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Towards Unity and Justice: A Conversation Between Queer and Trans Artists

July 7, 2020

Center for New Music

“For me, it’s just like, pay them” responded electronic artist and DIY-scene community organizer Sharmi Basu, with a laugh. The question posed was about how to account for the wide range of access to opportunity and safety between, say, a cisgender white gay man and a transgender black woman, while trying to unify the queer and trans new music community. They continued: “A lot of these questions are actually really simple — giving resources both financially and emotionally [to queer and trans artists of color] is a huge step towards changing these discrepancies, and making people feel loved and seen.”

Discussions of intersectionality (the integration of multiple aspects of identity including race, age, gender, and sexuality in the discourse concerning discrimination) within the queer community featured heavily in the Center for New Music’s (C4NM) live online event “Queer and Trans Voices,” along with other topics such as tokenism and the importance of queer visibility in creating safe artistic communities. Copresented by the Transgender Cultural District and C4NM as a part of their Tracking Series, this panel discussion was organized in the silhouette of the cancelled New Queer New Sounds festival, organized by panel members Amanda Chaudhary and Bill Hsu, that was meant to be inaugurated this summer.

Experimental art scenes often attract people who hail from outside the hegemonic realm of cisgender heterosexual-dom — the pursuit of expression that pushes the boundaries of art fits naturally into the hands of people who, day-by-day, are reminded that they are not what corporations, governments, and other people consider “normal.” Moderator Riley Nicholson, a composer and project manager with C4NM, began the panel with a brief hat-tip to those queer giants of the 20th century — Wendy Carlos, Pauline Oliveros, and Julius Eastman, to name some — who diverted their own streams of musical progress. However, as seen with the tragic case of Eastman’s death in obscurity, and the professional sigma shouldered by Carlos, there is yet much work to be done to welcome and support queer and trans people, especially those of color, in the experimental music community.

Underlying the first part of the discussion was the implied difference between identities that could be seen and those that couldn’t, Teresa Wong — composer and founder of the fo’c’sle (pronounced folk/soul) record label — pointed out the difficulty of knowing whether one is being discriminated against for being gay, a woman, or one’s assumed race. And as pointed out by Basu and electro-acoustic composer Tyler Holmes, some identities, such as being a person of color, present immediate and daily threats to safety, beyond the level of getting chosen for a gig or a commission. Holmes said, “Even getting to the place where we can make works, or access things like a piano, sometimes is a huge hurdle for queer artists.”

The most striking development in the conversation was the divided feelings about creating explicitly identity-based programming, events, or festivals. Some, such as Wong, expressed love for those spaces which are inclusive of a great diversity of people — old and young, cis and trans, jazz and punk — specifically for bringing together disparate minds for discourse and growth. This was echoed by composer Luciano Chessa, who emphasized that, in his experience, those parties and shows that brought more different people together were the most likely to get shut down by the police: “The threat, precisely, is the moment in which people come together with a plan that is not about division, but in fact about that maybe, coming together, we can make change.”

While all seemed in agreement in many levels of this conversation, I appreciated those who spoke to emphasize the importance still of giving a platform, greater visibility to those communities that still bear a great amount of stigma, such as the trans community. It is worth, as self-described “badass rock ’n’ roller” Mya Byrne put it, to continue to be loudly visible as a trans person, and to give air-time to others, so that those people who want to be part of the experimental music culture but are afraid to be the only one who looks or feels like they do, so that they can have a place where they can “go and feel OK.” She cited the fact that it was only last year that she became the first trans solo act on the stage of Dyke March in San Francisco, and while she feels that she shouldn’t have been the first, “that’s the kind of progression that is starting to happen because of visibility.”

Holmes illustrated the extent of the continuing problem this way: “In the Bay Area, I think it’s easy for people to have this notion that we’re ‘past these things.’ So, while I enjoy places that are inclusive and are sort of like a ‘catchall’ like ‘everybody’s welcome!’ I feel that in the Bay Area a lot of erasure happens. When I’ve been invited to a night that is explicitly black, I’m the only queer person or nonbinary person ... When I am invited to an event that is exclusively nonbinary/gay it’s like all white NBs [nonbinary people] and I’m the only black person there.”

Percussionist and co-founder of the Spectrum Ensemble Stephen Hall expressed the feeling that even talking about access to music making as being a privilege in the face of the housing and health insecurities that trans people and queer people of color often face. The conversation flowed in and out of this eddy of discussion about where funds and resources should be directed, if new music organizations should follow in the footsteps of programs such as G.L.I.T.S. (Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society) in fundraising to provide safe housing for trans people of color. 

And every time the conversation pooled there, Basu “yes, and”-ed the group — insisting that higher-level demands should also be met for these artists in need, that the biggest organizations should be commissioning queer artists of color. “What does new music need to do to undo itself, actually, and bring more resources that it has into these really freaky scenes that are doing a wide range of experimental work.” They and Holmes called for Pride Month all year, Black History Month all year for these large arts organizations who focus their diverse programming to one month only. For both of them, they needed to see “Jasmine Infiniti at MoMA for it to be a reality.”

As a postscript, I would like to say that it is also a crime that I had to foreshorten the descriptions of these artists in order to make these sentences readable — the incredible range of work each of these artists have done and still do is astounding; they all have reached far and wide in the kinds of musical practice they follow and in the kinds of work they do to mold the world for the better. I know this is because they have had to be diverse in practice in order to survive, as much as it comes from love and creative desire. Please dive into their work, and enjoy.

Tamzin Elliott is a composer and writer based in Los Angeles, and a doctoral student at University of Southern California.