What are your pronouns?
I use “they/them” pronouns.
Where do you work?
I do not work currently; I’m a student [at] Temple University. I’m a Sociology major and a Gender/Sexuality & Women Studies minor. When I was a junior in high school, I was like, “Shit, I need to think about what I want to do after I graduate high school.” So it was a pretty random choice going into Sociology, but it worked out really well. It’s exactly what I want to be studying, so I’m happy about that. Thanks 17-year-old me. And then for the minor – the classes that I’m interested in, I ended up completing most of the credits that I need to have the minor anyway, so I figured, why not? [laughs]
Do you have any hobbies or special interests? What do you do for fun?
I don’t know if it’s a hobby or an interest, but advocacy work is what I spend a lot of my free time doing. There’s a group called Stadium Stompers and I am part of that. So basically, Temple University wants to build a stadium right off of Broad, and while Temple currently owns the property, building a football stadium with no parking plan – it’s going to disrupt the community. And the community’s already gone through so much at the hands of Temple. So we’re basically like, “Enough is enough. We’re not doing this.” We’ve caught a break because Temple has stopped the building of the stadium indefinitely, which is a huge win for us. And the money is probably being allocated elsewhere, but we’re still kind of on edge. Because it’s not a promise, it’s just kind of “on hold.” So that’s one thing. Another hobby is photography. That’s something that I’ve been interested in since I was 13. I know it’s a very generic answer, but I like hanging out with friends.
How do you handle the issue of pronouns and being gendered when interacting with strangers / mixed company / etc?
I’m really, really bad at it. The pronouns thing is kind of a formality in a lot of ways, because the way that I perceive my own gender is: I don’t identify within the spectrum at all. I just see myself as completely removed from it altogether. I use “they/them” because it’s the easiest thing, and it describes what I identify as most closely. But “she/her,” “he/him,” they just kind of feel like words more than anything to me. All that to say, when people ask [what my pronouns are] I say “they/them.” And if people just assume “she/her,” it’s not really something that I care about too much.
Have you had difficulties with changing your name and the way it affects you moving through the world, being recognized how you want, or being mis-gendered?
So Roo is a nickname basically; my full name is Roopali. It’s not legally changed, it’s just a nickname, but I started going by Roo back in high school because I changed high schools my sophomore year. And honestly it’s kind of tied more to my Indian heritage and how I relate to that, because it was definitely something that I struggled with a lot for a very long time. I started wearing my hair natural two years ago. I used to straighten it every day up until then. So basically Roo is a very neutral name, I think. I mean, “white” is the default, but when you think “Roo” you don’t necessarily think “Indian” the way you would with Roopali. Also it’s just so much easier for people to say. I think that it was just kind of an ease thing and also I feel like, as far as specifically gender is concerned, Roopali is tied with my closeted self, as far as the way that I was presenting gender-wise. I hated the way that I looked, and I didn’t understand why, and I wasn’t comfortable with the way that I presented. And then I changed my name, I changed my presentation, and I feel like it’s kind of re-birthed me, to be dramatic.
What word(s) would you use to describe your identity?
Indian-American. As far as gender identity – I identify as agender, as a formality kind of thing if people ask. But I identified as genderfluid up until a couple years ago too, because I didn’t understand that I could even be outside the spectrum. I didn’t understand that I could just choose to not participate within the binary. I thought that because how I wanted to present changed day-to-day, that that just meant that I’m genderfluid. I didn’t understand that it can just be in flux constantly, and I’m allowed to do that. And it kind of ties into my sexuality too, because at this point my sexuality’s just a question mark. Because again I kind of just stopped caring. So I think that when I realized that I’m allowed to just opt out of putting those labels on myself, it made me feel significantly more comfortable with who I am as a person. Because first of all, significantly less stressful, because I put so much energy into trying to define myself. And my newer high school had a small but tightknit, strong queer community, and I think that it very much helped with me being able to come into who I am and being comfortable with who I am. But I also think that everyone was just, “Oh, I’m this thing,” and I felt the need to say the same. Like when I first realized that I wasn’t cis, I just thought, Okay, that means I’m a trans dude then, right? And then that molded into genderfluid and that molded into agender. So it’s basically just kind of dissolving slowly. Basically, agender is the go-to label, I’d say.
