Spilling the T : Code Switch Code Switch's Kumari Devarajan found an unlikely demographic doppelganger in D'Lo, a comedian and playwright whose one-person show about growing up as a queer child of immigrants in the U.S. is reopening on a bigger theater stage. But when you share so much in common with a stranger who is putting their sometimes messy business on front street for the world to see, it can feel like they're also sharing your secrets, too.

Spilling the T

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Just a heads up, y'all. This episode contains some salty language, which means there's going to be some cussin'. All right. On with the show.


DEMBY: What's good, y'all? I'm Gene Demby, and this is CODE SWITCH from NPR. Today, I'm tagging in Kumari Devarajan. She's one of the producers at CODE SWITCH. You hear her name in the credits all the time. Kuku (ph), what's good with you?


DEMBY: So, Kumari, what is this story that you're bringing us this week? I'm so curious.

DEVARAJAN: Well, I want to talk to you about someone who is my demographic doppelganger.

DEMBY: OK, who is this person?

DEVARAJAN: They're someone I know through a bunch of my different communities. Their name is D'Lo.


DEVARAJAN: And the reason we're doppelgangers is, well, for one, we are both Sri Lankan.

DEMBY: All right, Kuku, I'm not trying to be that dude, but is that a big deal? Like, I don't really get it.

DEVARAJAN: Actually, it kind of is. Like, OK, Gene, how many Sri Lankans do you know?

DEMBY: Well, there's you, obviously.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, it doesn't count.

DEMBY: And - OK - oh, Sean Rameswaram. He's the host of Vox's "Today, Explained." So that's two, and...


DEMBY: All right. Yeah. OK.

DEVARAJAN: So you see? And just to give you some context, there are fewer than 50,000 Sri Lankans in the U.S.


DEVARAJAN: So that's less than one-tenth of a percent. It's actually more like two one-hundredths of a percent.

DEMBY: OK, that is a tiny number.

DEVARAJAN: So that's not all. D'Lo and I are also both Tamil, which is the ethnic minority in Sri Lanka. So that's even a smaller percentage of Sri Lankans in the U.S. that are also Tamil.

DEMBY: Wow. So you're outliers upon outliers?

DEVARAJAN: Yep, and it doesn't stop there. D'Lo and I are also both queer and gender nonconforming in some way.

DEMBY: So y'all are the unicorns of unicorns.

DEVARAJAN: Gene - not all gay people are unicorns.

DEMBY: Of course - my bad. My bad. Sorry to the LGBTs (laughter).

DEVARAJAN: On behalf of my people, I accept your apology.

DEMBY: That was a very Chappellian (ph) apology in my book.

DEVARAJAN: (Laughter).

DEMBY: But anyway - but then that means, like, I'm probably more likely to be struck by lightning than I am to meet a queer or gender-nonconforming Sri Lankan Tamil in the United States.

DEVARAJAN: I'm pretty sure that's statistically correct.

DEMBY: (Laughter) OK. Let me just - hold on a second. I'm just going to pick up my phone here and...

DEVARAJAN: Wait, what are you doing?

DEMBY: I'm just playing the lottery real quick, you know what I mean? It's just that the odds are in my favor right now.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, OK. Good luck with that.

DEMBY: Don't mind me.

DEVARAJAN: So, yeah. D'Lo and I - we're here, we're queer, we're from the other hemisphere.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

DEVARAJAN: We're Sri Lankan Tamils, so of course we found each other.

DEMBY: That will be the soundbite they use to caricature us on Fox News, BT dubs (ph).

So, OK, Kumari, how did you two find each other in this big country?

DEVARAJAN: Well, so D'Lo is an actor, and he's a writer and a comic, and he does a lot of solo-based theater, and I met him when I went to see him perform his one-man show at the Los Angeles LGBT Center in 2019.

Do you remember that?

D'LO: Yes, wait - after my show, right? I remember it - coming out of the theater. And then I feel like you were in this - on the side or something like that, and then we ended up talking, and you told me that you were Sri Lankan, and I was like, what? And then, of course, after going nutty, then I was like, are you Tamil? And then - you are, right?


D'LO: And then I was like, no.

