A talk with ALOK: Inaugural Scholar of the Endowed LGBTQ+ Scholar-In-Residence Program

The author, poet, comedian, and public speaker spoke to Penn Today about challenging gender binary ahead of their residency with Penn’s LGBT Center.

ALOK in a flower field
The author, poet, comedian, and public speaker is the inaugural endowed LGBTQ+ scholar in residence at Penn. (Image: Kohl Murdock)

Here is ALOK: a glittery persona with lavish jewelry and equally lavish body hair. With a strong jawline and a strong look, they challenge what the world thought it knew about the gender binary.

The author, poet, comedian, and public speaker, who has 1.2 million Instagram followers, is about to add a new accolade to their resume as the inaugural endowed LGBTQ+ scholar in residence at the University of Pennsylvania.

ALOK, author of “Femme in Public” (2017), “Beyond the Gender Binary” (2020), and “Your Wound/My Garden” (2021), will spend four days on campus teaching and meeting students, including hosting a radical self-love and poetry workshop, as well as an evening of comedy and poetry at the Zellerbach Theatre, a free event open to all PennCard holders. This residency was made possible through an anonymous donation to the LGBT Center.

In a Q & A with Penn Today, ALOK discusses their creative process, self-love, and the art of becoming.

As the LGBT Center’s inaugural scholar-in-residence, what are your hopes for the Penn residency?

As an independent artist it’s rare to have opportunities to convene with an intellectual community. I’m looking forward to being in dialogue and the new ideas and possibilities that creates. Every innovation begins with a conversation.

What gives you optimism about this current generation of students?

On that note: What we believe is a byproduct of who we are in conversation with. My favorite scholars have taught me that knowledge production is collaborative and reciprocal: teachers always have the capacity to learn, and students the capacity to teach. This generation of students grew up in a profoundly different world than I did, which informs their practices and paradigms. This means we can approach the same problem from phenomenally different perspectives. And that’s what gives me hope: the widening of perspective. That perhaps what I view as insurmountable—isn’t.

You once described friendship as your ‘number one art form.’ How do you practice?

While we weren’t able to choose our families of origin, we can choose our friends. We come into our friendships with the baggage of who we were told we should be, and the earnest provocation: who might I become? Friendship is the art of becoming —together. It’s about devising a new way to establish trust and security that clarifies and actualizes the love we were told our families were meant to impart to us. So, friendship must be practiced both delicately and diligently: like any love poem. It’s about experimenting with new ways of communicating, witnessing, critiquing, cohabitating that are rooted in freedom. It’s about processing what those felt like on the other side. And then trying again. Friendship is a practice of trying. Trying to become the best versions of ourselves.

What was the last time you were in a flow state, when you were focused and immersed? What did that look like?

Recently I’ve been noticing the flow state during my improvised speeches. Sometimes I’ll make up a lecture on the spot. Sometimes I’ll treat a response on a panel as an opportunity to make up a new poem. The air becomes my page. And I’m here to report back: there’s nothing thin about it—air. Air is thick with material.

How important is beauty to you in your daily life, and where do you go for inspiration? What do you do to rejuvenate when you’re feeling low?

Beauty is the who/what/when/where/how I’m alive. Like the moon yanks the ocean, beauty is the gravitational force that gets me out of bed to write to you here. Beauty makes life habitable. I find that when I’m depressed it’s because I’ve strayed too far from it. So, I go out in search of art to be dazzled—once again—by that miraculous truth around us: amidst so much destruction we can still create.

In the past, you’ve been the target of hateful comments and remarks. Your response is often to note that the anger must come from the speaker’s own suffering. How do you develop and maintain this practice, and how do you situate it within the tradition of non-violence and radical love?

I learned that while I wasn’t responsible for my trauma, I was responsible for my healing. I started to take my healing seriously and attempt to love myself, despite everything I had been taught. In this (lifelong) pursuit of self-love I began to reflect on how I’ve used judgment of others as an armor to protect myself from experiencing a more primordial pain. I immersed myself in theologians of love like bell hooks, Thomas Merton, and Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, who clarified for me how essential it is to challenge all forms of dichotomy, especially the false distinction between ‘me’ and ‘you.’ This spiritual tradition of love taught me of the importance of embeddedness, that together we are greater than the sum of our parts—that we need each other at a fundamental level. The beauty of this awareness transformed me. Compassion is a daily choice that I make. It’s enriched my life so much—given me the stamina to keep going. Because, unlike fear, it rejuvenates. It’s our superpower.