“What does beautiful masculinity look like?” An Interview with D’Lo

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D’Lo is a queer, transgender, masculine-of-center, Tamil Sri Lankan artist, poet, comedian, and actor. D’Lo has claimed success through performance art and entertainment work that have strong political messages tied to his identity. Recently, D’Lo has been featured on popular television shows such as Looking, Transparent, and Sense8. I had the opportunity to talk with D’Lo about the intersections of race, culture, queerness, art, and social justice through his life and work.

Zain: So how are you, how is LA? Anything you are working on in particular?

D’Lo: Well, tonight, I have two shows: one of which we’re gonna do a report back from Ferguson. I was part of an API Artist delegation to Ferguson — that one’s called the “Black and Yellow,” show produced by a collective of comics of which I am a co-producer for “Disoriented Comedy”.

That’s amazing! So recently, I’ve heard you’re on the show Sense8, and you’ve also been on shows like Looking and Transparent as well — and all of these shows have LGBT narratives at the forefront. How is working on those shows like for you, and being a queer South Asian person, how is it working in the industry?

So, I don’t know if talking from a perspective of a queer South Asian is… I’ll talk from the perspective of a queer person of color, and then probably hit some things along the way. I’ve been doing theater and acting for a long fucking time, almost fifteen years, and performance for like, about twenty. So, it’s not like if I knew that it would be lucrative for me to pursue acting, I think I would have probably taken that as my first choice. But, I’m very gender nonconforming; I’m trans. I felt like every time I was trying to jump into the industry, it was like, the doors were shut more than they were open.

And so, even shit like trying to get, trying to do acting classes, and shit like that, you know, they’re not… it’s like, I’ve been to acting class, I’ve been to improv classes where they literally do not know what the hell to do with my ass, you know what I’m saying? So, it’s not like Hollywood is a welcoming place for gender nonconforming or trans people. Unless you’re a passing queer person, you’re not… nobody’s going to really touch you, because it’s a hard sell, and Hollywood is about making money. And up until recently, those stories weren’t even being told. And if they were, they were generally in a very white, passing, “straight-gay way”. I say “straight-gay,” you know I’m talking about, right?

Yeah, like very heteronormative fitting.

Yeah. [But] it’s been incredible working on queer themed shows and every set that I have been on has been like… I never would have thought that there would be, like, trans consultants on a show, but that’s what happens in Transparent. I would never think that there would be specifically created gender neutral bathrooms on set. I never thought that there would be people who would just know that my pronouns weren’t female. So, in a lot of ways, it’s been kinda like I feel like I’m in the beginning of the wave of more queer programming and I feel blessed — and yet, I also know that there’s a lot of problems still. So, as a critical thinker, I know that the media is still lacking, in a mainstream way, queer people of color narrative storylines. But as an actor, I can’t say I couldn’t be more blessed — like, I really have to thank everybody who’s believed in my ass for me to even get these opportunities. How ever small they may be, as far as my career is concerned, it’s a big fucking leap.

Do you see things slowly changing, and slowly becoming more accessible to gender nonconforming and trans people of color in the media?

You know, I don’t know yet. I think that my marker, like in my mind, is if I see a storyline that centers around a queer person of color — meaning like a gender nonconforming person of color. I don’t know if you’ve been watching Empire, but Empire’s got a gay black storyline, and there’s a whole bunch of other versions of queer storylines all over the fucking place in that show. But, the thing is, that we have a lot of, there’s a lot of white, trans storylines. In the past, whenever trans women or gender nonconforming people were asked [to play a role], they were in the roles of “hookers,” so to speak. That’s a quote. The role of like, “junkie.” The roles of quotes. Whatever demeaning role they could give somebody who was trans-identified. So, I don’t know if we have gotten yet to the point where we can, where people even want to hear people of color storylines as much. So, I think it’s just going to be a long time until we get a trans person of color’s voice in there, or a gender nonconforming storyline in there. But I don’t know! Shit is changing so quick. The fact that Empire slayed in ratings is like a testament to the fact that good writing, drama, all of that shit. People love that shit, you know. But like, aside from Orange is the New Black, I haven’t really seen strong people of color roles, and we’re not even talking about queer people of color.

Right. I definitely do see a small shift towards showcasing more “diversity,” in media, but it is in these singular spaces and not holistically.

Yeah. Even though they have people of color in other shows, it’s not like they’re concentrating on a storyline that is based around somebody’s identity politics, or identity. It’s not going to be about race, it’s just, ‘oh, we cast you, you’re playing a doctor,’ which is cool, too, but what I’m saying is as far as the stuff that interests me, is not happening to a large degree on network, and in Netflix, and Amazon, and all these studios — there are very few central characters of color with complex storylines around that address race, class, gender, etc. So, I think it’s going to be a long time before real-er stories become mainstream, or at least available.