DEVARAJAN: (Laughter).

D'LO: And then I'm like, why don't I know you? Did I babysit you?

DEVARAJAN: (Laughter).

D'LO: Are we related?

DEVARAJAN: Right - important question.

D'LO: Yeah.

DEMBY: So why are we meeting D'Lo, your demographic doppelganger, today?

DEVARAJAN: So D'Lo's one-person show is actually back.


DEVARAJAN: And it's scaling up a bit - it's going to be in a much bigger theater. And he's tinkered with it some since it debuted, so I thought, you know what? This is my chance. It's Pride Month. This show is coming out. I was like, let me sit down and kick it with my Sri Lankan brother from another mother, but probably the same great-grandmother or something.

DEMBY: Of course. Right, right. So tell me about the show. I'm very fascinated. What is it called?

DEVARAJAN: It's called "To T Or Not To T."


D'LO: To T or not to T? That is the question. And I've already told you, I've been on testosterone for four years now, which means you know the answer to that question, which means you can leave.


DEVARAJAN: So as D'Lo was saying, that question nods to his struggle over whether or not he should take testosterone.


DEVARAJAN: But the show is about a lot more than that. It's about coming of age, chosen family, honoring your parents. So the way it's structured is he jumps around in time a lot, so part of the show takes place when D'Lo is an adult, at their commitment ceremony to their then-partner. So there's all this drama and conflict and love that comes with bringing your big Sri Lankan family to a very queer and trans situation.

DEMBY: Mmm hmm. I imagine you've got to prep the people in both camps beforehand.

DEVARAJAN: I wouldn't know anything about that, Gene. But, yeah, he weaves in these vignettes of himself growing up, so you see him as a little kid, just being himself. And then, when his natural tendencies bump up against the reality of what's normal and accepted - G.D. (ph), I'm doing your air quotes around normal.

DEMBY: Right, of course.

DEVARAJAN: So you see him try really hard to be the person his parents wanted their kid to be, and then you see him understand who he actually is, and you see his parents do the same thing alongside him.

DEMBY: Mmm. So Kumari, this must have really hit close to home for you.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, it was actually kind of unnerving. Like, there are a lot of things I've experienced that I don't really talk about. And then, all of a sudden, I'm watching a show by someone who is talking about a lot of them. And, you know, our situations are different in a lot of ways.

DEMBY: Right - not all queer Sri Lankan Tamil Angelenos.

DEVARAJAN: (Laughter) But I do feel like a lot of the benchmarks he uses to describe his coming-of-age are eerily similar. And I have always thought that my experience was just so unique that my story was kind of irrelevant to most people, but there I was sitting in the audience next to people who are not anything like me and who are really engaging with the story of someone who was so like me, you know? I was like, dang, maybe I need to talk about myself more.

DEMBY: So Kumari, I'm guessing there's a lot of heavy stuff in this show.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, but it's also really silly, as you've heard. I mean, D'Lo is a stand-up comedian. So let's take the opening scene, for instance, where he's describing his commitment ceremony.


D'LO: And I looked out into the crowd, and I saw all of my Tamil Sri Lankan family, and I saw all of my queer/trans people of color family, and everybody was loving on each other, and I was getting so emotional, and then the deejay played my favorite song.


GINUWINE: (Singing) If you're horny, let's do it.


D'LO: I always open up every show with what I consider, like, the warm-up-type vibes. You know what I'm saying? Even though it's solo-based theater, I want to let the audience know that they're going to have a good time.

DEMBY: That song, by the way, was inescapable back when it dropped...


DEMBY: ...When I was in high school, and it feels more ubiquitous now. It's bananas.

DEVARAJAN: You know what? I'm kind of fine with that. It is a bop.

DEMBY: I really want to hear what the two of you talked about - 'cause I imagine y'all had a lot to talk about.

DEVARAJAN: So to start off, I asked D'Lo about why they decided to center the show around their decision to take testosterone. And they said it was because it was a really torturous process.

