How this Gender Non-Conforming Artist is Saving Lives with a Book Drive

Featured Image: Alok Vaid-Menon

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When Alok Vaid-Menon calls their new book “life-saving”, they’re not boasting.

One of OUT Magazine’s OUT 100, this gender non-conforming artist is on a mission to get their first book of prose, “Beyond the Binary”, into the hands of 5,000 LGBTQ youth across the country, just in time for Pride. Vaid-Menon has partnered with Equality Federation to host a nationwide book drive, where people can buy an ally copy for a youth. And at a time when LGBTQ youth are facing increased isolation, Vaid-Menon’s book couldn’t come soon enough.

Kathryn Gonzales, Operations and Programs Director of Out Youth — a nonprofit that serves LGBTQ youth of Central Texas and one of the local partner organizations, says the number one issue she is seeing for youth now is social isolation.

“We have youth sheltered in place with families who are unaccepting,” Gonzales said, “who are not only experiencing social isolation; they’re also experiencing harassment from their own family. Locked down in quarantine, social isolation directly leads to increased depression, anxiety, and other negative mental health issues.”

Vaid-Menon’s hopes their book can combat this isolation. “Beyond The Gender Binary”, one of the Pocket Change Collective series, not only offers youth much-needed representation and validation but also equips them to stand against the daily discrimination they face.

“A lot of the conversation around nonbinary gender,” Vaid-Menon says, “is really inaccessible and academic right now. What I do in this book is I break it down to really reach an ethical understanding, like a handbook. I want to equip them with rebuttal they could have so they can go to state legislators and go to their teachers and go everywhere to say ‘No, I am right, you are wrong.’”

Yes, they did say state legislators. Vaid-Menon was sure to partner with states that face anti-trans legislation, as well as their home state of Texas which has a history with bathroom bills and inaccessible healthcare. This is also relevant to teens under this past month’s onslaught of trans discriminatory healthcare, and author J.K. Rowling’s recently transphobic controversy.

Kerry Manzo, who founded local partnering nonprofit Out In West Texas in 2017 to advocate for the trans community in the Permian Basin region of Texas, says that before the organization started, mental health or medical care was virtually nonexistent. 

“When I went to the doctor to try to access hormone replacement therapy,” Manzo said, “I was told that ‘we don’t treat people like you’, and turned away. Being transgender in West Texas on any day is isolating. You don’t feel connected to this larger body of advocacy and work that’s being done. A pandemic doubles down on that isolation.”

Both Manzo and current President, Kaz Gonzales, hope that “Beyond the Binary” can help the trans community of West Texas feel more seen.

“Alok is from Texas,” Gonzales stressed. “For (youth) to see someone who is living so authentically and so fearlessly themselves, who loves themselves and is able to stand tall, it will give these kids a lot of hope.”

As Pride month nears an end, Vaid-Menon was able to exceed their goal, achieving over 5,400 donated books that will be distributed nation-wide. Virtually touring the country through Instagram live interviews and Zoom book clubs, Vaid-Menon is humbled to imagine that their book may be the first gender-affirming, queer book for many youths today.

“When I was growing up in Texas as a gender non-conforming person,” Vaid-Menon said, “I generally felt like there was no one in the world who would love me for me and that I would always have to live a life of isolation. So I really wanted to publically show as much as possible that there are people who accept trans and gender nonbinary people. I want my first published book of prose to be dedicated to young people.”