On a mild spring night at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Haydr Dutta, C’26, was backstage preparing to introduce ALOK, an internationally acclaimed author, poet, comedian, and public speaker whose work explores themes of trauma, belonging, and the human condition.
On stage, Haydr’s confident demeanor matched their heartfelt introduction. ALOK, in pink earrings, glittering eyeliner, and a vintage dress that stopped short of their hairy calves, did not disappoint.
ALOK, a gender non-conforming South Asian performance artist, is the inaugural Endowed LGBTQ+ Scholar-in-Residence, a residency made possible by an anonymous $2 million gift to Penn’s LGBT Center. Many Penn students were first introduced to ALOK on Instagram, where they regularly share thought-provoking posts and colorful couture outfits with their 1.2 million followers. During their four-day residency, ALOK presided over graduate classes, led workshops, gave the comedy and poetry performance, and shared meals with students. Throughout these public and private events, discussions ranged from trans identity and trauma to radical love, belonging, and the human condition.
Haydr, a health and societies major who hails from Bangalore, India, has considered ALOK a role model for many years. “In my application essay for Penn, I wrote about how ALOK was my favorite activist,” they said. “It was unbelievable to have the opportunity to introduce them at the comedy and poetry performance.”
Programming that features public figures who identify as trans and non-binary is especially important in 2023. Since the beginning of the year, more than 543 anti-trans bills have been proposed across the U.S., and 70 have already passed. “Right now, trans and non-binary communities are facing extremely harsh political backlash across the country,” says Jake Muscato, Associate Director of Penn’s LGBT Center. “With ALOK’s residency, we showed that trans and non-binary communities matter. Our voices matter. And we will continue to create spaces for trans and non-binary scholars at Penn.”
“It’s about visibility,” says Haydr. “ALOK was the first person I saw who was South Asian, trans, and non-binary. ALOK is so many things: a scholar, activist, poet, radical self-love proponent, pro-body hair. And they’re unapologetically themself.”
By all accounts, the ALOK residency was a success. The audience at the comedy and poetry performance was buzzing in anticipation and excitement. ALOK’s performance that night was at times hilarious and halting, vacillating between a tight stand-up set and performance poetry that left the crowd so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
“LGBTQ+ scholars belong in academia,” says Muscato. “LGBTQ+ students need to see themselves reflected in higher education, so they know with complete certainty that they have every right to be here. I know that this residency will encourage more LGBTQ+ folks to pursue academia and engage in important conversations around equity and inclusion.”