I’d still say that I identify as non-binary, because to me non-binary is just withholding from the binary genders. You know how usually there’s the rainbow spectrum for how gender works? I’d say that it’s more like – you know in MS Paint how it’s the rainbow at the top and it fades to black and white at the bottom? [laughs] It just kind of fades into a void. I’d say that’s like a visual representation of the way that I view it. Because it’s just so incredibly subjective. And I’d say, if I were to place myself on the MS Paint color scheme thing, I’d be near the bottom kind of blackish-gray. I still identify traits of gender within how I look, and how I present and whatnot.
Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?
Yeah, I’d say so. I’d say that part of my introduction into how to live a queer lifestyle was online also. You know, 2011 Tumblr. So there’s a very specific way to be not cis, and you had to be a certain way and have short hair. And that was it. So I do think that that impacted how I view how you’re supposed to present, and I’m still trying to unlearn that. But I think that that initial introduction influenced what my style grew into, and I take a lot of pride in the fact that most people can look at me and almost immediately clock me as, at the very least, not being straight. I’m also very fortunate that I even get to say that, because I live in Philly and I’m not going to get beat up for that. So I understand the privilege that I have in being able to dress the way that I do. It is a form of pride, I guess.
I mean I think that when I am confident enough in the future, I would be less averse to wearing dresses and skirts and feminine stuff like that. But I think that currently, because I know that I would just get immediately read as different than how I want to be seen if I were to wear more feminine clothing, that’s definitely something that’s stopping me. I’m actually going to get a breast reduction in the summer hopefully, and that is something I am very much looking forward to. Because on top of my back being in pain all the time, I do think that that will help a lot with how I want to present, because really my goal is to just be a genderless meat sack, frankly. That’s just kind of what I’m going for, and it’s really weird working within a system that has a binary, because it’s very hard to achieve that. But I like to think I’m getting there.
How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?
So in my old high school, I went to the GSA with some of my friends who were openly identifying as I think bi at that point, and I was there to be the ally in the Gay Straight Alliance. So when we were doing introductions I stood up and said, “Hi, my name is Roo and I’m straight,” and then I didn’t understand when my friends rolled their eyes at me. [laughs] So that was when I was 13, and now I’m 21. And I think that part of what it was, was: being with people that I’ve grown up with since elementary school, and then going to a new high school, suddenly everything was different and I could present how I wanted to. The first step to presenting more androgynous was cutting my hair, which I did while video chatting with my friend in my bathroom, and it was the most uneven terrible haircut, and my parents freaked out, and it was a mess, but here I am now.
I think that just being able to present the way that I wanted to helped a lot. Because I realized, wow, I feel a lot better, I feel a lot more comfortable. I like being seen in this new way. This was in high school still. I went to two high schools – I went to one high school my freshman year and then a second one sophomore through senior year.
So when I was able to change high schools, I was able to just be what I wanted to without judgement and without having to explain why I changed. That was definitely one part of it. Another part was honestly just having people that listened and understood. I have a friend, and he’s a trans dude, and he has a diary entry that he found a while ago that [said], “I made a friend today, and they understand the gender thing, and it finally gave me the confidence to buy a binder for the first time,” and I cried a lot when he read that to me. I think that just having a space where I could talk to people without judgement, I was really able to develop an identity that made me happy and comfortable, and I just kept going in that direction. So I am very glad that I changed schools, because I honestly don’t know where I would be if I didn’t.
Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how you drew conclusions about your identity?