D'LO: Being that I'm from a generation that had no language - had nothing but transphobia in the world - it's like queer people do this thing where we just do the best that we can in the bodies that we're given and the situation that we're given. And so my best situation was to stay in the body that I was in, to identify as a transmasculine or what - the words that we used back then were, like, stud or boi. I almost drank the Kool-Aid in believing that my body was the revolution. Do you hear what I'm saying? And that, I think, is too much pressure for any one person - to put that on their physical body.

And I think that if you would have asked my younger self, when I was a kid - this is an option. Do you want to take it? I'd be like, hell, yeah. This is what I've been praying for. Hell, yeah. But a lot of the people who I looked up to - who were kind of shaping my work - were people who were, by and large, feminists. And the messaging was like, why do you want to change your body to be a man? Men are what's wrong with this world. And I went through hell and back, kind of thinking about what was right and what was wrong about taking testosterone on an ethical, moral, feminist - with that kind of lens. Even with all of my brothers - really, like, close brothers - getting on T years before, that wasn't my journey because I was sitting there trying to, like, think about things through this ethical lens, and there's no such thing.

DEVARAJAN: Do you think that that messaging of, like, it's anti-feminist or it's wrong to transition - do you think that's changed over time a little bit?

D'LO: I think that it has changed over time because I know that, even with some of my mentors, I had really beautiful conversations with them after they were talking to me about grieving my point in transition, right? And yet, then we have, like, very TERF-y (ph) people out there. And adjacent to that are all of these politicians who are trying to police queer decisions.

DEVARAJAN: I think that, for a lot of trans people, like, growing up, we didn't have the language and foresight to understand exactly, like, what we were going to be or how we would end up. But it's sort of clear that, at least at an earlier age, you had some sort of understanding of yourself.


D'LO: Which is why wishing upon a star - no, pleading on a star - became a childhood ritual. Dear Jesus and Holy Spirit Brother and God the Dad and 10,000 Hindu gods - please make me a boy for my birthday. Please. I'll be good for such a long time.


D'LO: Please - the sooner the better. Please and thank you and amen and everything.

Yes, I did. I knew that I wanted to be a boy. Like, not wanted to - I thought that I was, you know? I didn't understand how genitalia and sex assignment worked, but I was like, that's me. And when people were like, whoa, you can't do that, I would be like, OK, whatever. And nobody tripped. That was the other thing. There was no messaging from when I was younger that what I was doing was wrong. Like, it's toxic in a lot of ways that Sri Lankan people don't say things to other people. But, like, in this one way, I was glad that nobody alerted my parents to the fact that they sniffed out my queerness from a young age, you know? My parents didn't know. I'm like, thank God they didn't have gaydar (ph), you know what I'm saying? Like, 'cause here - like, if you look at my pictures, you're like, oh, this is clear. They had a son. You know what I'm saying?

DEVARAJAN: There are certain scenes where you're - it's like euphoria or elation. Like, when you're playing freeze tag, and it's, like, boys versus girls. And the girls just sort of automatically start chasing you. Like, you're not them. You're the other one.


D'LO: Come here, D. I'm going to get you. I'm going to get you. Come back here. I'm going to get you. Shut up, Tommy. D'Lo looks like a boy. It just makes sense is all I'm saying. You could totally tag me.

To be seen in that way was - as a kid, I was like, yes. Like, this transfers over, you know? Pretty much every girl and boy in my class treated me as if I was a dude, and yet there were these certain times where everybody would get confused with - including myself. Oftentimes, if a teacher didn't know, they'd be like, what are you doing here? Go over here, you know?

I like that you said euphoria and elation because it is radical. And I think that when I said I didn't understand it until later, I know that it's radical because nobody yucked my yum. You know what I'm saying?

DEVARAJAN: Mmm hmm. I hear a lot that trans people look back, and they mourn this fact that they didn't have a girlhood or a boyhood. Do you feel like you had a boyhood?

D'LO: I feel like I had as much of a boyhood as I could have had. I had really, really, really strong and beautiful relationships with cis boys. You know, I got to play with boy things. I was never shamed. So for all of that, I don't feel like I missed certain things. Of course, there was, like, some, you know, sadness - like if all the boys were out doing something and I wasn't invited or whatever, like - and then you deal with that, you know? But I was also allowed into women's circles, and it felt more like, do I belong? And then I realized this is also where I belong. What I understand now is that there was no nurturing in these cis male circles, as there was in cis women and femme circles, and I would end up being the nurturer in my cis male communities. So, yeah, I like the blend that I got.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. You know, in the middle of all of these experiences that were very sort of validating of your masculinity or boyhood, there's this sad moment where you're talking to one of your closest friends, and you run away from home.


