Saturday, June 03, 2006
Harmonizing Her Gender
It took Tona Brown years to develop her voice - and identity
By Chris King
of the St. Louis American
Tona Brown belongs to a sensitive, mysterious, misunderstood minority group.
She is an artist - more specifically, a musician, a classically
trained vocalist and violinist. Her repertoire favors art songs by
neglected African-American composers, Negro spirituals and the European classics. She recently performed at Washington University’s (St. Louis) Ursa Cafe as part of the Tranny Roadshow.
The Tranny Roadshow? Oh, yeah. Tona Brown is also transgendered - she
was born into the wrong gender. The Tranny Roadshow is a traveling
variety group with a rotating cast of artists who began their lives
in that troubling, at times horrifying predicament, then did
something to change it.
The Roadshow, Tona said, marks her first set of performances when she
comes advertised "as gay or trans." At age 26, she has lived as a
woman for three and a half years. "I don't broadcast it to the whole
world all the time," she said of her gender transition.
She pursued the opportunity to broadcast her identity, at this point,
with an activist's sense of mission.
"I think it's imperative for others to know we can do everything,"
she said. "Trans people fulfill every occupation. I want to let
people know, you can be who you are, no matter what it is."
It is a life or death issue. Suicide is relatively common in the
transgendered population, as are self-destructive life choices, such
as drug abuse and prostitution.
"People tend to learn very young, and they are very confused," she
"Their family abandons them. They have no role models. You have to be
Tona should be an enviable model to transgendered youth. Judging by
her publicity photos, her transition has been very successful, and
her family and peers were unusually understanding.
"I was extremely fortunate. God blessed me with a talent that
transcended the normal boundaries," she said.
"Those who know me and who have been interested in watching me
develop have supported me, with no qualms about it. They kind of knew
all along there was something different about me."
She grew up and still lives with her mother, Sharon, in Hampton
Roads, Virginia, having studied music in Northern Virginia and
Rochester, New York. She started in her field while identified as a
man, and she said her transition "hasn't hindered me at all."
"I'm a dramatic soprano and a high mezzo," she said of her vocal
range. "That's really awkward, for a male. I always wore long hair, I
was always androgynous. When I did decide to transition, it wasn't
that hard for everyone."
If anything, she said, the hard part came before she made the
switch. "I struggled before," she said.
"I was very, very feminine, and men always thought I was female
anyway. When I transitioned, it was just, `Oh, you're beautiful, and
we need a violinist.'"
Appropriately for a musician, her transition began, in a sense, with
one of her instruments - her voice.
"I used to sing Mariah Carey, a very, very high soprano. Then, at 16,
my voice dropped, and I had this huge, rich soprano," she said.
"I used to be very light and birdy. People didn't know how to address
me. They'd say, `Yes, ma'am,' and I'd have to correct them."
Like so many black children raised in the South, she came up in a
very religious family, singing in the choir.
"I was an alto," she said. "It was very awkward, at the time. People
didn't realize there is no gender stamp on your voice."
Her problems adjusting to expectations persisted, initially, when she
studied voice with Patricia Woolf at the Shenandoah Conservatory of
Music. "She would have me try to sing tenor, and my voice would
always crack - upwards," Tona said.
A breakthrough came when they were working together on Mozart's opera
The Marriage of Figaro. At one point, her teacher closed the book in
frustration and said, "I honestly don't know what you could do."
Tona remembered, "I was very androgynous. I wore heels (boots, then,
not pumps). Neither she nor I could deny there was something
different, not only with myself but with my voice."
Finally, her teacher handed Tona the role of Cherubino, a lyric mezzo
part that has (both ironically and appropriately, in this case) been
a "pants" role, performed by a female dressed in male clothes.
Asked to sing a high part typically taken by a woman (in costume as a
man), she found her natural voice. "It felt so good," she said. "All
this sound came out of me." From there, it was only a question of
time, courage and dedication.
"It takes a lot of courage to get up," she said, "and use your God-
given instrument, something as fragile as a voice, to continue to
train and take ridicule and to develop your voice." Or, for that
matter, your proper gender.