My journey from Catholic Sunday school teacher to unapologetically Queer has taught me not to run away from my sorrows or fears, but rather experience them and follow them to my deeper unrealized desires. I am asking the broader Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) movement and it’s supporters to do something similar: listen to our communities’ heartaches, love ourselves through painful realities, understand our fears, and follow these sorrows to deeper unrealized desires and aspirations.
I went through my teens in a socially conservative Catholic Sri Lankan Tamil immigrant family in 1980’s & 90’s Texas. The pressure to get married to a man is a stress I have endured starting as early as 10 years old. By the time I was 12, I was clear it was not what I wanted for my life. Though I wanted the dignity and acceptance that I thought came from being attractive to boys, the idea of marriage suffocated me. Being religious, I did my best not to think about being attracted to women. I became convinced love was a collective hallucination that fairy tales and romantic movies fostered to make little girls insane.
I was a social outcast and teased for so many reasons. As the first of my family raised outside of Sri Lanka, my parents knew little, or thought absurd, American feminine teen norms of shaving your legs, wearing skirts above the knee, or wearing deodorant/make up/hair spray/name brands. I was small, wore thick lensed glasses, and, as a Tamil, darker than any other lanky-armed “Indian-looking” girl running track with unshaven legs. In junior high, I got branded with slurs like “cockroach” and “orangutan arms” and was the object of more than a few “let’s make over the ugly girl” and “I triple dare you to ask cockroach out on a date” sessions. My mustache garnered the insult(s) of Lesbian & Dyke, but since I had no idea what that was, the sting was less. (I thought Dyke was a southern way of saying Dick. I learned what a Dick was in first grade in San Francisco, fresh off the plane from England, I asked a classmate to pass me the rubber [in England that’s an eraser]).
At home, my parents were under an entirely different level of pressure. Sri Lanka was engaged in a horrific civil conflict, the longest war in modern Asia. Our family is of the Tamil ethnic minority that was systematically discriminated by the state and whose political voice got hijacked by a rebel group (the Tamil Tigers) that countered the monstrosities of the state through ruthless tactics. Our family is from the areas where the war raged. As a teen, my mother escaped peaceful demonstrations tear-gassed by the state. By the time my father was eight he had witnessed Tamils doused in gasoline and burned alive in front of him by a racist mob. A combination of privilege, luck, sacrifice, exceptionalism, and debt had it so that I grew up playing on American black tops, apartment complex playgrounds, suburban cul-de-sacs, and splashing in subdivision pools. Meanwhile, my aunty breast-fed my cousin hiding in chicken coops to keep from being killed. Another cousin, two years old, was shot by helicopter fire as she laughed in the yard watching Uncle dig a bunker. And as food and holidays stretched, as school was interrupted by displacement and fighting, my aunties were convincing their teenagers not to join the rebels. Countless calls came in the middle of the night informing my parents of someone else they grew up with being killed, of another person needing support to escape, and desperate requests for more money. My parents had little patience for my whining about Guess jeans and waxing my mustache. Fights went quickly from zero to a hundred. I understood I had two things I was allowed to be concerned with: studying and remaining marriageable for a “suitable” Tamil Catholic man. Shaving my legs, wanting the approval of freckled blonde boys, or crying about scratching up girls trying to stuff me in a gym locker, did not fit into that equation.
Suicide and running away were constant daydreams of mine. Like so many resilient outcast young people, however, I found a life outside of school and my home. While there were no Lesbian discernment groups or Gay-Straight alliances where I was, I had the privileges of finding solace and hectically juggling away my problems by getting involved with church, running track, performing with a community theater, taking dance classes, and working as a babysitter. My dance & theater friends embraced my weird, shared my passions, and taught me how to shoplift lipstick, deodorant, razors, and bras. My track friends cheered for me no matter what place I was at; were the first to unearth the true essence of my dancing soul; and taught me mantras like “dynamite comes in small packages” and “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” Working let me pay for mustache waxing, a new wardrobe from thrift & discount stores, tickets to dances, and other forbidden items.