D'LO: Where are you going to go, D? You're going to be, like, the first Sri Lankan kid to run away.

Nealon (ph) - (rapping) thinking about a master plan. My thoughts are the grocery trucks, man. And if I get hungry, I won't be stuck 'cause I could just eat the food up in the truck. But don't be a fool and tell folks at school, 'cause if you tell a soul, I'll beat you with a pole.

Well, I want to go. Yeah. It could be fun.

(Rapping) That don't make no sense 'cause you get along with your parents.


D'LO: Well, so do you, D.

(Rapping) Yeah. Yeah. But one of these days, it'll all disintegrate 'cause they'll figure out that I'm not...

DEVARAJAN: To me, the way I interpreted that is, like, even though you're having these affirming experiences, there was still this question mark of your future and what you would become.

D'LO: Yeah. I always think about, like, young people 'cause I was 11 years old when I decided to run away. And the running away was because I knew I was queer, and I knew it wasn't going to go off well, and I knew that it was going to cause a lot of heartbreak and a lot of - because I knew that I couldn't change. I tried to change. I prayed to all the gods - not to change my desires, but to change me into a boy. And I knew that - OK, well, this is not going to happen. I can't change, so I'm just going to provide respite for other people by pulling myself out of the equation. At 11 years old I'm thinking this. Again, it's this whole - if there's no space to even talk about this stuff, then you have these young people with heavy shit on their heads, trying to figure out these deeper issues of life. So that's what I think about when I think about, like, that I was 11 when I said I am too much for my family. I'm going to unburden them.

DEVARAJAN: You know, it's heartbreaking to think you're 11 and you're deciding to take yourself out 'cause you think that you're just inherently hurtful.

D'LO: Yeah. Maybe inherent isn't even the word - like, just maybe I'd - at 11, I was like, I'm not a bad person. So what the hell is wrong with the situation is that people are going to see me as bad. So let me just - you know what I'm saying? I felt like, I just got to do this.


DEMBY: Oh, man. Like, really sensitive, emotionally aware kids just feel responsible for everything. Like, if they'd fiddle with the knobs, like - and they were more this or they were less that, then they can make their home lives, you know, better or more manageable in some way.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah. And for D'Lo, that feeling got supercharged because, soon after he tried to run away, his older sister, who had been really protective of him, died in a plane crash when he was in eighth grade.

DEMBY: Oh, my God.

D'LO: Again, there was no space to process. And so you're just kind of walking around, going, my shit doesn't matter - again.

DEVARAJAN: As his parents' only surviving child, D'Lo felt obligated to be a good kid for his parents and to fall in line.

D'LO: Yeah, it was, like, extra pressure to not kick up waves and not cause them any more grief.

DEVARAJAN: And it was also around that time that D'Lo was going through puberty.

D'LO: I was like, thanks, God - perfect timing - (laughter) just, like, the worst.

DEVARAJAN: Which was when he went from being one of the guys to trying to be a girl.

D'LO: That was where I got my first, like, waves of depression. But I knew that if I stayed looking, behaving, being a boy - that people were sniffing me out already, you know?


DEMBY: When we come back...


D'LO: (Imitating father) Greetings to you all. I want to welcome everyone who has come from near and far.

DEVARAJAN: We meet D'Lo's father - or at least D'Lo's version of him.

D'LO: My uncle, on the other hand, was like, you didn't get his accent down. And I was like, I know. I can't get his accent down. It's very difficult. He's got a very particular Jaffna accent.

DEMBY: All that after the break - stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.



DEVARAJAN: I'm talking to the playwright/comic/actor D'Lo about his autobiographical one-man show, "To T Or Not To T."

D'LO: I asked my parents, when I was about, like, 21 or something - 22 - to come to a show of mine. And they were like, well, I don't know, you know? And I was like, OK, well, think about it. And so my appa looked at the flyer, and he was like, what is this?


