At 11 years old, comedian and actor D'Lo began writing lyrics as a way to speak out against the racism he was exposed to as a child. Raised in Lancaster, California, D'Lo became obsessed early on with the works of Nas, Rakim, Queen Latifah, and MC Trouble — artists who used their voices to speak out against oppression, something that D'Lo says inspired him.
"These people are actually addressing racism and social injustice and I wanted to give it a go," D'Lo told NBC News. "It felt free to know that there were people who were addressing it rather than covering which was [my father's] way: all about, 'Lay your head down low, don't make any waves. You just need to do your work and get by.' I just thought that's what people of color did. We went under the radar and emerged somehow in whatever profession we wanted to pursue. But that's the lie. You don't emerge in tact, part of your soul gets ripped along the way. I was watching these folks in hip hop, black people, being loud about their reality and doing things within their communities that uplift themselves."
As a transgender Tamil Sri Lankan-American entertainer, D'Lo has spent more than 15 years touring as a poet, storyteller, and comedian. Now as an actor, he's taken a rare seat at Hollywood's dinner table — an opportunity, he says, that comes with overwhelming responsibilities.
"Artists and queer and trans people...we're the people who need to be at that table in order to change the [conversation]. It's our creative spirit that can affect people in such deep levels because we're coming from being excluded," D'Lo said. "I think that every time I walked into a room and felt [imposter syndrome], I slowly tried to learn while I was in those spaces to own my seat at that table, to remember that I am one of the very few people from my tribe who have even gotten this far. That is a privilege and if I don't f------g use it, I'm letting down my tribe."
Finding a 'Safe Haven' on the Stage
D'Lo began experimenting with spoken word and poetry in his first year as an undergrad at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), performing at local poetry readings and festivals. In 1997, his work led him on a tour to other colleges, where he became exposed to communities of South Asian progressives that he didn't know existed.
After graduating UCLA in 1999, D'Lo moved to New York City to pursue his creative projects full-time. From poetry and spoken word, he expanded into theater and stand-up comedy and, more than 10 years later, eventually dove into digital media and television.
"A lot of artists say, 'I don't care what people think. I'm just going to go out there and do me.' I admire that but I'm definitely somebody who goes out on a stage aiming to please an audience. If I'm getting pushed out of every room and queer people are getting pushed out of every room or can't walk down the street in peace [and] I'm choosing to be in front of a bunch of people as my art form, then I have to pull out every trick that I have in order to stay in that room," D'Lo said.
He added, "I think the stage is one of the most sacred places for me because that is my safe haven. I could be walking down the street to the theater and get heat on my ass, then the minute I step into these art places, there I can just be and know I'm not going to get killed."
According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, nearly 90 percent of Americans said they personally knew someone who identified as gay, bisexual, or lesbian, but a 2015 Harris Poll survey found that only 16 percent of Americans said they knew someone who is transgender.
Those numbers only begin to open the door to the barriers transgender individuals face, from home to school to work: the majority of the transgender population say they've experienced harassment or have been mistreated while at work, and a quarter of the population says they've lost jobs due to being transgender, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Additionally, the center's report found that 41 percent of those surveyed attempted suicide after facing bullying, violence, sexual assault, and increased rates of poverty.
These statistics, often overlooked in the wake of high-profile celebrations, make D'Lo's presence in the spotlight risky, but he says he sees it all as a worthwhile opportunity to give voice to a community that is made to feel invisible.
Courage, Acceptance, and Learning To Be Vulnerable
It wasn't an easy path for D'Lo into comedy and acting. There are few acting resources available for transgender individuals, he says, including a lack of acting classes that feel safe for gender nonconforming individuals, and even fewer casting calls for a transgender person of color.
"I don't know what trans person or gender nonconforming person would have the guts to walk into a room and be taught by someone who doesn't know what to do with their body," D'Lo said. "It happened to me, I wouldn't want that to happen to anybody else."
During the time he started theater work in 2002, D'Lo recalled being told by a former boss to wear a skirt and wig to get his foot in the door.
"I thought about that but it was honestly very hard to do that," D'Lo said. "Then I just started playing with that notion of disguise and for the first years of my life in the theater, that's how I became a better character actor. My work was based in doing character work because I knew that if I was just an artist that did characters that were relatable, then it placed less pressure on my own body as a gender nonconforming person."
He credits his mentors and time in the theater for teaching him to be vulnerable and comedically honest with his stories that later became the bulk of his solo shows: "D'FaQTo Life," "D'FunQT," and "Ramble-Ations: A One D'Lo Show." In each show, D'Lo uses a variety of storytelling techniques and characters — often impersonations of his own family members — to explore growing up transgender and navigating a queer identity in a immigrant family.
In his piece "Amma," D'Lo channels his mother in a long braid and red saree, and talks about how her acceptance of D'Lo's queer identity was originally complicated by her immigrant experiences and previously losing a child (D'Lo's sister) in a plane crash years before.
"I knew that I couldn't tell my mother's story without doing her justice, without honoring who she was and her own journey," D'Lo said. "Being vulnerable is scary, regardless if you're on the stage or not on the stage, and as her child I could see how she was struggling. Part of her struggle in life was mourning two daughters dying, right? For me, being the one who was resurrected but as a son was equally as difficult because it had everything wrapped into it, like how the community would view me, what she worried about for my life. If I were to create the piece, even though we were fighting all the time, I knew she was a good person. There were times that I thought she hated me, but I knew she was a good person and whatever struggles she had were literally the world in her head. I had to honor that part of her that wanted to be OK, but was struggling with being so."
'I Get To Take Up Space So Unapologetically'
Over the past couple of years, D'Lo has been making a name for himself beyond the stage and in Hollywood, where he's appeared in HBO's "Looking" and Netflix's "Sense8." D'Lo has also appeared in the Emmy-award winning Amazon series "Transparent," where he says it was the first time he'd been on a set with with gender neutral bathrooms and an LGBTQ crew behind the camera, which reinforced his hope that soon LGBTQ creatives would find space and representation across Hollywood.
But despite his successes, D'Lo is still unsigned to a manager or agency — something he believes hinders many transgender entertainers from gaining momentum in mainstream Hollywood.
"I think a lot of trans people feel a catch-22: you have to reach a certain level before an agent will consider you, and even for me — even though I've been getting roles — people are confounded that I don't have an agent," D'Lo said. "Because of all this, trans people are slowly and steadily taking matters into their own hands and creating content of their own narratives. Our lives as trans people of color are bending over backwards to be seen within that mainstream narrative. When I get to take up space in my own shows — whether I'm doing stand up or Disoriented [a nationally-touring comedy showcase featuring Asian-American stories] or a solo artist — I get to take up space so unapologetically that I'm doing justice to myself so much so that it translates to being a link to people who aren't even like me."