Vaishali Patra (she/they)

Blog Posts by CUNY Peer Leaders

A Leader Worth Noting

Posted by Vaishali Patra (she/they) on

Coming to terms with my identity, especially queerness, has been incredibly difficult. I still find myself questioning my identity frequently. A big part of my project for this program revolves around this theme. For the past few years, I have been drawn towards queer artists and look up to them for inspiration. One of them is Alok Vaid-Menon, a poet, artist, performer, and more. They also go by the moniker Alok and use they/them pronouns.

Alok Vaid-Menon Finds Beauty Beyond Gender - The New York Times
Alok Vaid-Menon

Since poetry is so close to my heart, I’ve always admired their poems. But after I began questioning my gender identity, I felt a closer connection to their work. Both of us are genderfluid and Indian. This brings me a lot of comfort. At times, while my questioning process was especially difficult, seeing a brown queer person alive and thriving in this world gave me some hope for the future.

Alok holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University where they studied feminist, gender and sexuality studies during their undergraduate years and sociology thereafter. They make use of this knowledge to educate their followers on social media, especially Instagram (@alokvmenon). They post book reviews and share important historical details about queer communities of color that often go overlooked, or are violently erased. Some topics they’ve spoken about include medical racism, the colonial history of the gender binary, white feminism, the racist history of body hair removal, mental health, and more.

Their book Beyond the Gender Binary was published in 2020 and was made available to queer youth across the U.S. for free. It was included on a list of 850 books to be banned by Texas Republican State Representative Matt Krause for causing “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of an individual’s race or sex.” But during a time when anti-trans legislation has been at an all-time high in the country, their work is even more important to spread awareness and support the LGBTQ+ community.

Writer Alok Vaid-Menon: 'What Feminine Part of Yourself Did You Kill?'

I feel incredibly grateful to have idols like Alok to look up to, even if there aren’t many of us out in the public eye. Their words always act as reminders that despite all the negativity and discrimination, there is hope.

Blog Posts by CUNY Peer Leaders

How do I create change in my communities?

Posted by Vaishali Patra (she/they) on

As a person belonging to several communities, I think the first step towards creating change is emotional support and companionship. Change can often be difficult to bring about if there is no understanding of the needs and struggles of the members in a community.

I also find it helpful to educate myself about the history of each community I belong to. For instance, I’m South Asian and queer. To create change in these communities, I need to know the historical context for the issues we face. Of course, no community is a monolith and there’s sometimes conflict within, but it always helps to understand where we’re coming from historically.

Being introverted, it is quite challenging for me to create change by interacting with people. I am not the kind of person who can advocate and campaign easily. But what I have found to be helpful is to reserve my social energy for people and groups where it is genuinely needed. I try to create change in my immediate social circles and my family. I try to emotionally support and share resources with people who are struggling with issues like mental illness, discrimination, racism, queerphobia, sexual assault etc. Something that helped me get better at supporting others is starting therapy for my own mental health. I was able to learn how to navigate difficult emotions and stay calm under stress.

Sometimes, the communities I find myself in don’t face problems but instead are the perpetrators. A good example of this is the caste discrimination and anti-Black racism that is so common in Indian families like mine. In these situations, it is usually difficult to challenge my elders especially if they aren’t willing to broaden their worldview. But calmly presenting them with facts and engaging in healthy debate has been helpful.

Another really important method for me to engage with my communities is to participate in protests and sign petitions. It gives me an opportunity to create change beyond my immediate circles and be a part of something bigger. Most social movements I am involved in are based in India but a protest I went to in the U.S. was last year in support of Palestine’s liberation. It’s not possible to single-handedly create any significant change but taking an initiative and even making a small contribution within your communities goes a long way.

Blog Posts by CUNY Peer Leaders

Who determines the criteria for expertise?

Posted by Vaishali Patra (she/they) on

To call myself an “expert” feels like I’m committing some sort of crime. But I think I’m going to allow myself a little bit of tenderness today, and acknowledge that there are things I have spent years learning which deserve recognition.

I started writing poetry in high school, like any other shy introverted kid. One day, a classmate discovered my notebook under my desk while I was away. When I returned to my seat, I found out that it had been passed around and quite a handful of people had read my poetry, and told me that they liked it.

I started writing more often after that, even started my own blog (which is now discontinued, sadly). I used to write about the loneliness that comes with moving cities frequently. New York is the tenth city I’m living in and I’m only 20, you can imagine how hard of a time I must’ve had constantly adjusting to new cultures.

But as I grew older, I started questioning the loss of culture, language, and heritage that comes with migration/immigration. Mostly, the pain of colonialism. Why was I writing in the language of my colonizer? Why was I forbidden from speaking my mother tongue in school? Why couldn’t I translate my poems and read them to my mother?

A poet whose work was particularly inspiring to me was Safia Elhillo. She writes about her experience of being a Black Muslim immigrant woman who also moved cities frequently growing up. Some lines I love from her collection Alien Suite are:

“i have an accent in every language

i want to be left alone but    that’s not how you make grandchildren

i can’t go home with you    home is a place in time

(that’s not how you get me        to dance)

i’m not from here     i’m not from anywhere”

Lately, I have been trying to write about topics that I struggle to express: being queer and suffering from mental illness. I also started a poetry club at Queens College this year to foster a community of young poets. It hasn’t had a great start due to COVID but I’m hoping it survives till we get back on campus.

Maybe I am not an expert at poetry but I have been wondering who determines the criteria for “expertise” when not everyone in the world has access to the same resources to build expertise? Who has the privilege to qualify for awards like the Pulitzer anyway? I think categorizing people on the basis of their skill and knowledge isn’t too far away from white supremacy and classism.

When it comes to poetry specifically, I can’t help but think about how my grandmothers are illiterate. And even though my mom is bilingual, I belong to the first generation of women who can communicate in English. I would be lying if I said all languages are regarded with the same level of respect in the literary world. You definitely need to know some level of English to gain wider recognition.

With this background, wouldn’t it be a little unrealistic for me to expect that I can turn into an expert within one generation? This applies to most of my peers too; we are held up to standards that we aren’t even given the resources to prepare for. And maybe we all deserve to be known as experts in our own rights.

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