A Thank You to the Brothers of CBSS

I’ve spent the summer (plus the tail end of my spring semester) getting to know a Discord server of a few dozen brothers of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, a group of folks whose interests and talents vary widely, save two things—a love for music and a dedication to Rocket League. As most of them can attest, it’s been a tumultuous few months; I’ve had some of the best moments of my year, but they’ve been accompanied by some of the hardest, too. We wrapped up my first season on a team at the beginning of August, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to properly chronicle the experience both as its own long moment and within the context of the rest of my life, including the intersectional marginalizations that keep me out of the larger organization they love.

The season’s been filled with things I didn’t want to speak aloud. In this space, unlike most others I move through today, my reputation and work didn’t precede me. The musical ability of these folks, incredible though it is, is a backdrop—an afterthought or a side topic—in most voice chats. I haven’t spoken up much about the impetus behind my creative work; I’ve barely mentioned the traumas it so frequently calls back to. My partner, Nick, has seen all the dots connected, how the anxieties large and small associated with CBSS intertwine with and are informed by the vast majority of my career I’ve spent in gender-marginalized spaces. A few others have seen bits and pieces, but for many, I probably contain more than a couple question marks. This is (I think) my attempt at contextualizing some of the things I say or ask for that make them scratch their heads, but it’s also my best effort to show them why the compassion they so frequently extend matters so much.

I don’t assume I’m welcome in spaces overtly defined by their maleness or attachments to masculinity, regardless of the culture purported to exist within the group. I used to think everything would probably be okay. I’ve been proven wrong again and again over the years—the time when a large ensemble director instructed a percussionist to use “a man-sized slapstick,” the countless instances when I’ve come off a bandstand and been complimented on my looks but not my sound, the mountain of emotional labor and administrative work I’ve been asked to do solely because of the stereotypical roles associated with my assumed gender, and the half-decade I’ve spent yelling about sexism, misogyny, and abuses of power in music that has resulted in so little change from the programs I’ve loudly and publicly asked it of. Hell, the last ensemble I left was one I thought I was safe in, until one of the bandleaders told me I could “leave my female-coded body out of it” when asking for clarification on a request because of prior gender-biased experiences I’d had. The female-coded wording was a usage I’d introduced prior; I wasn’t out as genderfluid yet, and that was an important litmus test to see if my identity would be respected when framed in a slightly different way. It wasn’t, so I left.

So to hear straight from the top that I am welcome before I even joined the server, to have that be affirmed by the rest of the group even on the tough nights, is a rare thing in the context of my world. To be surrounded by men who can acknowledge their own frustration but place it alongside, and not above, my need to feel safe in the community, is a gift I don’t take lightly.

I can count on one hand the number of times a man has stood up for me against his peers or superiors in a professional or social setting. Usually, when you’re hanging with a boys’ club, you’re left to fend for yourself, because conformity is assumed to be the safest option and sticking out in any way means you’ll likely not receive any aid. Despite my best efforts, conforming has never been my strong suit. I’ve spent much of my life learning to maintain a reasonably confident front while using one hand to brush off the laughter and jeers aimed squarely at me when there’s something I don’t know or can’t remember.

Y’all saw that a lot at the beginning. It’s a defense mechanism, a shield against an attack that doesn’t always come. But to hear from my friends across the divisions that my comfort and security within the group matter? To take in the commitments to speaking up when someone’s able and making sure compassionate language choices are a priority of the whole server and not just something I’m asking for over and over? That’s so rare it is singularly unique; it’s a commitment I’ve never gotten from any group of men I’ve ever been affiliated with. So many of you live so far away—some of you I may never have the privilege of meeting in person—but you give me energy and determination I can’t get from people I’ve known for years.

I spend a lot of my life as the perpetual sideman (a term I don’t have a gender-neutral version of), the one who’s oftentimes only passed the mic when it is absolutely necessary. My work is often spoken about by the men around me in terms they choose, not by me in terms I’d pick. The blog probably makes a little more sense, in that context. I am very, very used to not having a voice, and I am very, very used to having to fight for every opportunity to speak.

