“Now ladies only- husky harmony okay? Take!”
I stepped forward with my hands trembling, the studio headphones heavy on my head. With the cis-men singers backing away and my female vocalist friend standing beside me, I sighed before feigning a smile and nodding at the music director. As much as it caused my entire being to writhe in discomfort, according to them, “ladies” included me.
Transgender people in all lines of work are sure to experience dysphoria or discomfort in their daily lives. It doesn’t even come to us as a surprise anymore when we are misgendered day after day. Although, this lack of surprise doesn’t mean that it is any less hurtful or triggering.
As a trans musician, the same rules apply. Every Valentine’s Day gig I’m offered, I’m performing along with a cis-man because the hotel wanted a “boy-girl duet” to up their romance quota. This triggers bouts of dysphoria because my voice is what puts me in the “girl” category in such gigs. While being a transman is a part of my identity, being a musician is an even bigger part. It truly worries me that Gender Non Conforming people encounter such struggles everyday because of the binary and its prevalence in societies.
It also pains me to see how heteronormative music industries really are. The fact that a Valentine’s Day show requires only a “boy-girl duet” to represent themes of love, passion and romance is ridiculously exclusionary. Try to pick one Bollywood number out of the thousands of hit songs available that depicts a queer romance (without hyper-sexualization or tragedy).
Speaking of Bollywood or the Film industries in general- I have found it really difficult in the past to find movies where the humour is actually funny and not fatphobic/homophobic/transphobic/racist/ableist. And when it comes to Bollywood Masala hit music? Try to find songs that don’t objectify women. Or that makes use of musicians, technicians or actors that are not cis. This is problematic simply because of how impactful media is in societies. There have been numerous cases of young cis-men practicing extremely predatory and dangerous things in their daily lives that they have seen their beloved actors do in movies. What is entertainment to the majority can be painful, triggering experiences for people in minority communities; it can grow into extremely harmful practices within societies that have been normalized due to music and media. What if minority communities were represented and respected in these big commercialized media sectors? Imagine the potential of the positive changes, practices and ideologies that societies would adopt.
The lack of representation in the entertainment business as a whole has always had a popular argument- that the media has a formula or conventions to follow in order to re-achieve success.
When I took up Media Studies as a subject in my A Levels, I learnt that genre based conventions are formulae that have been practiced and perfected- after which it has been followed religiously in order to ensure that the content creators break even and have yet another masala hit song or movie in their hands. This means that content creators consciously refrain from challenging or breaking away from these trends and conventions- leaving close to no space for positive representation or education.
We also learnt about that as much as life influences media, media influences life. This explains the vicious circle that is misrepresentation and heteronormativity in the music and film industries. The sensual cis-woman pining for her macho cis-man love interest on a fabulous black and white screen was complemented by raunchy, objectifying lyrics and extremely high pitched vocals by the vocalist singing the “female part”. That is, before the “male part” of the song ties it all together. Of course! A romantic duet must consist of “male part” and “female part”- if anything else, it wouldn’t sell anymore; and that is utterly disappointing. What media has normalized has carried on for generations to be what is desired by majority audiences. So much so that even today, when I sing for commercialized projects, I am singing the “female parts”; I am a transgender man, and go by he/him/theirs pronouns. The fact that I must actively present as a stereotype associated with the gender that causes dysphoria in me, just to catch a gig or two, upsets me.
It has upset me so much that the next time I am at a lavish studio, ready to sing my part, I will make sure the music directors know that I am not female, and that the parts I sing won’t be either. My vocal range is Alto, and the notes that I sing will fall somewhere along the octaves that entails. I am tired of having my music be sold based on Gender and not music itself. Besides, it’s about time we had commercialised Desi music using trans voices for whatever role- isn’t it? As a community, we are working hard to normalize the fact that names, clothes, make up and more are NOT gendered things. I think it’s time we do this for voices as well.
Who said men can’t be sopranos or women can’t baritones? Or that a vocalist must subscribe to gender in the first place? Art is art regardless of gender and expression.
In an ideal (or even just slightly better, more open minded) world, I would ask that we have movies highlighting and representing the LGBTQIA+ communities overall, and in a normalized, positive light. Unfortunately, I still think we have a long way to go until we can get there. Films like Margarita With A Straw (with differently abled Queer individuals as protagonists in it) are doing things right, but with the Kanchanas and Laxxmi Bombs, there is little progress.
We, as societies, need to bring about unlearning of old hierarchical systems like the binary and influence media to include the real people in the world in their commercialized big budget films.
That being said- I hope someday there’s a movie about an 18 year old Tamil trans boy singer who liked to write articles on the things he wants to see improved in his world. I hope the thousands of stories people who belong to minority groups have to narrate come to light as part of mainstream media some day. As the people, we have the power to influence. All I ask is that we all try to use our privileges for the best.