And church. Church gave me a space for my soul to sing in collective praise, a group of friends more interested in “doing good” than “what to wear,” and a place for my heart to ache in silent prayer. I was all in when it came to church. I joined the youth and adult choirs, became a Sunday school teacher, was on the church youth board, and was a confirmation sponsor. I went to church at least three times more than my parents did; I still have catalogs of Christian children’s songs stored in my brain. Being any kind of die-hard Christian in Texas has a little zest to it, even if you’re not evangelical. So it is confusing to many, how I went from zesty Sunday school teacher aching for the attention of blue eyes, to a radical Queer anti-capitalist performing artist who is strongly connected and committed to communities of color.
My journey has been one of healing my own wounds, releasing guilt, mourning injustice, refusing to be at the mercy of other people’s bigotries, challenging my own place in oppressive systems, and becoming an accomplice in the sovereignty of the outcast, marginalized and oppressed. Despite intense homophobia from multiple communities that I am deeply connected to, I have been out as Queer for over fifteen years. I am deeply in love and building my life with a Two Spirit woman.
You would think. That I would be. Rejoicing in the streets. Now that Gay Marriage has been legalized in the US. And yes, it is amazing. When I was a child, all I knew about being gay was the TV show “Three’s Company.” Now, on every major news network LGBTQ people are speaking openly about their experiences, expressing their love, claiming their dignity, and celebrating their relationships. My wife and I, though not legally married, have the choice to access rights that impact how we raise children, care for each other when sick, and share resources. Still, as I raise my glass, my heart aches and pounds deeply. And it is infuriating some members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual community that I am not celebrating with them, wholeheartedly.
As a performing artist, I collaborate with my partner/wife/Kueen, Jendog Lonewolf. Jendog is a Hip Hop MC and photographer of Caymanian, Black and Native American descent who grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Together, we travel and perform work about our lives, perspectives, and communities. We intentionally perform for audiences who are very new to the ideas we explore, sometimes putting our lives at risk. We are used to talking lovingly to and navigating our safety amongst people who believe our relationship is wrong and/or find our political views outrageous. We have dedicated our lives to catalyzing conversations, opening hearts, building trust, and sharing information on a grass roots level with “everyday people” of all racial, class, education, ability, age, and gender backgrounds.
I find this work essential, as I’ve observed that without engaging across different communities, higher visibility can actually make conditions even more dangerous for vulnerable parts of a community.
If a Gay person has the money, social mobility, and/or can pass for straight, they can move to a community surrounded by other Gay people, get a job that’s Gay-friendly or at least where they can mask their sexuality or identity. They can hang out with only Gay people and not engage with homophobes. They can use their economic power and privilege to get the political and legal system to work for them.
Meanwhile many rural, working class and/or people of color communities experience an economic, political, and legal system that disenfranchises them. For some straight people, when laws such as the one legalizing Gay marriage are enacted, it can once again feel like an oppressive system imposing it’s will. Greater visibility of Gay marriage in the media, especially when the representations are of more privileged people, can stoke flames of resentment and anger amongst straight people against openly Transgender, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer (TLGBQ) peoples.
Straight folks in systemically marginalized communities don’t have access to most people on television. Thus, the people who end up receiving the backlash are youth, visibly TLGBQ, or other vulnerable gender non-conforming people within the community. There are deep fears that the legalization of Gay Marriage, without a strong on-the-ground movement engaging people new to these conversations, could actually result in more homeless TLGBQ youth, more suicides, and more Trans Women of Color being murdered. It’s important to note the reason we see more transphobic and homophobic violence in rural, working class, and people of color communities is not because these communities are more bigoted than rich white communities. It is because more rich, white members of the LGBTQ movement can use their money, mobility and access to shield themselves against brutal violence; it is because the political, economic, and legal system works more for rich, white people in general.
