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Beyond the Gender Binary with Demi Lovato and ALOK | SXSW 2021

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SXSW 2021
March 16, 2021, Online, Austin, USA
SXSW 2021
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Beyond the Gender Binary with Demi Lovato and ALOK | SXSW 2021
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About speakers

Demi Lovato
Singer
Alok Vaid-Menon
Writer & Performance Artist at ALOK

Global superstar Demi Lovato is a multi-platinum, GRAMMY-nominated singer, actress, producer, and best-selling author with one of the biggest social media followings of 108+ million. Her 2008 debut album, Don’t Forget, was followed with sold-out world tours and five hit records. Lovato has been honored with numerous awards including an MTV Video Music Award, five People’s Choice Awards, an ALMA Award, a Latin American Music Award, a GLAAD Vanguard Award for LGBTQ activism, and two GRAMMY and four Billboard Music Award nominations. Lovato is a passionate and outspoken global advocate for mental health, body positivity, and LGBTQ issues.

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ALOK (@alokvmenon) is a gender non-conforming writer and performance artist whose distinctive style and poetic challenge to the gender binary have been internationally renowned. They are the author of Femme in Public (2017) and Beyond the Gender Binary (2020) and are currently the artist in residence at the Annette von Droste zu Hülshoff-Stiftung Foundation Center for Literature.

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About the talk

With increasing recognition of the fluidity of gender, the time has come for a 21st century approach to gender justice. Dividing billions of people into one of two categories “man or woman” is not natural, it is political. Gender diversity is an integral part of our existence. It always has been, and it always will be. The gender binary – the idea that there are only two separate and opposite genders – was built to create conflict and division, not foster creativity and humanity. In this conversation ALOK and Demi Lovato will speak about the status of trans rights in the United States and the power of creative self-expression in the face of gender norms.

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Hey guys, it's me Demi and I'm so excited to be talking to one of my favorite people on the planet. They are such a lighthouse, and this is a load, everyone say hi to a loaf. I'm so excited that we get to be talkin about everything, everything gender and sexual diversity today, if you don't mind and I figured we could both answer them. The first question is for, you know, we've had tons of discussions about this but for people who aren't as familiar, what is the gender

binary? And why is it holding us back to tell people? That suddenly there's no more colors. There's two colors. People be like, what are you talking about? And that's what we do with gender. We take something that is so special and diverse. And we collapse it and to just one of two categories and divide billions of spiritual complex, people into one of two boxes. That's not a biological fact, that's a social choice. So, the reason the gender binary is holding its Is it actually prevents us from expressing

ourselves creatively and being who we want to be? Not who were told that we should be. I know that ever since I met you, I felt more comfortable in my own skin and also, I like, you know, shutting some of those gender Norms that have been placed on me as a teenager or add my whole life actually, and I'm really excited to share that experience with other people, you know, showing that it it's it's so we are so much more than two categories and it's not even if it's so much more socially constructed than it even has Medical.

Oh, I know, but I just wanted to I also wanted to ask what is moving beyond the gender binary actually mean, I think a lot of people think that we're trying to make everyone non-binary and that Were Somehow shaming people for being men or women. But I want to make really clear. There's no shame here. We're not interested in actually we're moving beyond, the gender. Binary means is that you get to decide what your gender is. Other people don't get to tell you who you are, and you get to decide what, man and woman or be non-binary means to you is actually about

recognizing that there's as many ways to be women. As there are women, there's as many ways to be men. As there are men and there's as many ways to be non-binary. As there are non-binary and I think you know as your friend watching you continually redefine yourself, is what it means to move beyond. The gender binary is to actually recognize that were constantly changing and that bass Liberty is something that's beautiful. The reason the gender binary hold us back is it prioritizes tradition from like hundreds of years ago, rather than actually focusing on who we are right now? Yeah, and I

also feel like it limits, our Evolution as a species humans. I feel like when you put us when you put those boundaries on us, limit us from evolving into into being so much more than just these two categories. Like you were saying and it's beautiful ever since I've started to really do a lot of work on myself, I've learned to embrace the parts of me that are masculine and embrace the parts of me that are feminine. And you know, playing with that has been really, really fun. And I feel like everyone can do

