Everyday is Dharma Day for Alphy
By Upasika tree (aka Cleis Abeni)
Once I had a friend named Alphy. Alphy was often stressed. Over a home-cooked meal in January of 1999, I suggested meditation to help Alphy find peace, and I invited Alphy to the private meditation gatherings of my Buddhist fellowship.
“Do Buddhists have big holidays like Christmas?” Alphy asked, weighing my invitation to meditate with the fellowship in his mind. I answered that, while there are many ways to be a Buddhist, there might be only one main common holiday for most Buddhists.
It’s called Dharma Day. It happens in July around the full moon. When I was training to be an ordained Theravada Buddhist upasika (a non-monastic practitioner) in Thailand almost 30 years ago, the holiday was a big festival called Asanha Bucha or Asalha Puja.
The holiday commemorates a time around 2500 years ago when Siddhartha Gautama, the original historical Buddha, taught his disciples how to be Buddhists. In that conversation, the Buddha told his protégés that life should be about ending suffering.
Over the last two-and-a-half millennia, many Buddhist traditions have formed. But, for me, all of the traditions tell us to do no harm to oneself or others; to lead a meditative life; and to be empathetic and compassionate to humans, other species, and the environment.
There are two ancient Buddhist languages within which the traditions arose: Sanskrit and Pali. The word for the Buddha’s teachings in Sanskrit is dharma and the word in Pali is dhamma. I use the former here because it is more common in the United States.
“Everyday is Dharma Day if we are loving, kind, and caring in this world,” I explained to Alphy. I wanted Alphy to know that spiritual holidays are only as important as our good actions during the year. After that, Alphy would often say, “Everyday is Dharma Day!”
This essay is about the spiritual tenderness shared between Alphy and the people who loved Alphy, and how that tenderness lives on almost 19 years after Alphy’s murder. It’s also about how we keep being spiritual—being loving and thoughtful—in the wake of trauma.
For me, everyday is Dharma Day for Alphy and all the many people who have passed on due to oppression, violence, discrimination, dismissal, hurt, and betrayal. Let me turn now to another day in 1999 when Alphy asked me a different pivotal question.
“I know it is just a few blocks, but can you come walk me home?” Alphy asked me. In the middle of the night on October 27, 1999, I received Alphy’s frantic phone call from outside of a nearby nightclub. Alphy used an acquaintance’s cell phone.
“Stay on the phone with me,” I begged Alphy, as I listened to Alphy describe the homophobic and transphobic harassment that Alphy had just endured at a Philadelphia nightclub. We both lived on 12th Street around the corner from several nightclubs.
Still in my pajamas, I headed out to meet Alphy at 13th and Locust Streets around the corner from my apartment. But, just as I arrived, I saw a young white man run up to Alphy and shoot Alphy in the face, killing him almost instantly. Alphy was only 25-years-old.
I was not the only friend that Alphy called for help that night. Several other witnesses saw Alphy’s murder unfold just after 2 A.M. We told the police that a young white man had actually shot Alphy. We described Alphy’s statements about harassment that evening.
But, a month later, Philadelphia’s police arrested an “accomplice,” John Thomas, a 60-year-old owner of a Kensington bar. In their November 5, 1999 edition, The Philadelphia Inquirer praised Thomas’ arrest. Accomplice? What about Alphy’s actual killer?
I researched Alphy’s case and, to my knowledge, 24 years later, Alphy’s actual killer has still not been found. If (despite the lack of readily available news reports) the police caught the killer and the courts convicted him, then I will gladly stand corrected.
But, for me, justice for Alphy is about more than finding Alphy’s murderer and holding him to account. Justice is also about humanizing Alphy and sharing aspects of Alphy’s largely unknown story so when people hear Alphy’s name, they hear LIFE instead of death.
So this is a restorative narrative, a healing story that recovers some of Alphy’s power. This essay’s prayerful form is important. Like Biblical psalms or Buddhist sutra, each paragraph is of the same relative length within three sections of twelve prose verses each.
Who was Alphy? Alphy was many things to many people. Alphy was an emerging fashion model. To jumpstart Alphy’s career, I introduced Alphy to my old friend Willi Leake (aka Willi Ninja). Willi helped Alphy secure representation with a modeling agency.
