Photography by Benedict Evans. Janani Balasubramanian (left) and Alok Vaid-Menon.
The first thing you notice about DarkMatter is the lipstick. It’s bold, caked on real thick, defiant. They wear it like a badge or a weapon — like a big “fuck you.”
Trans South Asian performers Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian created DarkMatter in New York, where they’ve appeared at Lincoln Center and hosted sold-out shows at such venues as La MaMa Experimental Theater and the Brooklyn Museum. If the duo had to categorize their work (and really, they’d rather not), they would call it a mix of comedy, poetry, spoken word, fashion, and oral history, or, as they’ve put it, “a kind of collage.” They have also referred to themselves as living installations. Their piece for this year’s Under the Radar festival, an annual series of avant-garde productions held in Manhattan, was titled #ItGetsBitter. In it, they reassessed the gay rights movement through nursery rhymes and tart, quick-fire banter.
Their droll, biting routines — which take on everything from modern dating and social media to racism, homophobia, and colonialism — are captivating, breathless experiments that feel unnervingly timely and raw. But if Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian are born entertainers, they are also steadfast activists, radicals in the truest sense.
“Only 0.1% of philanthropy in this country goes to trans issues,” says Vaid-Menon, sitting in the New York office of the Audre Lorde Project, a community organizing and advocacy group focused largely on improving the lives of queer and trans people of color. “And the majority of that funding is for direct services — HIV testing, housing. And that’s really important, but literally no money goes specifically to trans people of color.”
Given that this is a group disproportionately affected by discrimination and police brutality, these statistics are shocking and disheartening. But according to DarkMatter, not as shocking and disheartening as the apathy surrounding them. “All these people who are saying they care about trans issues are actually not caring about them with their pocketbooks, and it feels very flat to me,” Vaid-Menon says. “I think that’s why I feel very tense about the visibility stuff — because people seem to think that retweets and reshares and social media are going to end trans violence.”
Still, the pair took to Facebook in March to criticize the International Transgender Day of Visibility, stating, “Instead of valorizing one type of trans visibility, let’s challenge the standards of visibility themselves (which are defined by white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and colonialism).” DarkMatter is instead supporting the Audre Lorde Trans Day of Action in June.
“Just putting a trans person in a magazine makes cis people feel good and makes a couple of trans people feel good,” says Vaid-Menon. “Like, ‘Oh, cool, we’re represented.’ But it doesn’t actually end the issues facing our communities.”
“Violence is actually increasing because of the demands of the gay community,” adds Balasubramanian, arguing that by “normalizing” gayness through gay marriage, the newly normal, largely cis, white, and male gay community has left trans people of color out in the cold.
This July, Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian will continue their #ItGetsBitter tour with a residency at Mount Tremper Arts Center in upstate New York. Their shows will no doubt address the theme of gender — specifically, how it should be deconstructed entirely. For DarkMatter, acceptance of nonconforming gender identities is not enough. In their minds, those who experience genuine attraction to traditional maleness or femaleness (including lesbians and gay men) are part of the problem.
“I’m more afraid of those white gay Chelsea men than I am of those homophobic people,” says Vaid-Menon, only half-jokingly.
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