"Nothing got me into acting, I AM acting.
All my friends get mad at me because I don’t get stage fright. There’s one second of panic, but then I’m onstage and it’s gone. I just love how you literally become someone else. I’m not Shalem for a while. It’s about exploring humanity and how different people see different situations.
A form of traveling. See the world from another perspective for a bit."
What have you been up to?
Umm not much. I don’t really hang out with people, I just hang out at home.
Some would say that means you're really mature young adult.
Sometimes I get worried though that I’m wasting my teenage years by not being out there doing stupid stuff. I could be doing crazy things but I’m just at home with my older brother and my cat.
OMG. What type of cat do you have?
I have no idea. She’s really pretty.
Awww this makes me miss the three legged cat my roomates from college adopted. Pepper!
Well, I always start off with the same question. As QTPOC we are constantly bombarded with labels and boxes. I would like to give you this time to self-identify and speak for yourself.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I’m still figuring out what/who I am. I am bisexual and I recently figured out panromantic. I could be pansexual but I’m gonna wait until I actually have sexual experiences to be sure. I’m cis gender, pronouns she/her/her’s, and I recently realized that my whole life, my gender expression has been both male and female. As a kid, some days I would be a princess and wear skirts, but other days I would be more macho and tomboy-ish. For instance, right now I am wearing one of my more masculine outfits, and I recently realized I don’t have many of them.
So when back-to-school shopping comes around, I definitely want to get more masculine clothing because I want to further explore my gender expression.
How do people react-
I’m actually closeted. It’s not out of fear or anything, mainly out of convenience. I guess I’m just not ready for it.
What does closeted include for you during this time?
To my family, I’m not closeted, except to my father, who isn’t that accepting. I’m sure he would have a breakdown, so I’m just holding out on that one. I’ll probably wait until I have my first girlfriend or boyfriend. Never had a relationship, thankfully.
I love that you add thankfully! Relationships are indeed complicated and a lot of work.
Yeah, I’m not ready for that. Once I get into a relationship, I just might go, “by the way…” My mother was actually talking to him about intersex and all the different variations there are the other day. He admitted to not knowing that, and wanted to do more research. I was shocked he even gave it any thought. He might be more ready than I thought.
So you just recently finished sophomore year?
Yeah, I am going into junior year already. Not prepared.
Do you already have dreams and aspirations for post-grad?
Do you know OCU?
Oklahoma City University?
Yeah! It has a really good musical theatre program. I want to make my own music and put myself out there, and musical theatre is a good avenue for that. It’s what I’m doing now. Choir and theatre. I want to focus on writing songs, recording them, and producing them, but if that works out pretty well for me, I’d love to be an actor as well.
What movies and/or actors do you currently look up to?
Well, my theatre class recently went to NY and watched 6 broadway shows. Our director has a lot of connections and purchased the tickets a year in advance. We got to see Waitress by Sara Baraeilles, which she wrote and starred in. That’s the first time I’ve felt inspired by someone besides my mom.
That is dedication.
You could tell she was really enjoying it, and that’s something I want to do with my art.
Wow! What were the other 5?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Hello Dolly, Dear Evan Hansen, The Play that Goes Wrong, and Anastasia.
I’m so glad you brought up Sara Baraeilles. I used to cry in my room to her song Gravity. The purity of that song got me so shook back then.
Have you thought of applying out of state too?
Carnegie Mellon. That’d be awesome, but it’s highly competitive. I’m confident in my abilities but I don’t know if I’m THAT confident.
I'm cheering for you every step of the way
What does acting mean to you?
It is such a core part of my identity. It’s hard to think about. Nothing got me into acting, I AM acting. All my friends get mad at me because I don’t get stage fright. There’s one second of panic, but then I’m onstage and it’s gone. I just love how you literally become someone else. I’m not Shalem for a while. It’s about exploring humanity and how different people see different situations.
A form of traveling. See the world from another perspective for a bit.
Do you have a favorite role thus far?
Probably my latest role in Our Town. It’s an American classic. There is a narrator of sorts called the stage manager. There are theories over whether or not they’re an angel or ghost etc. Very ambiguous. It’s written as one male part, but my director split it into one male and one female part since they have so many lines. I was nervous about whether or not it would work out, but it was surprisingly effective. Because it was written as one person, it was like seeing two different sides of a coin throughout the play between the way Boston and I played it.
Delving into a character I didn’t know anything about was so interesting. “How am I supposed to play this character without a name or background? What was my character doing before going on stage? What’s their motivation? I don’t even know how old they are, or if they even have an age!” Getting into their head was a really cool experience.
It’s such a beautiful, sad play.
