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  • Christine Amrita

Background Check: Lana Patel Talks Blindianess, Gender, and Allyship

Only a few minutes into our introductory phone call and I knew that Lana Patel was one of the rarest human beings a person can meet in their lifetime. No, it has nothing to do with her being Blindian, her Caribbean x South Asian heritage, or her experiences as a trans-woman. While all of these elements contribute to the wonderful, colorful, and downright stunning person that she is, the shining point of who Lana is comes from the fact that she is not afraid to be vulnerable. Though social media may convince us that being vulnerable is commonplace for most individuals, the truth is, the majority of us struggle to comprehend, celebrate, and share our story in a way that actually pulls up those around us.

With 24.7k followers on Instagram, affiliations with major brands such as Pantene and MAC Cosmetics, and features on platforms such as Forbes, Par-desi, and The Philadelphia Sunday SUN, Lana is a powerhouse. In our one-on-one conversation, we had the opportunity to explore the nuances of racial, cultural, and gender identity, along with the practice of authentic allyship and how the movement for racial justice and equity within the U.S. can be made more accessible.

Chrissy: So, Lana, to start us off I would love for you to take a moment to share who you are, where you're located, and how you spend your time. You can feel free to explain that in any way that feels the most authentic to you.

Lana: Hi! I’m Lana Patel. My pronouns are she/her/hers. I am a trans-woman, trans-femme, and I live in southern California around the greater Los Angeles area. I spend my time working in healthcare and also advocating for the LGBTQ community, the Trans community, the Afro/Indo-Caribbean community, the South Asian community, and the Black community.

Chrissy: Thank you! As an Indo-Caribbean woman myself, I know how exhausting and frustrating it is to constantly be explaining my identity to folx, especially when it comes to how my family and I came to be from the Caribbean. I can only imagine that as an Afro and Indo Caribbean woman, you experience the same situation and feelings, if not to a higher degree. if that’s the case, I'd love to hear a little bit about how you navigate that.

Lana: Yeah, it's really interesting. I was born and raised in Queens, New York and I knew there were variations of culture, accent, and language. I grew up with Trinis, Jamaicans, Guyanese, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Panamanians, but we were all Brown and Black people from the Caribbean or from Central America. It wasn’t until I moved out of Queens when I had to start telling my story: this is where my people are from and this is how it’s different from being African American.

Within that, it took some time to learn to be proud of my identity as an Indo-Caribbean and South Asian person because when I moved out of New York in 2002, I was only 12 or 13 and 9/11 had just happened and all eyes were on Brown people. To have visibly Brown family members on top of the fact that I had just moved in with my grandparents in Florida, it was easy to just hide that part of my identity or feel ashamed of it because of the way Brown people were vilified and made to seem like the enemy.

But through time I was able to get to a place where I love every part of my identity, where my Indo-Caribbean side is just as important as my Afro-Caribbean side which is just as important to my identity as a South Asian/Desi and as a Black person.

All of those identities combined make me who I am and I wouldn’t be me if I didn't have my Indian grandfathers and my Jamaican and Trinidadian grandmothers. But it's been a journey getting to this place where I can be comfortable with my identity and really own it. Especially in South Asian and Indo-Caribbean spaces where I would go in and people would look at me sometimes and ask, “What are you doing here?” or “Are you here for an experience?” And actually no, like this is my culture as well. I'm not here to observe or try new foods or play dress up. This is who I am.

Chrissy: That last part you mentioned about going to Indian or Indo spaces and folx are asking, “Did you come to experience something new?” is heartbreaking because what comes to mind is this idea of going home and people are calling you a stranger. I can only imagine what a jarring experience that must've been.

Lana: Yeah, exactly. And moving to California where most of the Brown people are directly from India is also different. To be in those spaces and be asked questions about how I know certain dialects and food can really make a person feel othered. And it’s just different from what’s on the East Coast because there we have West Indian mandirs and people are more familiar with the culture.

Chrissy: It’s interesting because as I’ve gotten older and I’ve met more folx from the Subcontinent, I’ve learned that they’re not taught the part of history that explains how our families ended up in the Caribbean.

Lana: For sure. People would see me in the mandirs and assume I’m from East Africa because they have family there or took a trip there once and saw someone who looks like me, and when I would explain that I’m from the islands they would be so confused and I’m like wait, hold up, so they never told you they brought Indians to the islands and tricked them into servitude? And it’s actually funny because it was these conversations that led me to becoming familiar with Masaba Gupta.

Chrissy: Love her!

