Sometimes it feels like I, a person with a 408 area code, was always destined for the 480. The universe likes playing tricks, so it’s not a completely unreasonable suspicion. That said, as many of my AZ-native friends understand, I left, and I didn’t really expect to be back. In fact, if you asked me a year ago if I ever thought I’d live and work in Phoenix again, the answer would have been a vehement no.
On the flip side, when your partner gets the opportunity to study with one of the best trombone teachers in the country, you take it. (Dr. E, I don’t think you’re reading this, but if you are, hi!) As a Sun Devil alum, I’m thrilled John and I will both have degrees from ASU (and CalArts . . . but in opposite orders). As someone with a handful of friends I’ve missed desperately, I’m looking forward to reconnecting. But as someone who took some very bad moments and memories with me when I left the desert, as someone who realizes the reasons I was so frequently brushed over and passed by are myriad and gendered, I am . . . less excited.
I am sitting onstage with the Nash Composers Coalition—either at our inaugural concert or second; I can’t remember which—and we are almost through our set. The adrenaline is pumping, and despite the weight of carrying my gender on my back on that stage, I’m smiling. We’ve been riding the performance high all night, and spirits are high. As we round the bend into the last couple tunes, we call a free improvisation, with the title to be determined by the audience.
The first few suggestions are fine, harmless; they prompt thoughtful nods or friendly chuckles from me and my colleagues. They’re what we expect. Then someone—a guy, and by the self-satisfied tone of voice, it was probably a young or young-ish guy, though to my knowledge not one of my peers—shouted out something super sexual. I can’t remember if it was “seductive” or “foreplay” or something else entirely, but I remember the discomfort it brought to me immediately.
Hang on; I have to go look through those recordings now and see if I can find it. I want to get this right, and it’s a story I try not to remember.
Some people will read this post and tell me “celebrating” is too strong a word, and that’s fine. It’s maybe not a fireworks-and-BBQ-level blowout; no, this—on the surface—is more of a golf-claps-and-maybe-a-party-hat thing. But for anyone who identifies as a gender other than Cis Man and who’s felt the sting of not being welcome to march with a corps due to that, this is . . . big.
Anyone who’s ever gotten past my academic, Western-art-music exterior knows I have a not-so-secret love for musicals. As my parents can tell you, I’ve been learning soundtracks since I was six and memorized Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat despite not knowing what half the colors on the coat were (because, really, ochre?). I follow a lot of the trends most musical theatergoers do: I was among the first people in my friend group to get into Hamilton, I think Aaron Tveit was fantastic in Next to Normal, I’m considering shelling out for the expensive seats to get a couple friends to see The Lion King next year (because theater is a thing I share with the people I love), and as a high schooler, I fell in love with Wicked. As a fourteen-year-old, it was awesome from the stage design and the flying down to the music. From that perspective, it read as a story of women kicking ass and taking names and kinda-sorta making it work when the rest of the world didn’t agree. The ending probably didn’t make as much sense to me back then, but hey, I was struck dumb by the music and the staging. That didn’t matter.
This past Christmas, among my favorite presents was a pair of tickets to see Wicked’s national tour at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. My partner and I made a night of it: we got good food at a cute café across the street, we saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new star on the Walk of Fame, and we arrived not long after the doors opened to snag a souvenir and marvel at the inside of the theater. It was easily one of the best nights of my year so far. Eventually, we took our seats, and the performance was stellar. The entire cast was excellent, and I couldn’t. stop. fangirling. because Kara Lindsay, who you might know from the original Broadway cast recording of Newsies, was on as Glinda. (I only put two and two together that she’d be performing the night before, and as my partner can tell you, I was ridiculously excited.)
That said, I cried a lot during the performance. I’m not usually a crier—not for live shows. (Books are another story and I will make no apologies.) When I do cry at a musical, it’s usually tears of joy, like when I heard the opening notes of Hamilton or every single time I see The Lion King. But that night at Wicked, I cried when Elphaba made her first entrance. I cried during “The Wizard And I” at a surprise high note. I cried through a lot of “Defying Gravity.” I sniffled a little during both versions of “I’m Not That Girl” (though those admittedly hit harder in high school when I still felt ugly-duckling-ish). I cried in “No Good Deed” and probably through the entirety of “For Good.” And I didn’t understand why.
I’m really bad at hiding my close relationships. Not necessarily in a PDA sense (though, when I was younger, that was a thing too)—no, I get attached to people and I want them to know it. This isn’t just romantic or sexual; most of the time, it manifests most loudly in my platonic relationships (which, for y’all who could use a refresher, covers the friends-and-family category, plus any acquaintance you’re not interested in dating). However, when most of my friendships spend most of their time in a scene high in toxic masculinity and a little messy in terms of affection of any kind, I feel the effects of my Othering pretty acutely.
Now, the Othering (read: I am female (and queer, though allocishet-passing)) doesn’t seem to be inherently connected to the affection problem if you look at it on the surface—at least, if it is, we choose to ignore it or lump it under sexism generally. But here’s the truth I’ve been able to articulate for five years and known even longer: if you are a female-presenting person and you hug the same male-presenting person a whole bunch, people assume you’re an item. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter if you’re just sleeping together or something more, though in certain circumstances, being someone’s girlfriend or partner can afford you a great deal of protection. (That’s a whole other post waiting to happen.) In fact, it doesn’t matter that usually, you’re not sleeping together or dating; the rumor mill gets going, and it doesn’t favor you. No amount of “we’re just friends” will convince anyone who doesn’t know you well.
