"I’ve had people pigeonhole me and force me to choose one culture over the other" - Lana Patel
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
We had the chance to talk to Lana Patel, an Afro-Indo-Caribbean trans woman, who is an advocate for the equality of trans lives and the intersection of being LGBTQ, POC and Immigration. Lana went to Florida state university to pursue her undergrad and looks to pursue a higher education in medicine. Lana currently works full-time in Healthcare and utilises her platform to fight for trans folks to have a seat at the table. She fights for the widespread understanding that true liberation can only be achieved once everyone is seen as equal.
Tell us about yourself, who is Lana Patel?
I’m Lana Patel. I am an Afro-Caribbean Indian trans woman and I am a social media personality, influencer, model, singer, actress, model, dancer and makeup artist.
As you said, you are Black and Indian – a combination of heritages that we don’t usually see, or hear people talking about. What have your experiences been navigating your identity?
Growing up, this was the norm because I grew up in Queens and it was a beautiful blend of culture, so I didn’t really think anything of it. It was only as I began growing up that people began pointing out the different a little more – I moved to Florida when I was 13 and I started to realise that I was different, I wasn’t like the other kids. It has been an interesting journey for use – I’ve had people pigeonhole me and force me to choose one culture over the other. I’ve had people tell me I look more Black, and so therefore I am Black, even though that’s not how I grew up – I was told I could only be Black, and not express my South Asian side or be desi. Navigating through South Asian communities has also been interesting, because people are staring, they have questions – “oh, you like Indian food?” “Oh, you like Indian clothes?” – as if this isn’t my whole life. I am not an outsider, but I get treated as one. So that was really interesting to navigate – the media didn’t help, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me, the only message being shown to me was “Fair and Lovely”. However, I think things are changing – Masaba Masaba was pivotal for me, to see Netflix India create and promote a show with a character who was me. Also having an Afro-Caribbean Indian woman on the ticket in America has made me realise that this is the year of “Blindians” [sic] (Black-Indians), this is our time! Liza Koshy, Masaba Gupta, Kamala Harris – this is our time!
I’m guilty of being the only person on the planet who hasn’t yet seen Masaba Masaba, but it is an incredibly popular show! It has top 10 rankings across the world, so it has generally had incredible feedback. Do you think the optics of Masaba Masaba and Kamala Harris have made you feel more accepted by society? Do you think it’s helping the acceptance of your mixed heritage?
I think so! I only found out about Masaba Gupta a year ago when I attended a Gujarati function, and someone told me that I reminded them of Masaba – I then went and researched her and it was an eye-opening moment, how did I not know about her before? I found someone like me! For the longest time I felt like an anomaly because of my mixed heritage, but with this representation, I finally feel accounted for and seen!
Navigating your identity in a white space, on top of facing conflict from within your ethnic communities must have been a very difficult experience. It’s so great that you’re so willing to talk about it – it is going to help a lot of other people who are struggling with their identity accept who they are. You’re famous for not only being Black and Indian, but also being an open transgender woman! So what’s been the reaction from society for this part of your identity – being openly transgender?
I’ve only been open for three years now and am slowly opening myself up in South Asian spaces, which is exciting but also nerve wracking, because when I first moved here [to California], I was living in stealth, attending events and going to the mandir with everyone thinking I was cis gender female. I was okay with that, but it became the elephant in the room – my life on one side being a trans activist and then on the other side wanting to keep that side of myself sacred and secret from South Asian communities because I didn’t want to be judged or rejected. Now the two halves of my life are coming together, and it will get to a point where everyone in the South Asian community where I live will know my truth and my past, but it has been really empowering for me to come out and speak about my story – I’m so grateful for social media.
You are an icon Lana, you speaking your truth is empowering so many people in the South Asian community, who may be afraid of rejection for living their truth. Let’s move onto talking about Colourism – we have launched our first campaign called #LetsTalkColorism which is all about bringing to light lived experiences. What has been your journey and your experience with colourism?
