Ksen Pallegedara

Today’s young gay leaders represent the largest cultural shift in a generation. Here are some high achievers who aren’t hung up on their sexuality and are determined to make a difference

BY Advocate.com Editors

June 05 2005 11:00 PM ET

Ksen Pallegedara
immigrated to Brooklyn, N.Y., with his parents and two
siblings from Moscow in 1997. His mother is Russian, his
father Sri Lankan, “and I look like the Cold
War mutt from hell,” he says with comedic
candor. “Russia is a very racist place to live. If
you are not Caucasian, you are either a
‘nigger’ or you are Chechen. We basically
came [to the United States] because we wanted to survive.”
By the time his family arrived stateside, Ksen
had already experienced what he calls a textbook case
of body betrayal after looking at his 9-year-old
prematurely pubescent female figure in the mirror and
discovering it just felt wrong.
Highly adept at science and math, Ksen enrolled
at Brooklyn Technical High School, a 5,000-student
magnet school so intensely competitive that even after
his straight friend had outed him in that girls’
locker room, students didn’t have time to
“worry about beating someone up [for being
queer],” Ksen says. Instead, while walking to class
he would hear a surreptitious “faggot”
or “dyke,” depending on whether he could sneak
past his sleeping mom that morning without the dreaded
female drag.
Perhaps it was his Russian fatalism whispering
in his ear, but by Ksen’s sophomore year his
mother’s habitual “firebrand” antigay
rants had convinced him he would soon be without a
regular roof over his head. Blessed with a thick skin,
well-practiced at adapting to sudden changes in his
circumstances, and too often a de facto third parent to his
two elementary school–age siblings, Ksen had
long understood that youthful helplessness was a
luxury he could ill afford.
He contacted the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the
LGBT social services agency that is home to the Harvey
Milk High School. The agency placed Ksen on the
200-person waiting list for the Ali Forney Center, a 12-bed
shelter for homeless GLBT youths, the only one of its kind
in the whole city.
Two months after Ksen’s 17th birthday on
the Fourth of July, his mother made it vividly clear
to her eldest child that he was no longer welcome in
her home—the patch of Ksen’s missing hair and
scalp took a full year to completely heal and grow
back. Within 10 days he was sleeping at Ali Forney, an
unassuming place where, he says, “they actually care.
They physically will be there, and they will put the
emotional effort into it.”
Ksen repeats often that he is one of the lucky
ones. He stayed in high school and graduated, while
almost all the queer homeless youths he knows
prostitute themselves to survive. Foster care, he says, is
not much better, so he has been working with Lambda
Legal to fix New York’s foster system after
attending one of Lambda’s open forums last year.
He’s currently in college studying
political science and history, “which basically
is going to result in unemployment—and drunken
unemployment.” Ksen chuckles; he in fact loves
his classes at Hunter College, part of the City
University of New York system, and he’s even
contemplating six more years of law school to study
international human rights law.
“There is a thin line between democracy
and mob rule,” Ksen observes. He sees the
latter fomented by a deliberately stoked fear of GLBT
people. “For now I’m doing all I can to
change policies,” he says, “because
change doesn’t happen unless you’re willing to
sit there and talk to bureaucracies and take the
bullshit they dish out.”

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