In your identity politics, and in a lot of interviews and in your bio, you put your identities in the forefront of how you portray yourself. Why do you think doing this is important? Do you think these identities are universal, or are they specific to you?

The reason why I started putting all those labels initially was because, I felt like, let me just call the elephant in the room, let me just tell you who the fuck I am, especially because there were so many people saying ‘why do you want to put that you’re queer?’

In the beginning, in the ’90s, and early 2000s, people would ask me, ‘why do you want to do that to yourself,’ and I’d be like the minute I step on stage you’re gonna fucking know. It’s not like I don’t smell of it. Like, oh, because I didn’t say it, I can talk about other things and people aren’t gonna have a problem with it. Like, that was kind of where people were in hiding, I’m not tripping. Like, uh, I’m fucking queer all day, every day. When I walk into a room, that’s the first thing people see.

When I say that I’m Tamil Sri Lankan American, it’s about placing where I am in the grand scheme of things. Like, I’m Tamil before I’m seen as Sri Lankan. I’m Tamil Sri Lankan, but I would never go around saying only I’m Sri Lankan. Our history is that Tamil people have been consistently oppressed. As far as the South Asian, and the API, I felt like it was important to say Sri Lankan. And then I come from an immigrant family, my parents were the immigrants, so I have to acknowledge that American side. And the country we live in, it was supposed to be where everything is just better than it is back home, and the opportunities are greater, and all of that stuff. And, yet, here I am, wondering why this place that is supposed to be the land of fucking milk and honey is so rotten to people of color and black folks, and queer folks. These are the things that, as an American, it is my duty to make “America,” better.

A lot of people will say, especially in Hollywood, they’ll be like, ‘so-and-so, John Smith is a writer/ actor/comedian,’…there’s so many people trying erase identity that I’m still like, ‘Nah, man,’ I’m still putting the labels. Don’t get me wrong, I also believe that if an artist of color just wants to be seen as an artist, they have that right and it doesn’t bother me. But, for me, these are just five bits of this multi-layered lens that I see this world through. I put all my identities out there as a source of pride for my audiences. They know that they’re gonna come in hearing an unapologetic perspective coming through these lenses.

Yeah that makes a lot of sense. How do you think putting your identity politics out there affects your success and how you going about your work?

For my own artistry, whether it’s writing, plays, poetry, standup, whatever it is that I’m doing. If they see that bio on the program, or for [them]to book me, they gotta know like ‘okay, this person is about this stuff and this is what I’m going to hear about,’ but when I perform, the material is always going to be different than what you imagine. Like, my role as an artist, the one that I put on myself, is to go beyond what even the labels are describing. In regards to the stuff I create and my own personal artwork, that’s the situation. As far as acting, in Hollywood, they could give a fuck about how you identify. I’ve auditioned for roles that weren’t ethnically South Asian or sometimes ethnically ambiguous. Hollywood doesn’t give a fuck about how you label yourself, they’re more about what you are perceived as — which is problematic, but that’s what about Hollywood isn’t problematic?

That’s very true. I was reading some of the articles on your website, and in one interview for Timeout Mumbai, you talked about how you don’t identify with the term ‘Desi’ because it generally means Indian. How do you see yourself as a minority within the South Asian community, and how are your experiences unique and distinct from the general, over-encompassing narrative people have of South Asians?

Well, I think that everybody’s South Asian experience is vastly different from one another’s; but, as much as we queer political people might talk about South Asia, so many aspects of it are completely different. Like, there’s the religious background, or the environment in which your parents grew up, and mentality, class background, caste background, a whole bunch of factors. For me, as a Sri Lankan, I didn’t really grow up with South Asians. Then when I started hanging out with South Asians, I had to learn all these new terms, like ‘desi,’ and ‘South Asian,’ and suddenly I’m learning about like I didn’t know shit about Bollywood, I didn’t know shit about Hindi this or that. I didn’t know about the great poets, the great artists of South Asia, like, it was foreign to me.

I think that happens with a lot of Sri Lankan people. I think that the fact that I’m Tamil, it’s more of a connect to South Asia, but Sri Lankans who are not Tamil don’t necessarily have any desire to be a part of South Asian because they have their own big cultural communities that they are a part of. It’s only because I was an artist that I ended up becoming part of a thick, diverse South Asian community. ‘Desi;’ I know that people use it, but I‘ve never used it. I don’t think I’ve barely even said that word. It’s not like I hate on people that do use it, it’s just that it’s not my personal term that I relate to.