Have you ever gone to something expecting to have a reasonably good time and come out of it with your life forever changed? I’m not talking about I-went-and-got-another-degree; no, I mean the kind of thing where you come out with unexpected new inspirations, role models, and routes of exploration, the kind of thing that makes you get out of bed at a reasonable (or maybe even unreasonably early) time because you can’t just stay still when there’s so much to do, the kind of thing that stays with you in ways you don’t expect.
It’s been awhile since I had one of those experiences (I think the last thing that even comes close was when I premiered He Probably Just Likes You with the Nash Composers Coalition), but I spent this past week at the International Women’s Brass Conference, where I presented two of my own works and a solo set. After just six days, I’m a different person. Like, my hair is still (blissfully) purple and I still need to practice for approximately forever, but I’ve got new paths dangling in front of me that I desperately want to explore. But first, I wanted to talk a little bit about what it took to get here.
I’ve been sitting on these plans for months now, and I’m so excited to finally share them with you. Over the past year, I’ve been floored by the willingness of friends, family, peers, colleagues, and near-strangers to support my art in all its different forms. That support, whether emotional, financial, or professional, has enabled me to reach new heights and produce work I couldn’t even have conceptualized not so long ago. In just two years, I’ve put out a significant amount of work about sexual assault and rape culture. My understanding and use of extended techniques has grown, but I still enjoy mixing them in with more “normal” sounds for a new blend of timbres. I’m braver and more authentic as a performer and artist. I’m so proud of how far I’ve come during my MFA, and even though I know this is just the beginning, it’s a little crazy to believe it’s even real.
As I leave academia (at least, the student side of things) and start bringing my artmaking practices fully into the professional sphere, I’m looking for ways to not only ensure I keep creating new work but get it into the hands and headphones of people who might not always be able to see it performed live. I’ll be rolling these out as they wink into existence, and the first platform I’m adding to my creative portfolio is my Patreon page.
Earlier this week, I observed to my partner that a lot of my female friends are excited and aggressively supportive of the work I’m doing, both musically and in these posts, but I don’t get nearly the same feedback from my male friends. (Let’s also take a moment to remember: I am a brass player and a composer and occasionally I think about the word “jazz.” Most of my friends are men.) He considered this for a moment, then replied, “I think most of your guyfriends are too scared they’re the people you’re talking about.”
What a freaking moment, right?
That said, it’s a good point. I don’t have a great grasp on where my peers and colleagues think they fall on my spectrum of Nonthreatening Human to Violent Human Who Should Not Be Approached At This Time. And that’s not a question I should be asking them, because it’s not something they’re obligated to tell me. But I wanted to take a moment this week and offer up a series of points that might help the people who worry they’re maybe in the Mildly Threatening Human category (also: this scale does not actually exist) and who might want to become someone women with assaults in their past are comfortable trusting. Working toward being a better person is a great endeavor! I will support you from a distance that feels comfortable for me! If you’re just getting started with that journey, though (or if you’re on that journey or think you’re done with that journey, because we’re never done with that), here’s a few things I think might help:
This is a very difficult post. (And this is only the first week of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so buckle up, because in all likelihood it’s all downhill from here.)
I’ve been working within the confines of the collegiate system for six years. My future career path probably includes teaching, likely at community colleges and/or four-year universities. My creative work intersects nearly constantly with sexual assault. I hear a lot of stories. And in the near-ish future, I’ll probably be a mandated reporter.
Let’s get something straight here: I know some stories need to stay quiet. I’m well aware of the toll an assault or rape or even just gendered harassment can take on folks. I know that for a lot of people, the idea of reporting to Title IX goes hand in hand with expected retaliation. I’m one of those people. And whenever I can, I’ll be committed to making sure my friends and fellow victims/survivors/casualties can communicate freely with me about their own experiences, questions, and uncertainties. I’ll make sure you know in advance when I’m unable to keep stories brought to me by certain groups, especially any college students I may teach in the future, confidential. I’ll find workarounds so I’m still available to give advice and support to folks who need it.
On the one hand, Title IX is (for the most part) a great idea. We should absolutely be combatting gender inequality, whether it’s discrimination or harassment or violence of any nature, in colleges and universities. However, I’ve found that the links between mandated reporters and the folks who field Title IX complaints can be stretched too thin. When lower-intensity solutions might be more apt—for instance, when mouthy, young, subtly-sexist undergraduate men in male-dominated programs could perhaps be told by their faculty that their behavior needs to change before they seriously hurt someone—complaints get lost, washed away, and never followed up on.
The crux of all these issues? I think mandated reporters don’t feel like they have power to change their institutional/studio culture for the better without the guidance of Title IX, and I know students aren’t informed about what the system will do for (and to) them if they report.
Wow, what a crazy first half(ish) of the semester. I’m spending the weekend sleeping extra and getting back on a somewhat normal schedule for, well, everything. I’m still a little shocked that I spent two months working hard on an intense show about sexual assault and victimhood and somehow it worked. We had a great run last Sunday—my dancers were superhuman and my chops were happy with me—and now I’m diving deep into footage, thinking critically about the next steps for face the mirror. I’d really love to take it on the road in California and the Southwest, so if your school or venue wants to host a night or two, give me a shout. For the time being, though, I just want to take a few moments and expound a little on what this show means to me and how it came into existence.