UC Santa Barbara
Musical Performance and Trans Identity: Narratives of Selfhood, Embodied Identities, and Musicking
- Author(s): Drake, Randy M
- Advisor(s): Cooley, Timothy J
- et al.
This dissertation is an ethnography of trans identity and North American music and explores the ways musicking makes viable underrepresented forms of embodiment. The subjects of this ethnomusicological study—Jennifer Leitham, Trans Chorus of Los Angeles, Transcendence Gospel Choir, and Joe Stevens—are contemporary musicians who are trans identified. Contemplating the multiple facets of identity embodied by these individuals and groups, I consider relationships among their subjectivities, identities, bodies and behaviors, and interactions with others, and how those relationships are explored, affirmed, celebrated, judged, contested, and valued (or not) through their music and musical performances. An ethnomusicological approach allows the performances and narratives of these artists to show multiple levels and intersections of identity in relation to gender, sexuality, race, class, ethnicity, religion, age, and disability. The dissertation draws from interviews, performances, and onsite fieldwork in and around Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area between 2009 and 2016. Ethnographic data include interviews with artists and audience members as well as live performances, rehearsals, recordings, videos, and social networks. Jennifer Leitham challenges an association of gender and sexual identity in jazz while simultaneously finding it a difficult category of music to navigate when her trans identity is foregrounded. For some of the vocalists in the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles and the Transcendence Gospel Choir of San Francisco subjectivity, identity, and embodiment are connected to ideas about voices, bodies, and behaviors and these attributes are highly variable. For example, whether singers are attempting to extend their range, grapple with the effects of androgen hormones, or both, their voices, like all singers’ voices, are in process. Joe Stevens’s musical life presents us with particular ways in which trans subjects harness musical genre in order to perform trans identities. Genre, voice, embodiment, and transition all contribute to the ways in which masculinity and vulnerability frame Joe’s identity, and they are juxtaposed with his female gender assignment at birth. The project ultimately concludes that sharing musical performances of trans identity requires a thinking through of bodies and behaviors, where gender identity as multiplicitous, varied, and diverse, is always in relation, contention, or collusion with socio-political and cultural forces that control those bodies and behaviors. Musicking provides a strategic arena where trans subjectivities and identities flourish.