…I’m not saying it’s like that consistently, or that things haven’t changed, but what I am saying is that it’s almost a microaggression because no one is telling you you have to learn it, but everybody’s talking about India and in a very North Indian way. The Sri Lankans were like, ‘ok we’re learning more,’ but meanwhile, I don’t even know when the last time I’ve heard anything that has been Tamils. There’s more on the table for certain parts of South Asia than there are for others.

I totally agree with you and notice that. As a Tamil Sri Lankan and a trans [person], how is navigating gender, masculinity and femininity in your community? Is it more specific and nuanced in your own individual life?

D’Lo: Yeah, the closer in you get, the more nuanced it is.

So, I kind of have to separate my transness from my masculinity, even though I see myself a trans masculine person of color, trans masculine Tamil Sri Lankan whatever-whatever. I feel like in my community, I was the first. I grew up in a really tight-knit community of Sri Lankan Tamil people in Lancaster, California, which is about an hour away from LA, give or take ten minutes. I was the first openly and out queer person. It was always a thing, but I think that people in my community, even if they didn’t know I was queer, they understood that something about me was different whether because of my creative or comedic-ness, and so I got away with a lot more than what I would imagine the reality being for someone whose queerness could’ve come with a heavy dose of bullying. Don’t get me wrong, I felt judged. Of course I felt judged by my community. But I never felt it in a way that was killing my soul.

As far as my family is concerned, of course they have a lot of shame. I would say now my mother has a lot less shame around me. My father still has a nice, thick layer of shame around who I am — but, at the same time, it’s not like I don’t know they care for me, they love me. But, that journey has been a rocky and bumpy one.

As far as my masculinity is concerned, I’ve always been masculine from day one. I’ve always felt like I was a dude, and I would do everything that wasn’t typically girl/feminine and not in resistance to anything, but just because that’s who I was. I was a boy. I think that my masculinity has been informed through the feminist movement and through incredible, beautiful, queer mothers, and queer elders. And my masculinity is in a lot of ways, the root is still the same, but the fruit and the leaves are more informed. Masculinity is such a beautiful thing. I am on a quest to really understand, ‘what does beautiful masculinity look like?’ I am holding myself to standards, and experimenting how I want to walk in this world, and be an upstanding person and using my masculinity in ways that aren’t what is typical — misogynistic, sexist, whatever whatever — like really challenging those set of norms.

You grow up in an immigrant household, and masculinity is powerful — it can silence femininity. It can squash it, it can kill it. It can scare it, and I don’t know what was going on in my mind as a baby in regards to picking up energy. I don’t know I became a masculine person. That wasn’t typically supposed to be such. I would expect it to go another route completely. I don’t know what in my mind, in my soul, in my body, in my cells, in my nerves, in the memory that travels through our DNA, I don’t know what and at what time shit shifted. But, I adapted an understanding of masculinity that was very Sri Lankan, very machismo, for lack of a better word. It’s not like I was a rough and tough type of person, but my ideas of what it meant to be a masculine person were definitely defined earlier on. Who I was as a person was not hard, I was definitely a loving person, but all those things as a critical thinking queer person, at some point I realized that, ‘Look, shit is not cool even within our queer communities,’ towards women, towards trans feminine people, towards femininity in general.

How do you rethink masculinity, and how does that look like to you?

In an “ally” way — I’m having such a hard time with that word these days, especially after Ferguson — if I were to talk to my cousins who aren’t necessarily, like, they’re liberal but they’re not radical or progressive in their ways of understanding women. If I were to talk to them, I would be like, ‘Well, it’s okay to be nice to women and respect women, but how do you wanna jump up your game where you’re really supporting the women in your life?’ If I were to talk to somebody in our queer circles who is trans masculine or masculine-of-center, I would be like, ‘So maybe part of our reality is to deny the fact that we have come into this world with organs — our sex, our junk — is like, what cisgender men had been feeling like is theirs, so maybe we have to distance ourselves from that in order to step into our transness or our masculine-of-center-ness. But then why does it have to be that we have to then hate the perceived weakness or the perceived softness that is found within feminine communities, or femme identified, or woman identified or and trans feminine identified communities?’ I feel that there’s a lot of misogyny coming from masculine-of-center folks towards feminine-of-center people, and I’m like, ‘Look, in all of our beautiful queerness, really? You’re gonna start copy-catting this bullshit?’ This is how I want to call out my brothers, my siblings who are masculine-of-center.

I wanted to ask you a few questions about your work. How did you get into doing performance art, and who were your childhood influences and how are they relevant to how you do your work now?

It’s a played out story, but hip-hop was a very big influence in the forming of myself as a young person, but also like the beginnings of the artist I was becoming. I was writing a lot of rhyme and poetry, and, I’m not saying I was an emcee or anything, but it was definitely hip-hop influenced poetry.

