for women were sending to other men was that “we’re going to be feminized and we’re going to lose power, and it’s going to be women who are making us do what we’ve done to women: take care of the kids and stay at home,” Vaid-Menon said.

"Women were basically just saying, 'We want the right to vote,' and men heard that as 'I’m losing power,'" they said. "And then here we are, 100 years later, trans and gender-nonconforming people are saying, 'Hey everyone, I want to be able to exist, I want to be able to walk outside without being spat on, I want to be able to live and not fear dying.' ... And people are saying that’s a threat."

Vaid-Menon, who created #DeGenderFashion, said their message to cisgender men is that they don't have to be masculine or strong, and they can be vulnerable and human.

"People don’t know how to receive that love," they said. "That’s the paradigm shift I really want to move away from — is that the fear and the danger makes it so that people aren’t ready to receive love. People have been taught to fear the very things that have the potential to set them free."

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