Alphy was interracial, of mixed black and white parentage: six feet, four inches tall and 185 pounds with hazel-brown eyes, curly brown hair, and deep olive skin. Unfortunately, most agencies and designers considered Alphy to be too tall and racially ambiguous.
But, all was not lost. During the summer before Alphy died, one agency booked Alphy for some small fashion shows at a picturesque estate on Lake Como near Milan in Italy. Some of the shows were outside next to the water. The gig buoyed Alpy’s spirit.
Alphy was a member of the now-defunct House of Karan. The Philadelphia-based House of Karan was one of the kinship groups within the same community that invented the dance tradition called voguing. At the time, the Karans were both famous and infamous.
The Karans were famous for recruiting a few of the most artistically gifted and physically attractive teens-of-color in the greater Philadelphia and Tri-State areas to compete at voguing balls. A gifted dancer and contortionist, Alphy joined the Karans in high school.
The Karans were infamous for allegedly exploiting their young members. Jon “Kitty” Karan, a now-deceased alleged drug dealer and pimp, was the “father” (or head) of the Karans. That brings me to Alphy’s other vocation. Alphy was a high-end escort.
Jon was Alphy’s alleged, erstwhile pimp. Alphy led a compartmentalized life and some parts did not mix well with others. Only Alphy’s closest friends knew how much Alphy was desperately trying to keep all the parts of a chaotic life together.
This brings me to another important part of Alphy’s life. Alphy was the youngest member of AI, probably the world’s first Buddhist fellowship (or sangha) for LGBTQ people-of-color who questioned or disagreed with the gender we were assigned at birth.
I became a member of this group in the late 1980s after befriending one of the group’s co-founders, Nizah Morris. Nizah was a dharma teacher, an ordained Buddhist upasika in the Thai Theravada tradition, and a black woman of transgender experience.
“Membership” was a loose term for us. There were no rigid pledges of allegiance. Our meetings were mostly self-care-oriented meditation sessions. Only in the 1990s did many of us take our own version of the pancasila, the five precepts of Buddhist commitment.
Most members were closeted LGBTQ people and meetings were very private. For a while, Nizah, Ciolek Shawna Labeija, Kelly Harper, and I steered a harm reduction street outreach project for cis and trans women addicts and sex workers.
This project grew out of the work that all of these members (and myself) were doing as volunteer addiction counselors or HIV prevention facilitators for an agency called Bebashi. The meditation group was the mother ship from which the outreach came.
I didn’t just recommend that Alphy come to our meditation meetings because Alphy was stressed. I also recommended that Alphy join us because Alphy shared with me that Alphy did not feel like the gender that Alphy was assigned at birth.
Privately, Alphy identified as gender-non-conforming. Alphy kept changing pronouns. Out of respect for Alphy’s unsettled classifications, I use Alphy’s nickname as a pronoun here (and I don’t use “he, she, or they”). Alphy’s given name was Anthony McCullough.
A week before Alphy was murdered, Alphy called Nizah and I to confirm attendance and arrange a ride-share to the meditation session on Friday October 29, 1999 that Nizah was co-hosting at a member’s home near Bryn Mawr College in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Halloween is a fun holiday for many LGBTQ people. But, like other national holidays, it’s also an occasion for stress. Almost every year the fellowship held a private word-of-mouth invitation-only meditation gathering around Halloween to help members cope.
Alphy was killed on the Wednesday before the Friday meditation gathering. Our Friday gathering became an impromptu memorial. Members always asked how we could be gender-non-conforming Buddhists in a world that continually ridiculed or harmed us.
“How can we meditate after Alphy was shot in the face,” asked Marcus that Friday night. His question epitomized our pain. Yet, meditate we did that night. Afterward we talked about Alphy. Nizah, Ciolek, and I closed with a tender lesson that we prepared earlier that day.
We said that a beloved’s passing occasions a recommitment to living the best life possible and practicing our values. Being a trans Buddhist was about living our deepest insights, and our most blessed selves. Alphy would want us to treat everyday as Dharma Day.
To learn more about Upasika tree aka Cleis Abeni, visit www.cleisabeni.com.