that. Whether they identify as, you know, and I'm buying her or not. And you know what? I find really interesting. Compelling about both of our stories is that we've both been negatively impacted by gender norms and our own way. I wanted to ask you, how have gender Norms hurt, you, and your life gender Norms hurt me in my life because It's really difficult to grow up as a woman in the entertainment industry because at certain points in my life. I thought I had to be something other than I was,

you know, I played up the the sexual side of myself when I turned a certain age. And when I started embracing my sexuality a little bit more, I thought that I had to display it for everybody in order to, I don't know. It's a really feel more like an adult woman and what at what I didn't realize is that, that's, that's actually not who I was and didn't want to be at the time, but I took on that role as it was my identity, and that's what we do with gender Norms as we take on these roles

of. Well, I'm supposed to be a strong woman, so I, you know, I'm going to shut my emotions off. I'm not going to listen to my in. Wish and when I'm hungry or this or that, and I did that my whole, my whole life and over the past year, getting to know what parts of me that are feminine in the parts of me that are masculine. What works for me, doesn't has really been so beneficial to my spiritual Evolution and I think that's what it's all about is like as I've been going on the spiritual Evolution, just identifying more parts of me that like like

what are the parts of me that work? And and what do I want to take into the person? I want to become? I think that's so beautiful. Ultimately, it's about choice, right? Like gender Norms value US for who we are supposed to be, rather than who we choose to be. And I think so often people get scared of us as non-binary and Transit gender non-conforming people because we're actually saying a very beautiful and merciful thing which is we believe and your right to have a And then people are like wait I get to have a choice like I didn't know, I get to have a choice and I

think people are afraid of freedom because some of the way that Mental Health Works in this country is were taught that you should live, someone else's fantasy of who you should be and not live your own life and if you live your own life, that somehow a threat to other people. So I think that both of us have done such powerful work to reclaim our souls, reclaim our mental health, from other people's idea of who we should be, maybe if we could speak a little bit about the power of creative self-expression. I love to hear from you. Like, how being able to do that work of

determining who you are, has benefited your life. creative expression, for me, it's been It's been my outlet you know the way that I dressed the way that I write my music, the way that I perform everything, that's the way that I style my house. Like creative expression for me is freedom to be who I am and An intern that actually helps other people accept themselves more and become who they are. Because if they can see us with creative freedom, living our

lives, and living our truths, it makes other people want to do the same. And that's why you came over to my house on Valentines, and it was so amazing. You just up to the to the nines and, you know, you made a really incredible when you said I don't just dress up for myself, I dress up for other people, as well. And, you know, when you went on to elaborate, it was because You want other people to see your joy and your light and be attracted to that and be inspired to live their truth and I just want you to know, like that's so beautiful and it's inspired me to live

my truth more as well. That's the effect that creative expression can have on someone, especially when they're when they feel so isolated, you know, growing up and in the South I I had the same gender Norms placed on me and sexuality or displaced on me that I really didn't identify with. So I felt alone. But music was always the one thing that helped and overtime. It's just helped me even more learn who I am and I am excited to, to be the person I am. Today art has helped

me. Understand that healing is possible. I thought that loneliness was the only way to exist, but are actually help me connect with the people like you in my life who I was waiting to me all along other people who value me for, who I was not some fantasy of what I should be. And other people who found me beautiful because I was different. Not because I can for, I think. What's So Scary About gender Norms, is that at a fundamental level we feel like we're only lovable if we perform what other people want us to be.

And we fear that if we're actually ourselves that no one will love us. And that sphere has such an extreme impact on her mental health. I know both you and I have been so vocal about speaking about our struggles of mental health. But a big part of that for me, has been around gender that people have all these expectations of what I should be doing and how I should be acting of what I should be wearing. That I never consented to. And so, actually, now that I get to choose everyday who I am. My mental health has never been better. I talked a little bit about why I cut my hair

ends for me, you know, it's one of the reasons was I used to hide behind my hair but and I and I talked about how I used to hide behind everybody image issues. But the main reason is, I used to hide behind it. like with I was holding on to my femininity, like, like it was the last thing that I needed to shed before I fully accept myself. And once I strips that you do, I was really scared of the world being like, why she cut her hair? You know, it's it's not cute. A lot of my fans also, they push this on me. We want your long hair, we want this. And it's like this.