Yeah, for sure. Growing up with Indian parents, it was definitely… It was kind of like living in a “don’t ask don’t tell” era, except it hasn’t ended yet. They still don’t really understand what I identify as. I mean, we never really talked openly about anything once things started going wrong. They never were supportive. When it came to my mental health, [that] was the first thing that really changed in my life, and when that started deteriorating, they weren’t there. So suddenly when I was questioning my gender and my sexuality, I definitely didn’t tell them about it. I think that part of why the new school also made me feel so much more comfortable was because it was so far removed from my parents. With the old school, it was a 15-minute drive from my house, and the new school was a 45-minute drive. So instead of my parents taking me to school every day, I carpooled, and that was the first sense of removal from them. And it was just so far away that it felt like a safe space from my house. That definitely impacted the way that I saw myself. I felt that I could only be a certain type of person around them. I still do, to some extent. It’s an open secret. It’s the elephant in the room. And where I grew up was a gated community, suburban neighborhood, so that didn’t help. The new school was in Germantown, so it was significantly closer to Philly. And the old school was still in the suburbs. So just the change in environment was ultimately what helped me through figuring out my identity. So I’d say that between my parents and the school and my neighborhood, it was definitely stunted to the point that I didn’t understand why I wasn’t happy with myself and my identity.
"You can wear a bright pink dress that’s super floofy and have your face all done up and your hair curled, and it’ll be great, and you can still identify with “he/him” pronouns or “they/them” pronouns and that’s still completely valid. And in the opposite direction you could still have a big ol’ bushy beard and still identify however you want."
Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?
Like I mentioned before, to a lot of people, there’s a certain way of being non-binary, and you have to be skinny and white and have short hair and dress a certain way. People just think that non-binary people look a certain way, and that’s just the way it is, and if you wear dresses, then you’re gendered and you can’t be non-binary. Or you’re not allowed to wear suits. Or anything on one end of the spectrum. Like suddenly that’s too much. You’re not allowed to wear any gendered article of clothing, ever. No makeup or anything like that. So that’s bullshit. You can wear a bright pink dress that’s super floofy and have your face all done up and your hair curled, and it’ll be great, and you can still identify with “he/him” pronouns or “they/them” pronouns and that’s still completely valid. And in the opposite direction you could still have a big ol’ bushy beard and still identify however you want. And that’s definitely something that I’ve still seen within the trans community, even, trouble accepting that. Because if you don’t present a certain way, then oh, you’re faking. You’re a “transtrender.” So that’s fucked up. Because if you can’t look to your trans community to support you, where are you supposed to go? So I hate that. I think that’s the main one, as far as how non-binary people are perceived. I think that kind of branching off of that, non-binary people using “he/him,” “she/her,” whatever other pronouns – that also being a, “Oh, you can’t use those pronouns and still identify as non-binary, that’s not allowed.” Just the rules to being non-binary in general. The entire point is that it’s so wide, it’s so subjective as far as the person’s identity. People just assigning rules to how to be non-binary correctly is so dumb.
In your own words, how would you explain the differences and/or similarities between gender identity and sexual orientation?
I’d say that, for me, they’re very linked. Because as I mentioned before, they don’t exist to me. My gender stopped being a thing before my sexuality stopped being a thing, and they definitely had to do with one another, because since my gender stopped being a thing, I didn’t know what to identify as. Then I figured, Oh, wait, I’m actually okay with that. So then they kind of just went out the window, and here I am. But I think that for a lot of people, it’s also very strongly linked. I’ve heard that it’s a very personal thing, as far as learning to love yourself in the same way that you can love someone else. I think that it’s all just so subjective. I could talk forever about the different ways that people could feel about it.
Gender identity is just how you identify yourself, and the way that you feel comfortable presenting, and basically what’s in your head. Whereas sexual orientation is – this is going to sound so cheesy – what’s in your heart. A lot of the time it is linked but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. It’s just kind of two neighboring things, where they can and often do interact with one another. Like one might, you know, bake a pie and go over to the other’s house, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that. They could be the type of people that just keep to themselves. So, yeah, that’s how I’d explain it. [laughs]
How do you feel represented in media and society at large?
