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Ksen Pallegedara

Ksen Pallegedara

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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

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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