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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 skin.

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.

Though 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, Dylan! I haven't had a single bathroom incident since.

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

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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Dylan Scholinski