I don’t. [laughs] I mean I think that that is more of a thing – I mean since “transtrender” is even a term, at all. The idea of being trans being mainstream, and all of that, is more of a thing now. But it’s still in the beginning stages. Like when a person thinks “trans,” and they don’t know much about it, I feel like they think of Caitlyn Jenner. And that’s not all of it. I believe that Ezra Miller just came out as non-binary. He was The Flash in [The Justice League and Suicide Squad]. I think that there’s another actress, if that’s the term that they use, who stars in another really popular TV show, and they identify as non-binary. It’s definitely coming into light. But when you think “not cis,” for those that don’t identify as trans, it’s not what an Average Joe would think of. I feel like it’s more represented within the queer community itself than it was before, but this is also coming from someone that’s very young, and hasn’t been in the community for too long. So I don’t have too much perspective on that. But I do feel as though my identity, as well as others, is acknowledged. But that doesn’t mean that our voices are at the table, necessarily. I still think that a lot of gay men specifically kind of stopped caring once gay marriage was legalized. I just feel like there’s a separation of interests, if that makes sense. I have a lot of feelings about the way that gay marriage has impacted the queer community and how it’s benefited some people and not others.
[The Philly gayborhood] is a great place. I recommend just wandering around. But I actually bring it up for less fun reasons. It’s super racist sometimes. There was a really big scandal with a place that I think is shut down at this point – I really hope it is – where a bar owner was just like, “Those n-words coming in here all the time trying to get free drinks.” And that was a gay bar owner, so you’d think that he’d be a little bit more inclusive. It’s also a neighborhood in Center City. White men are going to be at the front. So it’s not as welcoming a community as you’d think. Which is sad, but it’s something to be fought against. It’s always really sad to me when you have to argue with cis white gay dudes about, “Why aren’t you listening to us?” I just have a lot of feelings about the way that cis white gay men feel like they can say whatever the fuck they want because, “Well we’re oppressed.” Yeah, you are, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to say the n-word. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be racist. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be sexist. That means that you’re gay. That doesn’t mean anything else.
[I definitely find community in Philly] amongst my friends, amongst people that I can just trust. People that I can trust that I can call out, and I will not put myself in danger [doing so]. Since I’m also newly 21, I have not actually been to any of the gay bars, now that I think about it. But I don’t think that I would be in danger at any point in any of the places in the gayborhood, but that doesn’t mean that it’s still an equal opportunity place. The only consistent place that I’ve found for it is with people that I know personally. Temple has a QSU, Queer Student Union, and I stopped going to that because it was just a bunch of cis white gays hanging out.
What improvements would you like to see happen inside your communities, and in society at large?
I think that intersectional feminism is a more widespread term now, but I don’t think it’s fully understood. I think that it’s just kind of a thing where people say, “I’m an intersectional feminist,” like there’s no other type of feminism. I think that to understand all of the elements of that is something that takes a lot of time. It’s not something that you can just read a quick article on. So therefore it takes a lot of energy. But it’s definitely something worth looking into a bit. Because if you’re a poor trans person of color, you’re going to be significantly more fucked in life than a middle-class gay white man. And I feel like people don’t understand that. Even within the queer community people have a hard time understanding that if you are a person of color and you identify within the queer community, that doesn’t mean that your life is necessarily worse than people who are more privileged, but that does mean that they’re more privileged. I just think that it’s easy, especially for cis/het [cisgender/heterosexual] people to just kind of gloss over everyone and put them in the same boat, and that’s just not fair. So that’s definitely something that needs to be worked on at large, but even before it can be worked on at large, it’s something that the queer community needs to address. Because it’s annoying, having to shout to be heard, even now.
Could you tell me about an experience or moment in your life that was very impactful for you?