On another note, I recently interviewed Abril and they were very vocal about listening to the youth. Too often we belittle them or don’t acknowledge their opinions because we say they haven’t experienced enough. Based on your introduction, it is clearly evident how wise you are. The vocabulary you use is very out of reach for most adults. Example, pansexual, panromantic. What advice do you have for those who may be afraid or hesitant about learning this information?
Before I even knew I was bisexual, I was passionate about gay rights. I knew it had to be a fully accepted thing. I got so angry anytime someone would argue against it. So I would just search any term I didn’t understand and read up on it on Google. And I would ask Yadenee, who is very knowledgeable on these terms.
“What can I say? What shouldn't I say?” I wanted to be there, be a good ally. And it turns out I’m more than an ally which is pretty amazing.
Sometimes I would feel scared going into the research. What if I’m not as accepting as I thought I was? What if I’m not good enough to be part of the community? Which is a weird thought. My thing is, if you have a question, ask. If you want to do research, find the right information, because it sets you free. It also ties you to this bigger picture and community, which I can’t wait to dive deeper into.
Ahhhh! Talking to you provides me with so much hope for the future. I wish I was as courageous as you back then.
In your introductory email, I could feel your pride for being 1st generation Ethiopian American. Can you talk more about that?
I’ve always identified as Black, but the term African American just felt incorrect to me. The African American and the Ethiopian cultures were just too different. But when I thought of identifying as purely Ethiopian, that also felt wrong, since I was born here in Tulsa. That’s why I love the term Ethiopian American so much. I feel like it fully encapsulates who I am. I have a lot of family still in Ethiopia.
Out of all of them, I’ve only come out to one aunt, who was here last week and fully accepted me. Other than her, I can only say for sure that one of my uncles would accept me. Everyone else would be uncomfortable, and that has to do largely with their Christian upbringing. They are so loving, the most loving people I know. They pray for everyone in our entire extended family everyday. But when it comes to acceptance, it would be difficult for them to tie this taboo with someone they love so much.
It’s difficult for me to know that, since I’m so proud of being Ethiopian American. It’s hard to know that they love me, but they don’t love all of me, because they don’t know all of me. They will eventually, because my aunt who I came out to, she has a radio show she’s featured on where she talks about topics that Ethiopians don’t discuss, like masturbation, adoption, etc.
On the radio show, she answers one question from the public every week. She asked the producers why she hasn’t gotten any questions about the LGBTQ+ community. They told her that everytime they see a question like that, they take it out, because they know she’s fine with all sexualities and would support them on air.
“You can’t do that. You have to let me answer those questions.”
They just aren’t ready.
And her radio show is based in Ethiopia?
Yeah, it’s called ShegerFM.
Have you been back to Ethiopia recently?
Yeah, 3 years ago. It was during the time in my life when I was the most depressed and suicidal, so it was pretty bad. I’m excited to go back this year in December because I get to re-introduce myself. “This is me when I’m not super depressed.”
I was blaming my depression on them which doesn’t make any sense. It’ll be good to connect with them instead of hating them.
Hearing you talk about your depression is really admirable. We don’t talk openly enough about mental health. What has this journey looked like? Where were you able to find help?
I know for me as an Asian American, my parents and family believe it is a white invention. They ignore it.
Luckily for me, my mother is a therapist. And my dad is a pharmacist so he knew of all the medications I could take. I can talk to my mother about everything. My father apologizes about my sadness since he knows it comes from his side of the family. It’s a chemical imbalance that runs through his side. “Sorry, I’m also sad, but I don’t take medication.”
“If it works for me, it can work for you.” He just doesn’t stick with it. In his own time, he’ll figure out what works for him. I can be pretty real with my family.
With my friends, they had and have no idea. Like I said, I’m an actress. The day I planned to kill myself, I was laughing and smiling during school. I don’t know if they would handle or accept it the way I want them to, even though a lot of my friends have gone through depression and had suicidal thoughts. I’m always there for them and they know to come to me if they’re going through anything, but I don’t know if I have anyone who I could trust. I’d maybe trust one person out of my friends to actually hear all of that.
With my sexuality, it’s pretty funny.
“Are you sure you’re not gay or anything?”
“Yeah, I’m completely heterosexual.”
“I don’t know. You just seem really gay.”
“Actually, it’s more like you’re bisexual.”
Crazy! What? Do I give off bisexual vibes?
What does that mean? Haha
I mean, it’s true, but I don’t say that.
I give them hints and then brush them away. Kind of mess with them, ‘cause it’s funny that they’re always trying to figure out what I am.
This is going off on a tangent, but there’s a funny story about my birthday. At my 16th birthday party, we are cutting the cake and Yadenee hands me a slice. The cake says Happy Birthday Shalem on it. My slice just happens to have the “Bi” on it and I don’t even realize. One of my friends points it out and I go, “Oh… yeah! Just kidding.”
“Look around though, Shalem!”
My birthday party was rainbow themed.