Lana: Same! I was at a Gujrati event talking to some women and one of them told me I reminded her of Masaba Gupta. At the time I didn’t know who that was so I was like, “Who?” And she was like, “You NEED to look her up!” And so I started to do some research and my initial reaction was just, “Wow, I cannot believe this woman exists!” Her mother, Neena Gupta, defied the odds and fell in love with Viv Richards, a Black, West Indian, Jamaican cricketer. And of course it was a big scandal for multiple reasons, but in the end Neena had her daughter and raised her in India amongst the language and culture. And now she's a major fashion designer and has a show on Netflix that was number one in India.

And, you know, it was really inspiring for me because I always felt like an outsider in the South Asian community because sometimes it feels like the community measures your “Indianness” by your features. So when people within the community look at me and say, “Well, you don’t look that Indian,” it kinda feels like erasure. It’s just so crazy how much people see difference and amplify that.

Chrissy: That was so powerful, Lana. Masaba’s journey and success is amazing and it’s even more amazing that she is able to serve as an inspiration for not just you, but all multi-racial/multi-cultural South Asian folx. I will say, and my heart breaks to think this, but I wonder if she hadn’t been so successful, would the community have turned around and said, “Of course!” as if they expected her to fail because of her Black, West Indian background. And while it's beautiful now that the community is embracing her, uplifting her and claiming her, sometimes I can’t help but to wonder if it’s conditional.

Lana: Yeah, that’s real, especially in South Asian and Indo cultures. You have to lead with your accomplishments for us to claim you. Even thinking about our Vice President. Because she’s in a significant position of power we’re quick to celebrate her but if anything negative were to happen, how quick would the community be to label her as just Black or American or Other? It’s not okay.

Chrissy: Absolutely. And I think the heart of what we’re getting at in our conversation is that the South Asian and Indo community is failing the Blindian community—intentionally or not—when it comes to representation and making them feel authentically seen.

Lana: For sure. But I think spaces like Jore are helping. You reached out to me and were very intentional about the fact that you wanted to help share my story as part of the South Asian diasporic experience. And I think platforms like Jore need to do more of that, where they’re not just sharing the stories of people who are 100% South Asian descent or “look” South Asian.

It’s important that representation doesn’t have a miopic, monolithic type of look. South Asian and Indo folks come in a variety of shapes, colors, and phenotype and we should all be celebrated.

And I think with that comes the need to really fight against the model minority myth and the urge to look down on other minority groups, especially Black people. At the end of the day, we’re all the same. It’s about time that we come together.

Chrissy: Beautifully said. And I want to add that it’s very clear that you navigate all of the intersecting elements of your identity with so much elegance and gratitude. And I know we’ve been spending quite a bit of time talking about your South Asian/Indo identity but I would like us to switch gears a bit and talk about the fact that this past year, we saw the 21st century Civil Rights Movement exponentially grow its visibility on a global scale. I know a significant focus of your work is around allyship, so I’d love for you to share your thoughts on what it means to be an authentic ally within the BLM movement, as well as touch on the complexities that arise while navigating this movement as a multiracial person of color.

Lana: That’s a really good question. It's really interesting because I started learning more about myself and the Black community when I started watching people online, like For Harriet, also known as Kimberly Nicole Foster. She is so just insightful, poignant and well read and I absolutely adore her and love her work. I started following her and learning more about the Black Lives Matter Movement and really delving into the Black community here in the U.S. Because yes, while I am Black, I have been on the outskirts of the community given that I am a Black trans-woman. And it’s really difficult sometimes because I'm seeing other Black trans-women being murdered at alarming rates and I'm seeing the Black Lives Matter Movement rallying and really defending Black cis-men, and yet, the ones we are rallying for are the ones killing Black trans-women, and nothing is being done there. I remember speaking with someone about this and her response was that the Black community has to first deal with what’s happening to Black cis-men before we can deal with any in house issues, and I just feel like all of these things can be tackled. It’s just frustrating because I get out there and I rally and I push and I post and I march but where is that for me and Black folks like me? We rally for Black cis-men but we don’t truly do the same for Black women, especially Black trans-women who are really just forgotten about.

And just to be clear, I am wholeheartedly for the Black Lives Matter Movement and there needs to be more justice and equity for the Black community. But I also know many Black trans-women do not feel safe enough to be at the forefront of this movement because when it's our community being attacked, no one is marching the streets for us. Going forward, I just really hope the Black community can work to dismantle its homophobia and transmysogynoir. I hope that we can one day get to a place where we see a trans-woman as a woman and we treat her as a woman, and we also treat cis-women better. We should be able to do all of this while also dealing with systemic racism, like ending police brutality and the school to prison pipeline.