I can't always be who other people want me to be. I have to start living for myself instead this year, I did and I have never been happier. Like, you. That makes me so happy and I think it's a really spiritual thing. What we're doing because what we're saying is like, through surrender, like we actually get piece Like no longer fighting other people's ideas or projections if we should be but just surrendering to like our Beauty and our truth and our authenticity. It's so funny because people often ask me, you know, like well are you fighting for

more power for Transit gender non-conforming people? And I'm like, yeah but I think what I'm actually fighting for us is to no longer need power, is to actually be vulnerable with one another and vulnerability requires in some ways, giving up power, and actually being there for each other and, like, seeing each other, I feel like people are so afraid of experimenting with their gender because they're afraid of vulnerability, and that's why I think, every time I speak about gender, I speak about mental health, because they're one in the same.

and, and I, I want to ask you to. I didn't know that we touched a lot about this, but how have gender Norms negatively impacted your life and like what helped you? Get out of that, you know, you said, you, they go hand-in-hand. When your mental health was struggling, how did you, how did you come out of that gender Norms be first and foremost? Because every day I go outside, I have to make the choice between authenticity and safety. And that's the reality for many Transit. Gender non-conforming people of color like me,

is that because Society has such a rigid ideas of what they think that a quote man should act like or like what a woman should look like they literally punish us into submission. So harassment becomes a way of reinforcing these arbitrary stereotypes and disincentivizing freedom, they say. So if you actually privatize yourself we're going to punish you to put you back in your place. And so for a long time, I didn't express myself not because I didn't want to because I was Afraid of my physical emotional safety,

but then I started to realize something over the past two years, which is my mental health is also about my physical safety. People always want to make mental and physical health separate. So, people would say to me, while if you just tone it down, then you won't experience violence. But if I'm turning it down, I'm in violence to myself. And if I want to be living, not just existing, I actually have to live my truth because that physically hurts my body mental health, has a negative impact on our body.

And so, I think what I really had to realize is that expressing myself is an act of love for myself. Every outfit that I put together is an act of love for myself in the world. That the reason that I am fighting so hard against gender Norms is because of compassion Is because I want people to be able to self author themselves and be safe and not just space but celebrate it. And I think that's what our gift is as artists. The world is we teach people, you deserve to be loved for who you are and we

will celebrate you for what makes you uniquely you a little bit about expectations. You know, 2021 is already off to a very difficult start especially for the trans Community with anti-trans legislation being introduced all over the country. Can you catch us up to speed with what's going on? So a lot of people don't understand the state of emergency, that is facing trans and non-binary people right now. 2020 was officially the most deadly year on record for the trans Community with heightened, murders of especially, black Trans women. And in 2021, we've

already seen seven reported murders of transcendence. And it's not even halfway through the year. This is an unacceptable travesty and this kind of hate violence is actually being enabled and espoused by mainstream political establishment and media in this country and facts in 2021, there are over twenty states that are now debating over 30 pieces of anti-trans legislation. If this kind of coordinated attack on the Civil Rights or the human rights of another Community, what's happening people would call this an

emergency. But because it's happening to trans people, people aren't speaking about it, in fact, mainstream media isn't even talking about it. So what these pieces of legislation look like are in Iowa, they're trying to ban teachers from talking about trans people or gender identity and we know from history and places like the UK would section 28 where they made it. Illegal to speak about homosexuality just had such a horrible negative impact on the mental health of lgbtq people in places like Indiana, they're trying to make it. So you can only use a

restroom consistent with your chromosomes. Like, I supposed to know your chromosomes and why is that relevant to our state's? They're trying to criminalize doctors for giving life of firming Healthcare to transcend. Gender non-conforming young people and other states, there, trying to ban trans athletes from competing in sports and then finally they're also trying to forcibly out trans young people to their families which could lead to the ongoing crisis of transcend gender non-conforming homelessness. Ultimately, what we can learn from all of

