You say tomato

BY Dylan Scholinski

February 28 2006 12:00 AM ET

We all have
traumatic high school memories. Mine just happened to
involve mental health wards, straitjackets, and the
schizophrenia drug Thorazine. For much of my youth in
suburban Chicago, especially while I was locked up
after being diagnosed an “inappropriate
female,” painting was my only outlet. Without
my art, I would probably be dead—not a successful
artist-writer-activist living in the nation’s
capital. I found that through painting and writing I
could externalize what had always been an internal
struggle. Shortly after writing my memoir, The Last Time
I Wore a Dress
(Riverhead, 1998), I changed my
name from Daphne to the gender-neutral Dylan.

To me, art is not
a choice. I do it to help heal myself as well as
others. Sometimes it’s emotionally abstract, and
sometimes it’s more straightforward, but
it’s always painfully honest. I have this line in a
current painting that reads: “You can’t see
your reflection without light.” By putting my
rawest emotions on the canvas—becoming a sort of
emotional mirror—perhaps I can help illuminate the
suppressed emotions in other transgender people.

Mostly I paint
about my experience living in this body: the struggles I
face being transgender, queer, and an ex–mental
patient. I want my art to help people see the
absurdity of it all. After all, I was locked up in the
United States of America for not acting like a girl. When
the insurance ran out and I got my freedom, I learned
to be comfortable being me in a very public way. You
can see that in my art, my writing, and even on my

The word
tomatoes is tattooed across my knuckles because I
relate to the silly debate over labeling a produce
item. Is it a fruit or a vegetable? Is it a boy or a
girl? Even gay people think in binary terms of
gay-straight, male-female, and butch-femme. We’re
supposed to be the outlaws—the imaginative,
fluid ones—yet even we can’t escape a world
with two essential choices: the men’s room or
the ladies’ room.

I’ve always identified more as a man than as a woman,
society told me I had to use the ladies’
room—and so I did, despite overwhelming anxiety
and fear. Then about five years ago—tired of being
gender-policed, beaten up, and literally dragged out of
airports—an epiphany hit: You’re
perceived as male, so use the men’s room,
I haven’t had a single bathroom incident

There are days
when even breathing is difficult. Enduring a major trauma
at such a young age is a powerful sucker punch that can take
the wind out of you for a lifetime. But when people
approach me at my art shows offering heartfelt hugs of
gratitude or

e-mail me to say,
“Oh, my God, your story happened to me, thank
you,” it helps me catch my breath. The anger is
still there, but now I have the power to transform it
into hope.

Making a
conscious choice to live every day is not effortless. The
words live and life are tattooed on my wrists—a
reminder, in case I ever ponder killing myself again,
that there’s so much more to accomplish.
—As told to Andrew Noyes

Tags: Commentary