When Trump was elected, there were the marches on Broad Street. Like the night after he was elected, there was a massive protest on Broad. And one of the chants that people started doing was, “Her body, her choice,” and I felt very uncomfortable at that. Because like I said before, when addressed to me, “she/her” is just kind of – a term. I understand what it’s conveying to me, and I understand that I don’t care. But when it’s “her body, her choice,” and it’s just generalizing all people with uteruses as “her,” that made me very uncomfortable. But then I heard someone cheering a little bit in front of me, “Their body, their choice,” and I don’t think I cried, but I know that I wanted to. Because – you know, I was terrified. My parents are legal citizens, but they were born in India. And obviously I’m not white, and neither are they, and I didn’t know what was going to happen to all the trans people that I love, and how they were going to be impacted. I say how they were going to be impacted because they’re trying to get hormones, and I’m not necessarily looking for that, but I just knew it was going to be 1000 times harder for them. So I don’t know, just hearing that little bit of support… I just went up to him and I told him, “Thank you,” and then we hugged, and we chanted together, and it was lovely. That’s the first thing that I think of.
Could you give me an example of something difficult that occurred in your life how you dealt with it?
So my first year attending [the Philly Trans Wellness Conference] was with my high school, with the Sexuality and Gender Alliance. And there was a gay dude, and – this was when I was still not quite sure of my identity so I was significantly more protective of my pronouns, because it was one of the things that I could really hold on to that felt solid and real compared to everything else – and he kept on mis-gendering me. I think that was the first time that I ever called anyone out for using the wrong thing to refer to me as. And he got very sarcastic about it. You know how people make the argument that it’s not grammatically correct? So he started using it in a bunch of sentences – “They went home,” “They take the bus,” whatever. It was a stupid little moment, but I’d say it was the first time that I really understood that even people in the queer community are not always going to be on my side. Even people that I know and trust. It’s going to be hard, and I’m going to have to say, “Hey, why? What do you gain out of this?” Yeah, that was sad. But it helped in the long run.
Who in your life do you feel you can trust or depend on?
That friend that I mentioned earlier, the diary entry about the binder – that is my go-to gender person when it comes to anything. I just trust him with absolutely anything when it comes to anything regarding gender, sexuality, or whatever. Because he was also in that high school, and he was the main person that really helped me come to terms with who I am, and then later on with not caring necessarily about identifiers whatsoever. So him, and most of my friends at this point aren’t cis/het people, so on some level, I can talk to all of them about queer experiences, and they get it.
How has your identity played a role in your relationships, romantic or otherwise?
It’s definitely helped rule a lot of people out, as far as who I can put my trust into. My first partner was a trans girl, and our relationship was a mess. It was abusive and it was bad, but one of the many warning signs was, she got into a mini-tangent during one of our fights about how I don’t get it because I’m “not as trans” as she is. So, that. Out of all the shitty things that happened in that relationship, that really stuck with me. And with my parents, it has definitely created a gap between us. I mean, even more so than there already was. It’s just kind of something that I’ve come to terms with at this point, and I just kind of navigate around it. Other than that it’s just kind of impacted who I even spend my time with. Like I wouldn’t even have met any of the people I know if it wasn’t for coming to terms with my own identity. It’s definitely because of being comfortable with myself. Several of the classes that I took that led towards me getting my Gender/Sexuality & Women Studies Minor were trans-oriented, and I wouldn’t have taken those if I wasn’t okay with who I was, and if I didn’t want to know more about trans experiences. So it’s just impacted everything.
Are you able to find adequate medical care?
Surprisingly, yes. But I honestly really lucked out. I’ve been seeing the same doctor since I first got here. It’s the same doctor my parents see. She’s our family doctor. She asked me [how things were going], because this was when I was still in a rocky place mental health wise, so she just wanted to know because she’s my doctor and she wanted me to be okay. And I was able to open up to her about, “Well I’m not cis, and that’s causing me a lot of stress,” and she asked me to explain more, and I got very lucky in terms of how understanding she was. And the same for my psychiatrist. He is a brash man, but he ultimately only wants the best for me. Both of those, honestly, I just lucked out. And I’m not seeking out medical care otherwise, I don’t really have any desire to go on hormones, and like I mentioned earlier with breast reduction, I have not yet talked to a doctor about it. But I’m hoping that I will be able to just kind of say, “Yeah, they’re causing me pain, and I just want them to be very tiny if that’s okay.”
