Dalila Ali Rajah
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You say tomato

You say tomato

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: Voices, Voices

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