Thus, when I raise my glass to toast for Gay Marriage, it trembles with anxiety-ridden clinks. I think of the backlash that many of the people I love– especially Working Class & Poor Trans People of Color– are vulnerable to. There were many years that I would wash away my anxieties with drink after drink turning my heartaches and fears into the life of the party. These days, however, I have learned to listen to my nerves. I take inspiration from my younger self as she first bravely owned her Queerness. I discover my feelings. I sit with, and understand, them. I learn. I mourn. I move further from self-destruction, supporting my aging bones to dance even fiercer on the floor. I follow my emotions to deeper, unrealized desires.
When I take a breath and listen to my heart, I feel how angry and bitter I am with the Gay Marriage movement. As an organizer and artist who has been working for TLGBQ liberation since George Bush was governor of Texas, I feel a deep betrayal by the Gay Marriage movement’s lack of commitment and resources to artists, community groups, and organizations working across different communities on a grass-roots level. So much of this life-saving work happens volunteer, on shoe-string budgets. Many artists who have been risking their lives and doing the hard necessary work of speaking to people’s hearts, creating spaces for healing, working across movements and communities, barely make a living wage while larger LGBT organizations are renovating their office spaces and siphoning resources from fancy galas to just a limited few. As a result, these legal victories remain a precarious shell with caverns of distance between a vulnerable grassroots core defending themselves against some of the most violent, vitriolic backlashes. What many privileged members of the LGBT movement fail to realize is that the limited focus of gaining rights primarily through the legal system and media has literally cost us lives — especially those of Black Trans Women and other vulnerable communities sitting at the intersections of multiple bigotries and hate. Because of the vast reach and power of American media corporations, this narrow focus has global implications. This betrayal creates deep divisions along race, class, education, language, ability, and immigration status. Many within the TLGBQ community in the US are in the midst of mourning the staggering weekly murder rates of Trans Women that opened 2015, while additionally mourning the horrific police, hate and other gang violence committed this year; the increases of detention and deportation; and the horrific abuse(s) endured in a prison industrial complex that breeds more violence than stops it.
As I breathe into my bitterness, sadness, anger, and fear, I discover that I also hunger the less fractured movements my critics get angry at me for illuminating. As I breathe, I remind myself that in the midst of great sorrow is an opportunity to expand empathy, connect deeper, and express care. I remember that rainbows are not symbols of betrayal, but a magical vision of bold unapologetic color that manifests when Sun meets the rain– our rays mix with tears; when thunder booms and lightning strikes in the shine of our most intimate star. This reminder helps me to envision mass movements united in lifting up, having the backs of, and taking leadership from, the most vulnerable, subversive, and courageous amongst us. I dream of mass movements so powerful that we radically shift the course of humanity! I see us breaking the boundaries that separate us so that we truly love deeper and better. Because when we LOVE each other, we feed and nurse each other. We raise our children, no matter how different they are, with undying dedication, collective understanding, and compassion. We share. When we love each other, we listen to each others pain. We take responsibility for our oversights and harmful actions. We change. We grow. And we Win. Because it always does. #LoveWins.
As a poet and performer, YaliniDream invites us to hold onto what is precious about the ancient while moving society forward to become less violent, less harmful, more loving, and more magical. She has fifteen years of experience using artistic tools for healing, organizing, and empowerment with communities recovering from trauma, including war-affected communities in Sri Lanka, refugee camps in India, and South Asian domestic workers in Queens, NY. She’s a volunteer with the War Resisters League and was a founding member of the Audre Lorde Project’s SOS (Safe Outside the System) Collective working to address homophobic and transphobic violence against people of color in Central Brooklyn. YaliniDream is currently a consultant with Vision Change Win, a partner with Wellness & Arts Specialists EM Techniques, represented by awQward Talent a Trans & Queer people of color talent agency, and performs/tours with her partner in art & love Jendog Lonewolf as part of DreamWolf.
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