I used to hate talking about my major. Like many of my peers, I’ve learned to expect unpleasant responses when I say that I study music. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that I’m going to end up living under a bridge with my trombone, that there’s no money in music, and that I’d be better off pursuing a degree in medicine or law. With time and patience, I’ve learned to smile and nod my way through these conversations. But sometimes, there’s a follow-up question that still makes my stomach churn: “Where do you go to school?”
This dread isn’t due to a lack of pride in my institution. I’ve adored Smith College since the moment I set foot on its campus, and its music department has come to be my second family. However, there’s a major drawback to attending this elite women’s college: I’m a transgender male. That means I was born biologically female, but I view and present myself as a male, and I am most comfortable using he/him pronouns. With the help of HRT (hormone replacement therapy) and surgery, I’ve finally attained the deep voice and masculine physique that make my body feel like my home. While physically transitioning has brought me endless joy, it has also presented substantial difficulty in my college career. Unless I lie and say that I attend a neighboring co-ed institution (or that I’m an engineering major), innocent questions like “what/where do you study?” often “out” me as a musician and as a transgender person. I’ve spoken with a few people who can’t decide which is worse.
The countless times I’ve been forced to defend the validity of both my major and my gender have caused me to look more closely at the relationship between these two identities. Through meaningful discourse with other LGBTQ+ musicians, introspection on my own identity, and poring over endless pages of queer theory, I’ve come to realize that matters of music, gender, and sexuality are deeply intertwined in queer lives. My narrative is shared by countless other transgender and gender-nonconforming (GNC) artists. We grow up in despair, feeling trapped in bodies that do not feel comfortable and lacking the vocabulary to explain why. In the chaos of dysphoria and self-discovery, our instruments end up being our most faithful companions.
Music is so crucial to trans/GNC people because it facilitates the creation of queer space. In lieu of a crash-course in queer theory, I’ll offer a definition of “queer space” as a space which is created and defined by the presence, expression, and/or empowerment of LGBTQ+ people. (Defining the word “queer” itself is a complicated process, as the term has a complicated history of discrimination and reclamation. For our purposes, I’ll use a definition of “queer” employed in many modern social and academic contexts: “not fitting cultural norms of sexuality and/or gender identity.”) Dedicated spaces like these are hard to come by, and are often inaccessible to those who haven’t come out yet. Playing music, however, gives trans/GNC individuals a valuable opportunity to be unapologetically loud and expressive in a cisnormative world which often tries to silence them. Maintaining an outlet to visibly express oneself without fear of violence or discrimination is crucial to the well-being of any person, but especially so for trans/GNC folks. For many of us, music is our only opportunity to feel empowered without feeling afraid. As we play, we fill the hall around us with our musical interpretations and emotions. Our music is a radical act: a consistent cultivator of precious queer space.
Music also does the crucial work of creating supportive communities for trans/GNC people. For many young people, joining a school band or choir is often an important step in forming a sense of belonging and group identity. In addition to offering a brief solace from the trials of adolescence, these musical opportunities foster collaborative relationships. This is a critical opportunity for trans/GNC youth, who often feel isolated from their cisgender peers and are overwhelmingly depressed as a result. I shudder to think where I might be without the support of my high school bandmates and directors. As I grappled with the confusion and discomfort of figuring out who I really was, music gave me the structure, stability, and support that I needed to survive. Most importantly, when I was questioning whether life was even worth this troubling business of self-discovery, music gave me a sense of purpose. I didn’t know what my gender was, but I did know that I was the lead trombonist in the jazz band: a role that gave me an identity and a motivation to get out of bed every morning. My sense of belonging in the band was the foundation for my sense of belonging in the world.
This reflection on the importance of music in my queer life comes at an appropriate time. June is Pride Month: a time dedicated to LGBTQ+ communities in honor of the 1969 Stonewall riots. As I celebrate both my musical and queer identities, I also mourn the fact that not all trans/GNC youth have access to supportive artistic communities like I did. It pains me to think of how many young people are forced to hide their authentic selves without any opportunity for relief. With limited resources for healthcare, education, or emotional support in a tumultuous political climate, trans/GNC students are feeling increasingly unsafe and unwelcome in their schools and the country at large. Now more than ever, it is imperative that the artistic programs which serve trans/GNC youth remain intact. Music presents a unique opportunity for community building and self-expression that can be life-changing for a transgender child. Its accessibility could prove invaluable for trans/GNC students’ continued success, comfort, and even survival. This Pride Month is not just a celebration: it is a call to action.