A lot of the people that I looked up to starting at age ten or eleven were like Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Monie Love, MC Smooth, X-Clan, a whole bunch of artists that were very much about their black community. And as far as Queen Latifah, she was about women’s empowerment, and these were just strong female emcees that were just giving it to the world. I was inspired and moved by that, and I wanted to write about what was important to me. I was writing, and I wanted to do music production. And when I came out the first time to my parents, things didn’t go so well, so I moved my ass to New York. I was working with the Artist Network Refuse and Resist on an international campaign around, it was an an international day of art for Momia Abu-Jamal, political prisoner. When I was out in New York, I was getting paid to perform so it was almost like I fell into doing it full time. It just became my career.

And around while I was in New York, I was blown away by the work of Susana Cook, and also Danny Hoch, but I was working with Susana Cook, and I understood comedy on a whole ‘nother fucking level. Her work is satirical, it’s political, it is just really amazing to have been witness to how queer women, gender nonconforming people could be in a play that was getting money from the city, be text-based and brilliant, even though it was also working with non-actors — like, people who didn’t identify as actors. I was just blown away by it, that I stalked Susana Cook, and I wanted to be in her next play. I started writing my own work, like plays and monologues after that, and then around 2003 or 2004 was when I started doing more comedic theater work, and it was more freeing for me, because the majority of my work was more serious, like more about issues in the world — I mean, don’t get me wrong, I was still comedic, like I was always comedic — but comedy would only come out in stories that I was just telling the audiences right before I would kick a piece.

I’ve been inspired by a bunch of stand up comics of color, I’ve been inspired by artists in my queer community who have been unapologetically fierce in how they create art, and yet have a lightness to them — whether it’s comedy, or through their spirituality, or whatever. So I have just been inspired by a lot of different people, and I think that if someone were to see my work, they would definitely put it in the same line as somebody like John Leguizamo and Whoopi Goldberg, people who are doing more solo, comedic based, storytelling, stand up shit. But, who I’ve been inspired by are people who really take art to be, for me, art is the strongest, most consistent spiritual practice I’ve had in my life. Aside from being a God-loving motherfucker, I feel like the most sacred place on Earth for me has been the stage. I don’t have to fear on the stage, it’s not the same as walking in the world as a gender nonconforming trans person. I don’t worry about getting killed or being looked at weird or whatever. Yeah, maybe in your audiences, somebody don’t like your shit, but what I’m saying is the stage to me is a sacred place and I feel like a lot of my art mentors or teachers knew that — maybe didn’t necessarily say it — but knew that, and treated it like such. So that became the standard for me: placing an understanding and placing a belief that the stage was a sanctuary.

What is the message you are trying to show in your art, and who is the audience you are trying to reach? Who are you trying to speak to, and reach out to? What do you want to put out there in the world that is different from what you see?

Honestly, I just want people to walk away with a changed worldview. I always say, I just want to make people think and laugh, but in no particular order. I want stories to resonate, I want people to hold on to things of my story that they see in themselves. I want the white people to understand that there’s other realities outside of what they would normally… like what their normal life is. I want people of color to feel like, ‘Oh, finally, we have a story that reflects our own.’ So, I think my audience is everybody — but every artist will tell you that. But, if we’re talking specifics, I really love my communities. I love that they’re proud of me. I love that they’re cheering for me. I know that sounds silly, I want to be seen in a good way by the people I love.

Have you seen any physical impact through your work and art? Have people come up and told you that they appreciate it?

Oh yeah! I’ve had white people come up to me, and say that their minds were blown. Which is so funny, because, then the next person in line is a queer person of color and they’re like, crying, and they’re like, ‘Yo, man, like, I’ve never heard my story being reflected.’ It’s just like, somebody’s got their minds blown and then another person is like ‘that’s my reality,’ you know what I’m saying? Like it’s just fucking deep. And when white people start coming to your shows and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve never thought about these things,’ and you’re like, ‘What! Not even any of it? This is your first foray into the world of something that couldn’t be you?’

That’s really funny! Well I just had one last question: where do you see yourself in the future? Do you plan on continuing the same work you are doing now, or are you hoping to take on different projects or doing different things?

Yeah, you know, I don’t know. I wanna say that, maybe I have a factory of people who are making good work around lives of color. At the same time, I don’t know how quickly I’m moving, I don’t know how quickly this world is changing, I don’t know. But my goal is to have a show of my own; on network, or on a studio. I really hope it fucking happens. As far as my stand up and my storytelling stuff, I just want my audience to get bigger and bigger and bigger. I welcome everybody to come and see my show, but I do it for my people.

You can find more information about D’Lo D’Loco on his website.

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