April, 2019

The 21st Century School of Music: A Place Transgender Students Call Home
Eileen M. Hayes

Even as elucidations of gender fluidity permeate the literature, addressing the lived experiences of our students who identify as trans prompts our collective pivot from the theoretical to action.  Falling under the heading of equity and opportunity, the CMS common topic, is the welcome trans students find in classrooms and studios of our schools, conservatories, and departments of music.

For some, coming “home” to Music provides a respite from the sense of non-belonging many trans students report experiencing on our campuses.  Sometimes, these feelings are by-products of earlier occurrences of discrimination and harassment.  Trans students confront challenges as they encounter sex-segregated restrooms, gender exclusive housing, and resistance to the use of their chosen names rather than their birth or legal names.  They may also experience financial hardship related to transition, and a lack of family support.  According to one author, “among students who had attended college, being denied access to restrooms or gender-appropriate housing while in college was associated with a higher risk for suicidality.” Even membership in an LGBTQ student organization may result in a strained experience in that trans students might find themselves outnumbered by those who are predominantly cisgender, meaning, those whose gender identities align with the gender they were assigned at birth. 

Faculty, staff, administrators, and student leaders in our schools and departments of music are working to eradicate institutionalized reflections of transphobia in teaching and performance practices on and off the stage.  Faculty report going to great lengths to re-think ensemble names (e.g, women’s chorus, men’s glee club) that formerly highlighted gender associations in favor of those which don’t; and orchestra, band, and choir directors have revisited notions of concert dress, stressing that students should wear the outfit (pants, dresses, or uniforms) that feels most comfortable for them.  Colleagues in Vocal Studies are addressing issues involving vocal change/transition, repertoire and performance. Advisors, studio instructors, and graduate faculty mentors have been recognized for supporting students in ways that affirm their trans identities.

Of course, in striving to do right by our students we may at times, act in ways that disappoint others.  Years ago, I was an assistant professor of music when an undergraduate I did not know, came to visit during my office hours.  She had heard that I was a “cool” professor and related that her parents said that if I assented to her getting sex reassignment surgery, they would allow her to go through with the procedure.  Perhaps she had heard that I attended transgender music festivals as part of my research; I do not know.  I asked the young woman why she wanted to change her body.  She responded that their teaching assistant in physics never called on her in class; hence she couldn’t get any help with assignments.  She said that if she were male, many more opportunities would come her way and she wouldn’t be ignored or discounted.  “I don’t doubt that,” I replied, but “we don’t change our bodies until we change society.  In this case, ‘society’ means the Physics department.  I’ll call your professor and see what can be done.  If necessary, I’ll tutor you in physics myself.”  The latter was a stretch  – I’m unqualified to serve as anyone’s physics tutor!  But the moment conferred dramatic closure on the student’s proposition which in fact, could weaken the case of students for whom transition is a biological and psychological imperative, rather than an expedient or politically attuned act.  My doing right by this particular student, might have had a ripple effect for others for whom transition is a life necessity.  Before she left, I asked the student how she felt about the course of action I had proposed.  She said she felt okay but that I wasn’t as cool as she had been led to believe. 

In addressing the needs of our trans and gender queer students in Music, we will at times be accorded “cool” status and at other times, not, yet we must continue to remove institutional barriers and foster safe and welcoming environments for all, regardless of the impact on our “reputations.”