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Being a Transgender Woman of Colour in the Classical Music World


Tona Brown talks to Violin Magazine about her experience as a transgender woman of colour in the classical music world. There’s a lot to learn here.

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ISSN: 2792-8349

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International Journal of Music

What has your experience been as a transgender woman of colour in the classical music world? What have the career opportunities been like for you in comparison to some of your colleagues who are not a part of the LGBTQ and African American community?

I think it is about ten times harder for people like me, especially as a solo entity. I always wanted to be a part of a chamber ensemble, but the way it’s worked out is that I tend to be supported by a group as a soloist rather than a core member of a group. As much as I wanted to be a part of an ensemble, I always ended up as a soloist. I knew early on that I didn’t want to be a member of a symphony, but with the right group, I think I could have found an orchestra that I would have liked to perform with.

When you are different, you will find that the main trouble with making a career is that the sources of funding are far less widely available. Major organizations will give you every excuse in the world as to why they would like to fund you, and still, they won’t. There were some opportunities lost because of who I am, as well. Sometimes, I can read between the lines and see that an opportunity was lost because of the fact that who I am makes some people uncomfortable. Even though I’m just here to do a job like everyone else, who I am can be a factor that excludes me from a job. Thankfully, I’ve seen that start to change over the last ten years or so. I think some people should feel ashamed of themselves for discriminating. Being hired to play in an orchestra, people shouldn’t have to consider what our gender identity or sexual orientation are. The only real consideration should be if you can play or not. Now that transgender people have had such widespread activism and advocacy for the LGBTQ community, you can start to see how these norms are shifting. I’m actually singing my first transgender character in a production called As One. That is revolutionary! I get to share the story of another person’s life who shares some similarities with me, and that is incredible. We still have a long way to go, but things are definitely changing for the better right now.

Possibility models and mentors are so critical for young people. If someone sees you being a professional and succeeding, they are going to think they can do it too. I’m a very strong-spirited person, so you can’t tell me I can’t do something when I have done the research and seen that it’s possible. If I have to fund it myself, that’s what I’m going to do. My Carnegie Hall debut is a perfect example of this. I had to fundraise and crowdfund just to get that off the ground. That’s because I am a black woman of trans experience. Had I even been a white transgender woman, I would have gotten money for that show. My girlfriends who happen to be white have said the same. Throughout that process, I was more disappointed than shocked by all of the organizations (even LGBTQ affiliates!) that promised they would help to fund the project but never followed through. In the end, none of them supported it financially. They would share the information and get the word out, but none would support it with their pocketbooks.

If I could go back, I would have looked into alternative ways of funding from my celebrity friends who maybe were not of colour but were in the LGBTQ community. For example, Neil Patrick Harris and I have performed at the same events four or five times for various functions and awareness events. If I had someone like him to come in and donate his time, he would have been a person that would have attracted more financial support. You learn these things as an LGBTQ individual or black entrepreneur, but it doesn’t mean you should give up on your dreams. It just means you have to go about it in a different way. I have no regrets about the struggles I have faced because they really did open up doors for so many people like myself. Even at Carnegie Hall, DBQ magazine started to rent out the space, and so have other pride and LGBTQ organizations. Up until that point, there had never been an LGBTQ event at Carnegie Hall!

It’s been an uphill battle in terms of funding, but in our country, we are at a place where most venues will allow you to perform or rent a space. That’s not the problem. People will help you to get the word out. That’s not the problem. Getting corporate sponsors and funding is where people tend to show their true colours, but things are starting to change.

What encouragement do you have for future generations to continue to open up the classical world to people of colour and members of the LGBTQ community?

I think the biggest thing is asking the big organizations that claim to support people of colour and the LGBTQ community to put their money where their mouth is. If they can fund certain projects, why can’t they fund this one, especially if it’s a great idea? When I see all the organizations that have agreed to support me over the years, I do see that change is happening. I know that if I were to perform at Carnegie Hall again, for instance, I would not be crowdfunding to pay for it. The younger generation gets what I mean when I say these things. They’re reading; they’re working to advocate. I have high hopes for the future and what it will hold for people like me.

I enjoy telling the truth and allowing people to see the truth through me, and more importantly, to understand that if you want to do something, you can! When I went to perform for Barack Obama a few years ago, it was because I knew it was the first time a president had ever attended an LGBTQ leadership conference. I knew there should be more musical fanfare for such an event, so I went and asked if I could show my support personally. I went through all the red tape, and before I knew it, there was an opportunity. I’ll never forget that experience because there was a lot of danger involved with that event. He even got heckled inside the venue because, at that point, he hadn’t publicly said if he was for or against gay marriage. They told us there could be a protest outside, and everyone was a little on edge. Personal safety is a huge consideration in a situation like that, unfortunately. I wanted to have an ensemble accompanying me, but they were cut from the set for several reasons. Things like that happen, but when you decide to go into the classical music world with a desire to leave a legacy for people in the future, there will always be risk involved. There are people who have had it easier than me, but have they performed for the president, and were they proud of who that president was? I have been very lucky, and I hope that I have opened up some doors for anyone who wants to make a career in music.


Full Interview: “When You Decide to Go Into the Classical Music World With a Desire to Leave a Legacy for People in the Future, There Will Always Be Risk Involved”

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