The lights flash on. Two people meander on stage, and one begins an Indian chant while the other softly repeats, “Rewind my body. There is something I need to show you. I am only here, because my people survived.”
Then the two begin to shout, their intensity increasing with each verse, until they cry out, “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!”
The chanting starts again, punctured by words of hate. Then their voices become quieter and quieter until their breaths are consumed by a roar of applause.
The trans South Asian artistic duo DarkMatter gave a political performance to an audience of about 150 people at American University’s Kay Spiritual Life Center on Feb. 19. The Student Union Board, the Kennedy Political Union and Queers and Allies sponsored the duo, composed of Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian, who are regulars on the New York City circuit. The show, which focused on fighting the oppression of trans and gender nonconforming people of color, began with an open mic.
DarkMatter’s #ItGetsBitter tour covered serious topics — from liberating people of color from white supremacy and the death of trans women like Leelah Alcorn, who committed suicide in 2014 — to more playful and lighthearted pieces like politically correct nursery rhymes. One such nursery rhyme was, “If you’re happy and you know it, shut up and stop taking up space.”
Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian said their performance style derives from a variety of traditions from their own people and histories.
“[Our style comes from] that queer tradition of camp and fun and humor and playfulness that accompany very serious things that we’re talking about,” Balasubramanian said in a press conference before the performance. “And then I think this other tradition, at least for me, comes from my family’s own very wry, very dark sense of humor.”
During the performance, the two would speak together and then take turns delivering poems. Sometimes one would sit quietly in a chair while the other performed. At other times, they would interject with banter to bolster the other’s words.
Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian met at Stanford, where they started performing and writing together. For each, it was the first time they had seen another trans South Asian person.
“Growing up, all of the Indians are cisgender and straight, and all of the queer and trans people we met were white,” Vaid-Menon said. “So we were sort of like, ‘Do we exist?’”
Although the pair has been working together for seven years, they only started touring three years ago. They try to use their art as a way to incorporate lost and stolen Indian traditions and enlighten their audiences.
“We are actually an extremely creative people… and we’ve lost that legacy as part of our assimilation to the U.S.,” Vaid-Menon said. “So for me, being an artist is also a way of reconnecting with those lost and sacred traditions of my people and then learning more and more about the history of South Asian art.”
Balasubramanian also believes that art is a vehicle for critiquing one’s reality.
“I think there has been this false division that has been made between things called art and things called activism,” Balasubramanian said. “I think that a lot of ‘activism’ and community activism work and advocacy work has been and continues to be deeply, deeply creative.”
The duo’s unconventional sense of fashion is one example of this. According to Balasubramanian, their fashion becomes a form of activism when people have a moment of crisis, unsure how to respond to their style.
For Vaid-Menon, fashion became an important way to cope with growing up in a small town in Texas, surrounded by “straight, evangelical, Christian, republican white men.” They would create gowns out of towels when they were just 11 years old.
“I was constantly afraid for my safety and knew I could never identify as anything other than a straight man or a conservative,” Vaid-Menon said. “Fashion was always the way I was able to have control over my body in a society where I had no consent to the ways I was experiencing racism, homophobia, transphobia and Christian supremacy and conservatism, and all these things.”
Their clothes are meant to start a conversation about the brutality that trans and gender nonconforming people face.
“I think if you like our fashion, then you have to talk about police violence, then you have to talk about sex, then you have to talk about physical violence and all forms of murder against trans women and you have to talk about gentrification, because these are all linked up,” they said.
According to Vaid-Menon, white, cisgender men stole the gay movement from black and brown gender nonconforming people, who continue to be criminalized, attacked, killed and faced with high suicide rates today. For example, even though two trans women, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, started the 1969 Stonewall riots that sparked the gay liberation movement, the credit usually goes to gay white men.
“So please, one plea, one plea, don’t just come to the show and be like ‘Wow, I learned so much, interesting,’” they said. “What the hell are you going to do to fight to make sure that trans people are no longer murdered? This does not end when we die. It continues when you erase us, when you misgender us, when you do not speak our name.”
Despite this, Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian aren’t looking for allies.
“I’m not interested in allyship because another way to say it is ‘a lie,’” Vaid-Menon said in response to a question from the audience. “White people make an entire identity out of it…. You think we need you. We don’t need you. What we need you to do is move out of the way.”
Allegra Kartha, a member of Queers and Allies’ Queer and Trans People of Color Committee, hopes that seeing two trans speakers of color will help educate cisgender people and provide spaces for trans students of color on campus.
“Myself and my other team members are trying to create these spaces and educate the community about QTPOC because we are not being equally represented in the community or enough in Queers and Allies,” Kartha said. “I hope that the white folks on the campus will be able to see the queer and trans folks of color [and] get a message across.”
According to DarkMatter, the message is that everyone has worth.
“We all have a stake,” Vaid-Menon said. “And I’m not just talking about race. I’m talking about emotionality and recognizing that every single person in the world is a complex constellation of thousands of different emotions, ideas, dreams, desires, wants. And that’s beautiful.”