It’s been an interesting journey for sure – getting to a place where I’m comfortable with myself, with going out in the sun to get some colour. My mother’s side of the family is fairer than my dad’s side of the family – so for one side I was the odd one out for being too dark, and on the other for being too light. I have a specific memory of spending time with my cousin in Trinidad – we would pass off as twins except I was lighter skinned than she was. Spending time in that tropical sun did eventually make me tan like her and I was so excited to look like her and finally fit in with that side of my family. But, when I came back to the US, I only got comments about how I had spent too much time in the sun and was darker now – it was little comments, microaggressions, that make you feel displaced because you’re the darker one. Looking at the media, the successful people were always lighter skinned – even in Black culture, the female partner was always light skinned, which perpetuated the idea that this was beautiful.
I used to work for MAC cosmetics, and it was always that the lighter skinned girls were seen as prettier – I wanted to badly to fit into that mould, so I got blonde hair, I didn’t sit in the sun and tan my skin. Moving to California and getting the constant tan from the sun, I began to love it! My skin was glowing in Carnival, I was radiant, and it was so incredible to see myself with beautiful rich skin.
For me, this was that moment – my friend and I look back on that time at MAC and our journeys. I was so afraid of dark skin and what that represented, what it meant – looking at Bollywood and Black Hollywood and seeing how lighter skin would be put on a pedestal.
Indian Matchmaking really highlighted this obsession – the prospective wives had to be “fair”.
Beyond colorism, what else do we need to talk about more in society?
Relationships! For me, the opportunity for a Rishta was so limited – first I’m mixed, but I’m also trans. Who would want to set me up? Navigating dating as a Black and Brown Trans woman has also been interesting – I’ve used apps like Dil Mil but it is difficult because I’m seen as “Exotic” or “experimental”. I became a fetish, and for a long time I was meeting guys who wanted to know what it was like to experience being with me, but they didn’t want to actually be with me.
It was in 2015 that I first connected with a desi guy – we worked together, and he was Indo-Caribbean. We really vibed culturally, and it was one of the first times I got to really connect with someone – he really understood what it meant to be Indo-Caribbean and we connected on that level. Though nothing ever came out of that relationship, it was a turning point for me.
I later met someone else who I ended up getting engaged to, and then the issues began coming out. His family didn’t accept me – this was my first time experiencing my boyfriend’s family not accepting me. He told them I was trans and his mother burst into tears and was heartbroken, His sister thought he was gay and told him that she hoped we wouldn’t work out. His mother wouldn’t talk to him when he was with me – it was a point of contention that put a barrier in our relationship and our ability to proceed. I realised that I was going to marry into this family, but they weren’t going to accept me.
It left me in an uncertain place, so I called off the engagement three months later, and that was my biggest blow – it was a huge heartbreak for me and took me forever to heal from that and move forwards. I was walking away because I didn’t want to put him in a position where he had to choose me over them, and I didn’t want him to resent me if he did choose me. I didn’t know what our future looked like, what our family would look like and whether our kids would be accepted or not, and that was really frightening for me.
Being trans has been a very interesting thing to navigate when dating desi men and getting family acceptance – it’s not common for trans women to marry into fully accepting families.
I am very sorry you had to go through this. Do you have any messages of self-love that you have picked up through your journey that you would like to share?
For me, the shift happened around 2018 – I got to meet Deepica from Live Tinted, Babbu the Painter and Rajakumari –
That’s so awesome! I’m fangirling through you!
Meeting all of these folks and this community was awesome – they’ve embraced me and I don’t feel like an outsider anymore. Even in my local area, I was able to meet a community of people who love and accept me by putting myself out there and going to my local mandir. I had aunties bringing me food, clothes for functions, and fully accepting me for who I am.
That’s what I love about being South Asian – the strong sense of community. I love that I can share my life with this community and now through social media too. Getting involved with my South Asian roots through art, music, dance has also been so important to me.
Thank you so much Lana for talking to us. You can find Lana on her social media here.
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