this legislation is that the explicit agenda? Here is twofold. First, it's to erase lgbtq, and especially And the generals and boring people at the agenda is to make it impossible to be trans and to live a trance life. Then secondly, they're trying to distract people from the real issues that are happening in this country. It's not a coincidence that now, we passed over 500,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic and legislators are more concerned with policing transcend gender non-conforming youth then responding to the real

travesty and pandemic. So what they're doing is trying to distract people from the most important issues of our time, like climate change like racial Justice, like the health care crisis in this country. People lacking access to adequate health care and to the way that you do that. If you say look at these people over here and look at what they're wearing, these are non issues and it's really important that people understand. That's why we need to all show up for transit number. Because we're being used as a diversionary tactic, as a scare tactic to prevent people from actually

working together to create a better country for everyone. Yeah, I'm just going to put that on, repeat for like all my Instagram, just four hours. Everyone needs to hear that. That right there is so true. You're just speaking. Just straight trip airfare. I had a question for you around this, you know, I often feel like the way that people can get away with doing this is that people don't feel like they're worth being cared for. So they'll be like, oh, I'm okay. Like with the government not giving me economic

relief during the pandemic. I'm okay with not having health care because they're okay with treating themselves badly. And when you begin to advocate for yourself, you begin to notice other people are treating me badly. How are you? I know, it's a work-in-progress. How are you claiming space in the world and saying I'm worth being treated with respect because I think if anything what we're trying to teach the world is trans and gender-nonconforming people is your worthy of respect and it feels like so many people who are not transorb so many people who are not challenging

gender Norms. Don't feel like they're worthy of respect, you know, it's it's definitely a work in progress and it's something that I've had to really work on for years and is learning my worth learning. Learning my values with important to me, when I started taking care of myself and really advocating for myself, there was a sense of urgency to start advocating for other people. And that's been the most rewarding part about this self-exploration journey is that, yes, I really started to help myself, but it's actually

helped so many more because now that I have taken on more of an activist role, especially on my Instagram, you know, posting more and more information for people to learn about what's going on in the world today, posted more and more. It's it's helping them take a look at at themselves. And then how, you know, I've had tons of friends. Say how can I help, how can I be, how can I be spreading information, like you, and I'm like, to repost whatever I'm posting, or or keep searching and and it's been It has been the most beautiful part, and and I

think that we have to, we all have to go within to really be able to help others. But once we can do that, Coming together that Community is. It's, it's so rewarding to know that you're not alone and that's why I appreciate our friendship so much because you've been there for me. And, and I just feel like we've been there for each other and I just feel like, you know, I couldn't have gotten there had I not worked on myself first. What I'm hearing and what you're saying is such a powerful truth,

which is that, by practicing self-compassion, we have compassion for the world and that is a non-binary lesson, which is we're not just trying to challenge the binary of man, woman male female, but also me and you, and we're trying to say, if we really love each other, we recognize that we love the world because we love ourselves, we love ourselves because we loved the world. And that's what I'm really asking people to recognize is that there's no dignity and living in a world where Transit gender non-conforming people are treated with so much malice and disregard, what kind of

spiritual crisis are we in for people can come after some of the most vulnerable people in the world knowing that's going to lead to the ongoing crisis of suicide of houseless nest of discrimination. I don't want to be a part of that world. So for anyone is listening who maybe not Dead 2, Identify as trans understand. This is also your fight because we're trying to create a more compassionate and just world where, all people matter more than their bodies. And I think that's a lesson and your, and my work done, which is, you are so much more than a body. And when I read

this legislation, trying to Define people by their, by their genitals or by their chromosomes, do we have sole, and we need to be respected for our souls, not just our bodies. So that's exactly how I see it. And you don't even growing up Christian. I was taught my body is a Temple and so I see my body as just a temporary shell for my soul while I'm here, that's the same with everyone. We have to look past our shelves to connect to each other. Well, thank you so much. I love I

I love you endlessly. I am So grateful for our friendship and I can't wait to see you again. And thank you everybody for watching this spread this conversation with with everyone, you know, so that you can help being out and Yeah, and I love you guys. Thank you.

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Demi Lovato
Alok Vaid-Menon