D'LO: (Imitating father) What is this, huh? Flyer for your show, huh? What is this word - queer? Queer.

Oh, that's my orientation, Appa.

(Imitating father) You want to put it on a flyer? Why do you want to advertise it?

Appa, I'm not ashamed about who I am. Are you ashamed?

(Imitating father) No, I'm not ashamed. Yeah, I'm ashamed.


D'LO: (Imitating father) Why do others need to know? You can be queer and be a quiet artist like Amma.

Amma's queer?


D'LO: (Imitating father) Yeah. No, no. She's not queer. She's quiet.


DEVARAJAN: So I told D'Lo that, when I saw the show, I did have a lot of compassion for his parents, but I also felt like they failed him in a lot of ways.

D'LO: I mean, and you're - you know, you're going to have a different take on it, too, because the story is so close. It's, like, right there. And I think that a lot of people leave the show, rather, feeling the way that you did, but on a different tip, in that I've heard parents go - I saw them trying their hardest. You know what I'm saying? And not completely failing, but seeing that they tried. They tried. There was other stuff going on. And that's the truth of it. It's like, you try, and you'll still fail somebody, you know? And I've had people tell me that they felt like I honored my father, specifically in this story.


D'LO: (Imitating father) Even though D'Lo didn't become a doctor...


D'LO: ...I told him that he can do whatever he'd like. I didn't know that becoming a man was part of the plan. Or even more shocking - that he would become an artist.


D'LO: (Imitating father) Just joking. Just joking.

DEVARAJAN: You definitely got the - like, how long it takes for Sri Lankan men to, like, talk.

D'LO: (Laughter).

DEVARAJAN: Like, in that story...

D'LO: They take their time.


D'LO: Yeah.

DEVARAJAN: Do you think that there's, like, a scene from the show that captures your parents?

D'LO: Well, 'cause this is my - this show is mostly about my appa. Towards the end, I think that the last scene with my father and I outside encapsulates that, yes, the journey was hard and the struggle was real, but it was only that way because there's a deep love.


D'LO: (Imitating father) I read your horoscope, and it said you will be great, but you will be unfaithful.

Really? The stars told you that? Did it say who with, 'cause Anjana told me I could totally sleep with Rosario Dawson.


D'LO: (Imitating father) No, don't be stupid. If you are unfaithful, I will disown you. Anyway, when are you two going to give us grandmonkeys (ph), huh? Don't you want to be an appa?

It's a moment where you see that the character of my father has come to terms with, for lack of a better way of saying this, his own queerness. And it's not his queerness as, like, a queer person, but his queerness as it is related to his child being a big old queer, and that he has all this shame, and that he got transformed through the power of queerness, and that he could be more free from that point forward.


DEVARAJAN: What was your measure of success for your parents?

D'LO: That they allow space for themselves to grow with their kids. Like, I have my cousins and really amazing queer parents in my life who, when I watch how they parent, I was like - I'm like, damn, I wish you were my mom (laughter). And I know that's fucked up to say, but I feel that a lot. I'm like, God damn, they - my peoples is doing this thing right. And my amma asked me one time - she was like, was I a good mother? It came out of left field. I was shocked when she asked that question, and I said, I think you did the best that you could, given the fact that you came from a community where people didn't talk about their feelings, where you were coming to the States in your 20s. You didn't know yourself, and you're trying to keep up with the Joneses because you think that that's what's up. And then you have a kid who dies, and then you have, like, another kid who is trans. That's a hand. You know what I'm saying? So in that way, like, I'm just, like, the fact that they - I wouldn't know - I wouldn't say that they celebrate me for being queer, but they definitely - it's not just tolerance, you know? Like, my parents are stepping up for other queer people in our communities as well.

DEVARAJAN: For me, coming from that Sri Lankan-Tamil family, when anything is sort of deviant or different, there's a lot of this hush-hush, like, shove it under the rug.

D'LO: Yeah. Yeah.

DEVARAJAN: Given that, what - how does it feel to have such a public show?

