Of writer, director, actor, and comedian D’Lo’s many talents, one seems to be the ability to turn pain into laughter — which in turn, heals.
“I think there’s so many ways to tell a powerful story,” says the queer, transgender, Tamil-Sri Lankan-American performer. “But comedy for me is the medicine .... the way that you crush a pill inside some orange juice to give it to a kid. It’s that same thing, it’s that conduit for the medicine.”
“I believe it is a sacred art form,” he adds. “I think that if you can laugh about something, it shows you have graduated from the pain.” D’Lo feels he may have inherited some of his comedic chops from his funny father, and explains that being clever and witty in the Sri Lankan community “is recognized and almost revered.”
But for him, comedy has not only been a form of self-expression and storytelling, it’s also been a survival skill. D’Lo says growing up queer and gender-questioning in the desert community of Lancaster, Calif. — dubbed “Sri-Lancaster” due to its dense Sri Lankan immigrant population — wasn’t always easy. Comedy became “a way to deflect those questions that might be coming at me, around my sexuality and gender presentation.”
D’Lo’s story first gained attention when he was the subject of the award-winning 2013 documentary short by Crescent Diamond, Performing Girl — which is now receiving a second wave of attention since its recent release on Amazon. Despite the film’s success (it won Best Short at both the Sacramento Film and Music Festival and Albuquerque’s Southwest Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and the Grand Jury Award at Outfest 2013), D’Lo was initially hesitant about working with the filmmaker.
“Crescent’s white,” he says bluntly. “And I’m tired of people of color’s stories being told by white folks.” Despite this being his initial reaction, D’Lo says after getting to know Diamond, he was eventually able to put his trust in her and move forward with the project.
“We had talked about just a bunch of political stuff and got to know each other throughout the process, and I liked her. I felt like this was my friend.”
The heart of the story in Performing Girl is D’Lo’s relationship with his very traditional Tamil-Sri Lankan parents, which he confesses isn’t a perfectly accurate reflection of their family’s true dynamics. “I think that they represented themselves in how they wanted to be seen … even if they weren’t actually there,” he says of their appearances in the film.
In fact, D’Lo admits that his parents’ subtle sugarcoating was a critique he’d expressed to Diamond about an early draft of the film. “I was like, ‘Yo, I feel like this is all like frosting on a shitty cake, you know? How [can] I show up in a more vulnerable way in this piece?’ So, Crescent was open to that. If I wanted something flipped, she was like, ‘OK, fine!’ — but she would do it.”
Although his relationship with his parents is still a work in progress, D’Lo says there have been some major milestones, thanks in part to the film — but also to his partner, Anjali, who has become like a daughter to them. He says despite their differences at times, his family is very tight due to their shared pain over his sister’s sudden and tragic death in a 1991 plane crash.
“We might be a family [whose] foundation has been cracked with devastation and loss and grief,” he says, but “Anjali has definitely been that glue that has spilled into the cracks and made us feel whole again.”
D’Lo says that, right or wrong, the fact that Anjali is feminine has helped his parents in their acceptance of his gender identity. Somehow Anjali’s presence in their family has helped fill that painful void where a daughter should have been. They had essentially lost two daughters in their lives — through his sister’s death, and his own transition.
When his mother attended a special performance of his one-person show, D’FunQT (directed by Steven Sapp) in India in 2012, it was also therapeutic. D’Lo was asked to perform specifically for the purpose of bringing LGBT visibility to the area, so he finds it especially hilarious that his mother’s first request was: “Please don’t talk about gay stuff. These are Indian people!”
At this particular performance, a character based on his mother was a big hit with the audience, which D’Lo saw as a turning point for her. “I saw her out in the audience and I could see her body, like, getting small because she was just terrified about what was going to happen,” he recalls. “But then once I started performing [and] she saw how people were responding to me,” her demeanor began to change.
“When I started doing her character, the whole crowd was like — we’re talking about like, a thousand people — just like, eating it up, really gravitating to the character, and so she felt seen, because the piece is about her grieving her first daughter, and then grieving the second one,” says D’Lo. “And [my parents] were so happy…. They just felt seen and they didn’t feel judged.”
Always one with numerous projects across multiple mediums, D’Lo is currently writing a screenplay, Godfreak; and recently premiered his second solo show, To T or Not to T, in New York City to rave reviews. He attributes his acting abilities largely to having been forced to “perform” as a girl throughout his youth (hence the title of the documentary). D’Lo has also appeared on the small screen, most recently in the hit shows Transparent (Amazon) and Sense8 (Netflix) and says he is proud to be a part of the new, growing visibility of trans folks in TV and film.
“Oh, God, I think that my whole life would be completely different,” he laments about the idea of seeing someone like himself on TV while he was growing up. “If I had seen trans and queer representation in the media, and trans and queer people of color in the media, it would have definitely been different.”
He adds that, whether you like it or not, being trans right now in the entertainment industry automatically makes you a role model of sorts.
“In my desire to be able to be creative, as a queer trans person of color, the responsibility is already on my back.” It’s a role he accepts with pride, and he says he is happy to be a representative for both LGBT and South Asian people.
Although the Sri Lankan community has a way to go in terms of LGBT rights and visibility, D’Lo says their bond as immigrants from the same culture often transcends their differences — and ultimately has found more love and acceptance than adversity for being queer and trans.
“I think that when you come from a community of immigrants … it just guides you to creating art that is about bringing more understanding into the world.”