“Shalem, your house is literally covered in rainbows right now.”
“It’s just a coincidence.”
I love that! You had a closeted coming out party.
Does your school have a GSA or support group?
I don’t think so, and if they do, it’s very unknown. Many people at my school identify as gay, but there isn’t a place to gather. There was talk about one in the beginning of the year, but it never really prospered. Allies were saying they wouldn’t want to attend because they’re not interested in hearing everyone’s sob stories.
Those aren’t allies.
If someone is gay at my school, it’s chill. If I came out, I wouldn’t be bullied or anything. I’m a pretty confident person, so when I walk into a room, people know they won’t get anything out of bullying me.
I just still don’t want to because it would be so much of a thing.
Totally understandable. And your siblings seem really awesome and groovy. Meeting them at Tulsa Pride was such a delightful experience. What’s that relationship like?
We have always been super close. They were all really accepting. The first one out of my siblings to know was my sister Yadenee. I had already been contemplating my sexuality and I remember telling my mom that I was most likely bisexual, which she was totally accepting of. A few days later, my mom, Yadenee, and I were going through The Kinsey Scale which goes from 1-6, exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual. You rank yourself, and I kept saying three for all the questions. That pretty much solidified my suspicions. After the test, I went, “So, I guess I’m bisexual?” She said “Yeah, I guess so,” and she got this huge smile on her face that made me feel so warm and accepted. I’ll always remember that moment.
I came out to my two brothers at the same time. They were completely accepting. Rhema, whom you haven’t met yet, he’s in drumcore right now, was shocked. I was surprised he didn’t know. He admitted to having an inkling and was totally accepting.
I recently asked Agape, the brother you met, what his first thought was. It was “cool.”
4 kids in your family too! It never gets boring.
I know. A lot of things happening at once.
And drumcore...is that the intense color guard and marching band program?
Yeah! Someone who actually knows about it.
I only know because I was the first male on my high school’s colorguard team. I fought so hard to be on the team and once had dreams of doing drumcore.
That’s so cool! He is in the whole DCI stuff right now.
I’m guessing the creative gene flows through your entire family.
Yeah, we’re all really creative, musical, a lot of things.
What have you been listening to lately?
I usually listen to EDM, techno kind of stuff, but recently I’ve been getting into Khalid. He sings Location, Hopeless, and other songs. I have also been getting back into Owl City since it’s been a while.
Wow! They are still making music?
Yeah, I was shocked as well.
Yesss, I adore Khalid. His older music like Let Go has been on my summer playlist.
We all sing. Yadenee and I are the main singers. Agape sings, and so does Rhema, but he says he doesn’t sound that good. Yadenee and I just put the most time into training our voices. Yadenee plays the piano. She hasn’t played in a while and tried to pluck out some notes the other day...it was pretty bad at times haha. She still has a knack for it, though. I can kinda play. Took lessons for 4-5 years but I wasn’t really attentive, so I’m not great. I can read sheet music since I’m in choir, so I suppose I could be good if I tried. Rhema plays the bass drum, usually bass 5 which is often the biggest one, so it’s really heavy. Agape plays the piano and kinda plays the drums.
We’ve all done a lot of stuff. Of course, we can all play the recorder from elementary school too haha.
What was one question you wished people asked you more often?
In high school, we ask each other questions and get responses, but in the back of our minds, we’re always wondering, “how do I get the attention I need.” It isn’t a bad thing since we’re growing up and need a lot of attention, but in the midst of “what can I do for me,” we lose track of any actual conversation.
Someone will ask about my day, but before I can truly answer, they will reply with how their day is going, and I’ll listen since I want to be there for them, and it always stings, but I get it. It’s not about me. I get it. I’ll hold back.
So to answer your question: Any question they genuinely want me to answer, I want that more.
Do you have a favorite drag queen?
I don’t! I need one. I haven’t seen a whole season of Rupaul's Drag Race, but I see so much of it on social media. It seems like it’s been a dramatic season.
What advice do you have for your younger self/future generation/future self of QTPOC?
Younger self: Have faith that it’ll all work out. In the midst of all the times I was so depressed I never thought I’d smile again, I always felt like it would work out somehow in the back of my mind. That I would be happy again some day. Trust that little voice, because you will.
Future self: Don’t forget about me. Don’t forget all the different experiences I’ve had because I’m what makes up you. Try to remember me once in awhile in your awesome life in the future.
For the future generation, ask questions when you’re confused. Don’t just sit in your confusion out of fear or embarrassment. If you want knowledge, seek it out, because it’ll make you happier and more interesting to talk to.
You are so badass. I’m so excited for the future, especially when I meet youth like you.
I’m gonna ask another question concerning mental health. What really saved you when you were on the edge?
I know that my brother saved my life several times. Find someone who can make you laugh. That will save your life.