In the months before COVID hit, I was slowly beginning to commit to walking away from ensembles and organizations in which I was mistreated, undervalued, or expected to conform to old-boys’-clubby vibes. At the time, I really struggled to let myself leave, because each instance felt like a puzzle piece carrying immense social capital. I’d already been honest with myself that most of them didn’t align with my creative priorities, but I was so used to being thoroughly tokenized that I felt the insidious Othering pressure that whispers “if you leave this behind, you may not work again.”
Performing isn’t even my main gig, yet I’d been made to feel that pressure. So when COVID hit and everything got canceled, the devastation was tinged with relief. I got to take a break from weighing which opportunities would be good for me artistically and personally versus professionally and interpersonally. I got to take the time to sit down and write the words to explain that I caucus with both women and nonbinary people. I got to actually publish those words because I knew I’d have at least a while before I understood their professional consequences—I remember saying to one of my partners at the time, “It’s not like people can decide not to hire me when nobody’s hiring anyone anyway.”
(To be more precise, they could decide not to hire me; they just couldn’t do anything noticeable to enforce it.)
A lot has changed for me personally since coming out in May, often in subtle ways that have been hard to articulate. My inner circles have changed very drastically, partly organically and partly intentionally. I’ve become less connected with some communities and have joined others. I have a much healthier work-life balance as a result, and thanks to my non-colleague friends, I have new ideas of what I want my career to look like beyond institutional boundaries. Even though I’m less connected in a lot of the ways that the Paying Your Dues ladder says would be good for my career, I’m a lot happier.
Once I figured that out, another big realization came naturally: I shouldn’t waste my time trying to get back IN to those spaces. And the defining moments in that decision came not in conversation with a music professional but through a series of discussions with a sometimes-fiery Rocket Leaguer.
Some of y’all hear me talk about this way too much, but for those of you who haven’t, back in June I joined a competitive Rocket League server full of Phi Mu Alpha brothers and their friends. At the time, to my knowledge, I was the only out gender-marginalized person on the server. I knew this going in, because the group is practically family to my partner (and now to me). We weren’t a hundred percent sure how me entering that space would go over, so before I committed, my partner introduced me to the server admin and benevolent overlord of CBSS, a man who goes by Randomize.
That first conversation, after we’d played a couple games to loosen up and get to know each other, lasted over an hour. We talked about my experiences with sexism, my gender identity (this was right around when I came out), and my hopes and fears surrounding my future in the server. He fielded every question with patience and gave me a pretty good idea of his own knowledge of various marginalized identities. I knew it still wasn’t going to be easy, but I believed he genuinely wanted me to be part of his community. So when the invite formally arrived a week or two later, I said yes.
I will not pretend my first CBSS season was anything but tumultuous. I went from a sub on one team to a starter on another. I heard the word “bitch” used as a pejorative more times than I could count (and I tried). I experienced thankfully non-gendered bullying that was the impetus for policy work I’ve helped craft as a mod. I started casting; I made a few dozen new friends. And, yeah—at the end of the season, when leadership changed over for the first time in a long time, I ascended to the modship.
Who took that leap of faith and chose to believe in me to do right by a server of still-mostly-Sinfonians? Random.
The intervening six months or so have presented their own unique challenges as we planned and executed a competitive season while responding to the ever-changing dynamics within our community. Eight months ago, I couldn’t have told you what a flip reset was if you showed me one; now, I call a pretty mean play-by-play and coordinate our casting team. I coauthored our toxicity policy and am the primary author on our new community standards. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing—like most colleagues, I butt heads with Random and the other mods occasionally—but with every conflict comes learning, perspective, and growth. Every time I’ve had to stand on principle, I have been respected.
And look, Random and I will probably never be BFFs. We both have brash, outspoken personalities that sometimes combine like a lit match and gasoline. Sometimes when I demo him on the pitch, it’s not an accident, no matter how my quick chats might indicate otherwise. (Sorry, Josh.) He didn’t let me onto the server or into the modship because we’re best friends or because it would make him look good. He didn’t let me in because of some vague sense that he “should” because I’m multiply marginalized, either.
I have threatened to quit the modship and the server to underscore the importance of a particular policy point as it relates to inclusivity within the community. We have had hard discussions about language and condescension and exclusion, both among our friends and individually. Every single one of those conversations has been as scary as the similar ones I’ve had professionally, but they end almost completely differently: with the two of us being level with each other.
It’s become almost a ritual in our house; I inevitably turn to Nick after one of these challenging moments and say something along the same lines: “I never believe Random respects me more than when we’re irritated with each other.” It’s a revelation every time, because that is literally an experience I have never had in my professional life. And that’s because at the end of the day, Random and I both trust each other to care as much about every member of our community as we do ourselves. We don’t work together because we’re good friends; we’re good friends because of how we’ve learned to work together. I have spent the better part of nine months constantly asking the server he created to be kinder to each other, and each time I do it, I am met with less and less resistance. I have been able to thrive—and lead—in a way I may never be able to professionally.
And with each passing moment, I realize I’m not going to return to those gigs I was so hesitant to pull myself away from. I’m not going back to ensembles whose bandleaders make me cower or to rehearsals where my presence and practice is not considered a valuable part of the group’s culture. I’m not staying in any more music-making spaces where asking for better treatment is met with dismissal, disdain, or contempt.
I owe a big part of that to the CBSS server as a whole, but when it comes to engaging directly with leadership and expecting to be heard and respected, I can genuinely say I owe a lot of my strength to the impact Random has on my life. He’s not perfect (kind of an ass sometimes, actually), and on occasion he puts his foot in his mouth catastrophically loudly, but I have never had to wonder if he really values me for what I do and the things I believe in instead of how the body I was born into makes his organization look.
And because of him, I’m raising my standards.
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