D'LO: Yeah. Like, a sort of, like, soul-baring show - it's the only work I know how to do now. You know, when I started my career, I was doing poetry, and the poetry was about bigger issues. It was about AIDS and war and immigrant issues and, you know, policy stuff and all this stuff. And right after I moved to New York, what was being told to me was, like, queer people die all the time from their own hands or from other people's hands, and we don't want you to die, D, so you better learn what it means to be vulnerable. And so I've been on this career-long lesson in trying to figure out, how do I show more of myself to the world? If the world doesn't allow other people to rip open their souls and expose themselves, then let me do that. So to this thing about, like, what does it feel like to bare my soul and, quote, unquote, as the Sri Lankans would say, "air the dirty laundry"? I think that for the most part, people are kind of relieved that it was done. It's like, oh, you know, like, some - like, I'm not saying Kanye right now but, like, Kanye back then, like, sometimes he would say the shit that everybody needed. Like, it was like there was too much pressure in the tire and somebody just needed to, like, release some air out the valve. There is a bad analogy using Kanye, but what I'm saying is that he could shake shit up by just being.

DEVARAJAN: Having gone through everything you've gone through and having all the language and experience that you have now to, like, really excavate those memories, like, what sort of feelings does it bring up?

D'LO: Immediately I thought, do I wish that my life could have been easier, knowing what I know now? And I've come to that realization that I wouldn't be who I am. And I'm liking myself more. Do I want other people to suffer? No (laughter). You know what I'm saying? Like, am I trying to, like, use where I've been to, like, prevent that from happening with other people? Abso-fucking-lutely (ph).


DEMBY: Listening to your conversation, Kumari, I'm really curious about the uncanny valley-ness (ph) of it all, like, how you processed it because here's this dude who is so much like you, like, putting all his business out there, like, out on front street. And watching it probably made plain all the ways that he isn't like you - like, all the peculiarities of your own story and your own identity and how you processed all of that.

DEVARAJAN: Yeah, I mean, honestly, it gave me a lot of anxiety because it's like, here are all the things that are so private and personal and related to me and my experience. And now here I am, making them live on CODE SWITCH and on NPR. It's like I'm exposing myself without exposing myself because it's D'Lo talking about them not me. But I am the one asking the questions and shaping the story, so it feels dangerous. It's like I'm on the precipice of sharing my own experience, or I'm talking around my experience. And as I'm saying this, I realize that I did this to myself. I chose to talk to D'Lo. I pitched this to the show. I only have myself to blame.

DEMBY: You did this to yourself.

DEVARAJAN: (Laughter).

DEMBY: Did it to yourself.

DEVARAJAN: No, but this definitely still took me out of my comfort zone, so - talking about queer Sri Lankan stuff on CODE SWITCH or on NPR - which is, you know what my parents listen to, what people who know my parents listen to - it's kind of like I'm playing with fire. And some people are about to find the fire for my show...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

DEVARAJAN: ...Metaphorically speaking. And, you know, if I hadn't seen the show, I probably wouldn't have had the courage to put myself out here like this, even the little bit that I am. So I think it's safe to say that the show did a lot for me in opening myself up, and I think it'll do even more for lots of other people.

D'LO: I want queer, nonbinary, trans people, the whole umbrella to come in and feel, like, proud that somebody could share their story in this way on this important stage in Los Angeles.

DEVARAJAN: Well, I'm very proud. It's very cool for me to see you.

D'LO: I'm so proud that you're proud. That makes me happy.


DEMBY: All right, y'all. That is our show. You can follow us on Instagram and Twitter @nprcodeswitch at both places. Subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. Oh, and our newsletter - forgot about that - subscribe to that, too. You can find it at npr.org/newsletters.

DEVARAJAN: This episode was produced by me. It was field produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry and Leah Donnella, and it was edited by Leah.

DEMBY: And shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH familia - Christina Cala, Karen Grigsby Bates, Summer Thomad, Diba Mohtasham, Taylor Jennings-Brown and Steve Drummond. Our art director is LA Johnson. As for me, I'm Gene Demby.

DEVARAJAN: And I'm Kumari Devarajan.

DEMBY: Be easy, yo.

DEVARAJAN: Blessings.

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