Complex Identities: Classical Music Education and Transgender Tuxedo Wearers

This essay was written as a submission for the 6th release of Original Plumbing (trans-male quarterly). Fingers crossed!


Dear Maestro,

I wanted to write you a quick note concerning concert attire before our concert this Saturday. This summer I realized that I identify as a transgender male. Right now this means that I am asking people to use male pronouns when referring to me and I am starting the process to legally change my name. I share this with you as my professor and director because it is not only an exciting development in my life but also very public. Starting this concert, I will be wearing the orchestra dress required for the men in our orchestra. I have read over the syllabus concerning the dress requirements and have everything I need. I just wanted to let you know in advance so you won’t find me absent at the concert when you see a strapping young violist in a tux sitting in my place.

When people ask me how I identify, they usually want a comment on my sexual orientation or gender identity. The people I see daily are quick to understand my trans identity but as I have always been queer as folk, many of these people – both classmates and friends – seek clarification on my orientation. I usually identify as “fabulous. Swishy, sparkley and fabulous.” But beneath the fabric of my gold lamé booty shorts and sweat-stained binder, my identity is infinitely complex. I am a classically trained violist and a budding art historian. I currently play in my university’s orchestra and it is there that my most important lessons about transgender acceptance have been learned.

In my experience, the symphony orchestra is one of the largest strongholds of traditional gender roles and class structure still thriving in the arts today. There are instruments that people feel are “feminine” instruments (flute, harp) and ones that are “masculine” (trombone, drums). Between the cost of buying an instrument and acquiring proper concert attire, it is a privileged person’s game. There is not a great deal of space for deviation from these structures and norms so it was no surprise when I found out that I am the first transgender person counted among the ranks of my university orchestra. I would be preaching to the converted if I were to comment on how much rock and alternative music has benefited from the fearless queers who have defied expectations in eyeliner and pleather. But as these queer performers work to smash the gender binary night after night, orchestral musicians continue to file into concert halls in the required tuxedos for men and fancy black dresses and slacks for women. As a gender variant orchestral musician, I took to wearing classy black slacks and suspenders for concerts. This worked until I realized that my transition would not be taken seriously by the music school if I did not wear a tuxedo.

I wrote my email to my Maestro with no expectations. I only emailed him because I did not want to be a public joke when he noticed my concert black had transformed into tux pants and a bow tie. The email was drafted, once peer-reviewed, sent and forgotten. A day later, I received a sweet and unexpected response.

Hi Eli,

Thank you for you elegant note. Please let me know what I can do to support you. If you are looking for a fine tuxedo, we have a relationship with Logan’s, which is a high end, old fashioned men’s clothing store here in Lexington. If you’d like an introduction to my tailor there, let me know, and I’ll set it up.

The next time I saw the Maestro, he made a point of telling me how great I looked in my tuxedo. Soon after, our orchestra was preparing for a trip to Carnegie Hall to play with Arlo Guthrie and gender reared its ugly head again. I received a phone call from the trip planner who asked me how I would like to be roomed because of the “same-sex” rooming policy. I restrained myself from a full lecture on queer marginalization and asked to be roomed with another male, a request that was forgotten and re-confirmed by five other people. One student found out about my arrangement once approved and requested to be roomed with his girlfriend because I am not a “biological male”. The orchestra staff resolved the situation with minimal pain but the wound was made. The arts are not as queer as one would hope.

Soon after the housing debacle, I found myself grinning and walking off the stage of Carnegie Hall. The Maestro had taken up preacher-style handshaking backstage and, in my ecstasy I walked straight into the receiving line. He saw me and smiled. “I love your new tux. What kind of cuff-links you wearing?” “Nothing yet,” I admitted. My men’s warehouse sale tuxedo had not afforded such luxuries.

We had a rehearsal after returning home and Maestro caught me right as I walked in; “Eli, I have something for you.” I followed him through the concert hall to his coat down. He reached into the pocket and produced a small box. My mind exploded a little bit. I opened it to find two silver-plated viola-shaped cuff-links. I could only hope to fumble for the right words. “Thank you… Thank you.”

The symphony orchestra will probably perpetuate gender stereotypes and class assumptions as long as it remains culturally relevant. Slowly, musicians will feel free to play any instrument without being picked on by the classical gender police. Programs will be created to increase access to instruments for people that have music in their hearts and no cash in their pockets. But, come concert time, orchestras will ask their musicians to get dressed in their finest black attire – whether tuxedos or dresses. It is my hope that young transgender and gender variant musicians have Maestros like mine.

4 Responses to “Complex Identities: Classical Music Education and Transgender Tuxedo Wearers”
  1. Kristin says:


    Just came across your newest blog post on Facebook, and when I saw an essay on being in orchestra, I had to read it! It has always came across to me as strange that an institution with a history so influenced by gender and sexual diversity has been so reluctant to admit that fact and actually “come out” as inclusive. I’m glad your conductor has been so supportive; willingness to change is always a good thing!

    Obviously, I can’t speak to trans issues in classical music, but, as a bassist who identifies as female I definitely see a bit of the gender stereotyping among the instruments you mention.

    Re: the class issue thing; the assumption of financial privilege is, in my personal experience, one of the most irritating aspects of being a music student. I have had studio professors suggest that I replace my bow, instrument, whatever with a high-end model and, when I remarked that the suggestion, while well-meaning, was outside of my price range, commented that, “I went into debt as an undergrad to pay for my bass.”

    So…um. Yeah. Classical music: it has class and gender issues, and I’m so glad when folks speak out about them!

  2. maddox says:

    Hey Eli,
    Just discovered your blog. This is a wonderful perspective – I’ve always wondered how you navigate strictly gendered spaces while being transgender. It’s also good to hear that your Maestro is very supportive of you.

  3. suebuzzard says:

    My friend Alex Boissonnault pointed me to your page a year ago; I have just now re-discovered it and find it a joy and a wonderful insight into queer and transgender life. Alex and I grew up studying violin together; he went on to kick ass at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, and I pursued jazz and contemporary string playing at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Being a lesbian myself, I’m really happy to read more personal stories of queer life and music, traditional orchestral music at that. I may play all the fancy improv stuff now, but my childhood memories in the orchestras are still very dear to me.
    Please keep writing. I hope you’re well, wherever you are now.

    Sue B

    • e.a.irving says:

      Hi Sue! Sorry, I’m just getting back to you. Thanks for the message – I miss Alex! What a guy! It’s inspiring to hear from you as a classically trained person who was able to break out into improv. And a queer at that! Thanks for the comment! I hope to hear from you again!

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