And yet, when I said I’d like to try casting, I was given a chance. And another. And another. And eventually they stopped being chances and started being part of my role on the server. I had worried for so long about how the brothers would feel about a non-male voice representing them on stream, and somehow I got to co-cast High Div playoffs. Somehow I got to start spending time in front of a microphone with people I love talking through the game with. Somehow a ridiculous amount of y’all decided you liked my casting and were willing to vote on it.

The first time I was called a bitch was in the fourth grade. I was eight.

The fact that the server is as a whole doing its best to take care of me blows my mind. The dedication and the continued trying to do better is everything I could ever want, and even though it’s not an exact science yet, the effort and the energy from everyone from the mod team down to the most casual of players humbles me. I am not used to my needs being important.

My career is littered with unhappy stories. I make music based on the sexual assault I suffered as a young child and all the related things that have happened since; I run a blog dedicated to the intersections of music, marginalizations, and power; I spend a lot of time listening to stories you may never hear from people you’ll probably never meet about men you revere doing things you’d abhor. I do not expect help anymore, mostly because I so rarely receive it from anyone in a position to actually impact structural change.

So having the freedom and the ability to ask for better, to push the server as a whole because I believe the things that bring you together as Sinfonians are the things that make you capable of making our virtual home a better place, is a singular point in my life where I at times truly feel like I am as heard and respected as any of the men around me. (It’s worth pointing out that’s an extremely tall order when my partner is also on the server, as folks have a tendency to iron out their problems with me by trying to smooth things over with him.) I spent a brilliant few weeks with a team that has never made me feel anything but welcome and valued. Even in the roughest spots, they stuck with me and kept me calm—so as much as I could name at least a dozen folks here, I can’t leave without shouting out Adam, Alex, and Alex. They raised my standards back to where they should be for the server, and the server is beginning to raise my standards back to where they should be in the rest of my life.

One night somewhat recently, Nick (Bass) asked me if I’d intentionally made myself useful and almost vital within the community. “Absolutely,” I answered him, because that’s so often the only reason I’m allowed to stay in a space like this. My welcome is extended only so long as I am doing work others would rather not or handling things someone else doesn’t have the time or energy to. I ensure my place in a lot of rooms by making everyone else in that room need me and my skill sets; it’s rare I end up needing them just as much. This was the bit I hesitated to put in writing, because it can sound transactional instead of a desperate clinging to whatever’s most likely to keep me from getting kicked out the moment I ask for anything someone in better standing isn’t a fan of. (And when you’re gender-marginalized, most of the men around you are always in better standing.)

But because of my team and my partner and the friends I continue to make, I do ask for the hard things. Even though it terrifies me every time I make a correction or a request, more often than not, I still leap off the cliff. I know that can come across as challenging or annoying, but please know that if I did not think it was safe for me to make those requests, I wouldn’t bother. If I didn’t believe in you that much, I wouldn’t bother. (I wouldn’t be happy, either.) And, on occasion, I’m still scared I’m going to have to leave. I still worry that maybe this time will be the straw that breaks the collective camel’s back. But so far, it hasn’t, and every time I am proven wrong, I relax just a little more.

These aren’t things I talk to y’all about much, the trauma-informed artistic practice and the rampant marginalization of my body and being, because I don’t want to encroach on your space. I don’t want to worry you or alienate myself. But when one part of the community struggles, another rallies, and though I’ve had dark weeks, the overall trend is positive.

I didn’t know what I was going to get when I joined a server of Sinfonians. I definitely didn’t expect a family, but here we are.

So, hi. You’ve all known me as Eris, the Season 4 rookie and Most Underrated Player of Low Division [or if you’re reading this in 2021, as Season 5’s All-Star Game Champion and Challenger Division MVP, Most Improved, Best Mechanics, Most Clutch Player, Offensive Player of the Season, Defensive Player of the Season, and repeat-runner-up for Best Caster], but if it’s all right with you, I’d like you to know this part of me, too.

[and y’all knew me as Eris before anyone else did. that’s always going to be special.]

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