How has your view of yourself changed since you were younger?
I’m definitely not what I think I expected myself to be. I remember when I was 8, I had a vision of what I would look like in middle school, and then that didn’t work out, but then after that, it was just kind of a blur, as far as what I thought I was going to grow up to be. And I think that once I came into my own identity, I was able to start seeing a clearer future with how I want to present myself and where I want to go in life. So I’d say, since middle school and younger, I just didn’t know what was going on, and was very confused. Especially during middle school, I was just trying to survive the next day, let alone looking into the future. I was very sad in middle school, I didn’t really think about where I was going to go. But then in high school, I started thinking about what I want to do, where I would be comfortable identifying the way that I do. One of the issues in high school was since I have these parents that don’t really understand the way that I identify, they were also helicopter parents. So that didn’t work out very well. So now that I’m living on my own, and have all of Philly accessible to me, I am able to – even meet with you, I wouldn’t have been able to do that in high school, let alone find places that I’m comfortable and friends that I am comfortable talking to. So I’d say that from when I started identifying as queer as all, I am where I want to be as far as where I am.
"I think that gay marriage was a thing that all of us could really rally behind, and then we got that, and then now trans people are like, “So trans rights are next, right?” and then gay people are like, 'Eh, I don’t know.'"
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Probably that – well, this is going to sound corny – it’s going to be okay. I’d definitely tell them to stop talking to the people that make them feel bad for whatever reason, and to stop listening to how other people tell you you should identify, and to just do what makes you happy. And I’d say that gender is a myth, and it’s not something that you should feel restrained by, as far as how you want to identify or present, or who you want to love.
What are your concerns for the future?
I’d say where the queer community is going, honestly. I think that gay marriage was a thing that all of us could really rally behind, and then we got that, and then now trans people are like, “So trans rights are next, right?” and then gay people are like, “Eh, I don’t know.” So, that sucks, and that is definitely something that I don’t know what’s going to happen, and that is worrying. I mean on a personal level, I’d say that I don’t really know what I’m going to do with my Sociology degree and my Gender/Sexuality & Women Studies minor – don’t know where that’s going to take me, but fingers crossed.
What do you look forward to in the future?
I look forward to having freedom over what I want to do, and the people I’m going to meet. And just not having restraints as far as who I can be. And also, after I get the breast reduction, just looking forward to being comfortable with myself and what I can wear. I mean, I don’t know what the future’s going to bring, but it’s worked out so far, so hopefully it’ll continue to do so.
What have been the important frustrations in your life, and the important successes?
Frustrations have been – well when I was still in the closet, that was annoying, though I didn’t know it. Coming out was definitely a success. Being able to find an identity or lack thereof that I feel comfortable in was a huge success. A frustration was home life and not being able to be who I want to be all the time. Not being able to go places that I feel comfortable, or places that I feel welcome and accepted, because I was too busy being at home. And then a success is not doing that anymore, and having Philly to roam about, and having people that I can turn to that I can trust. A frustration is putting up with the people that I did, in large part because they were also queer, so I thought that they couldn’t hurt me. Success is not doing that, and realizing that being not straight or trans isn’t a “get out of jail free” card, they still have to be held accountable for their behavior, and I’m allowed to do that.
Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice?
It’s optimistic existentialism. I have a tattoo of the Fibonacci sequence. That was my first tattoo. I wanted it since I was 16, I think earlier actually. I used to self-harm when I was a teenager, and it was placed near some scars, and it was to signify that – it’s very corny – you know how the Fibonacci sequence is seen everywhere? So, it was just kind of to signify that the universe is absolutely massive, and there’s a lot of shit going on that doesn’t involve you, and no matter how badly you fuck up, or how well you do, it’s just all about the bigger picture. And it is very comforting to think about how there’s always something else going on in the universe.