Chrissy: Thank you for that, Lana. I have so much gratitude for the eloquence and honesty with which you explained everything. Something that a friend of mine had mentioned early on when BLM really started to gain traction was that yes, Black lives matter and even more than that, all Black lives matter. And they said it for all the points you brought up regarding the misogyny and homophobia and transphobia that the community struggles with. And separately, another friend of mine mentioned that she is so overwhelmed by #SayHerName because she feels like she’s saying all of these names into a void where they get sucked up and are put out of sight until the hashtag is trending again.

Lana: Exactly.

Chrissy: And to your point regarding the violence against Black trans-women and trans-women in general, there were several stats floating around major media outlets with one of them being that 44 trans-women were murdered during 2020 and frankly, no one did anything about this. I know the Biden/Harris administration has positioned themselves on the promise to do many great things, one of which is better legislation for the LGBTQ+ community. I’m curious if there is a specific policy or legislation that you would love to see instated to better protect the trans community, as well as toward educating the larger American society on trans individuals.

Lana: We definitely need nationwide protection for the community. We need to eradicate the gay panic defense because it allows people, specifically cis, straight men, can walk free after murdering a human being. I’d also like to see improvements in the healthcare sector given that many of the surgeries that trans individuals need are deemed elective and I think that is extremely problematic. For so many people, these surgeries can be life altering and can be the determining factor of whether they live or die. Employment opportunities is another major space I’d like to see improvements in, given that many trans-women fall into a lower socioeconomic status because employers do not want to hire them, resulting in many women turning to sex work which is not only still considered illegal in most states, but is extremely dangerous.

Being a trans-woman is not free, it is not easy, and it is not cheap.

And for the folks who are able to live in California or New York, things may be a little bit better, but things are still hard, especially in more conservative states. I started my transition in Florida and I remember what it was like navigating that with no protection offered by the state. I was 17 years old, self medicating, taking black market hormones and doing it all in secret. Unfortunately, that’s the plight of so many people. But I’m really hopeful that with this new administration, we’ll see better access to opportunities and resources for trans folks, as well as legislation and policy that allows them to really just live and thrive in their identities.

Chrissy: Definitely. And just reflecting on all the things you highlighted, you really just touched on basic necessities for survival in the U.S. It’s extremely frustrating that folx continue to be denied access to these resources and rights because of extremely ignorant biases about the trans identity and experience.

With that being said, while it is extremely important to place a microphone on the struggles that trans folx experience on a daily basis, I am a big believer that there is joy in every identity and that should also be given space. I’m curious if you’d be willing to share a moment of immense beauty and joy that you experienced while transitioning?

Lana: I love that question! I think we do tend to get caught up in the trauma a lot, not just with LGBTQ issues—I saw the same thing happening with BLM— and it can be really dangerous because we almost condition ourselves to grow numb to it. But to answer your question, I remember there just being so many little nuggets of joy. For example, when my first box of hormones arrived. I had just come back from Alabama and my cousin Mikey was with me and there was a box sitting on my dresser and he picked it up and was like, “What is this?” while shaking the bottle. And even though I couldn’t tell him at the time, I knew it was my hormones and I was just so excited! Another time was I was visiting a record store with a friend of mine and he had a friend who worked there and she called out to me while I was in the store and addressed me as “Miss” and “Ma’am” and I just remember feeling like, “Oh my gosh, she saw me as me!”

Chrissy: I love those! I think it actually takes a lot for folx to share their happy moments because you almost want to protect them from the world and keep them to yourself, so I really appreciate you being vulnerable here.

We’ve had an amazing conversation this evening and I have a million and one other questions I’d love to ask you, but I think a good place to end is for you to share details on a project you’re working on or a policy you’re looking to push that you’re passionate, as well as where folx can go to learn more information.

Lana: Yeah, for sure, it’s been such a pleasure! In terms of what I’m working on, many of them require me to sign an NDA so I can’t talk about too many things, but what I can share is that I’m excited for some future collaborations. I definitely want to start working with lawmakers to help push some of the policies we discussed earlier. Beyond that, I would love to start working on some personal passions regarding fashion, beauty, and modeling. One of my biggest dreams is to cover Vogue India and what that would mean for someone like me to have representation on such a major platform. And if folks are curious and want to keep up with me, they can check out my Instagram, @lanapatelxoxo.

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