I’m Not Your Fucking Entertainment.
Today is National Coming Out Day, and I’d like to talk about my teachers, my colleagues, and my peers.
I didn’t come out formally, publicly, until May of 2020. I’d been out to handfuls of people here and there for a couple years already, but when I moved back to Phoenix, I found myself continually putting off and shying away from the announcement I’d hoped I would finally feel ready to make. Rather than sharing more of who I am with the world, I found myself discussing less and less, retreating into the few spaces (mostly online) where I still felt safe to be myself. It took me three or four tries to even figure out how I wanted to come out. And, you know, the onset of a pandemic.
In those first few months that I was back in Arizona, back when it was still the Before Times, I realized a couple fears of mine had come true: first, that the social and professional structures that had forcibly kept me in the closet as an undergrad were still thriving, and second, that many of the peers I’d studied alongside had become willing enforcers and gatekeepers in their own right. Yet we were still expected to all (or at least mostly) get along, so I worked with what I had. I wrote about paying your dues and other power structures that affected us all. I spent time with the community, engaging with some old friends and some folks I hadn’t been as close to originally.
But I didn’t come out, because I didn’t trust the “it’s better now“s and the sudden influx of “well, I’m just a straight/cis white man, what do I know”s that sounded harmless but reeked of something still lurking beneath.
Still, I wanted to find places to thrive, where I could focus on being happy and doing work I loved. I rejoined the Nash Composers Coalition and added a couple more ensembles to my workload, engaging in music across many of the styles I enjoyed. I looked strangely at the former teachers and more established folks in the scene who’d originally told me one of the goals of NCC was getting more gender-diverse people on stage to present their work—as I fielded emails informing me that actually, I’d be the only (known) gender-marginalized person in either of the now-two ensembles presenting work that cycle. But work was work, and presenting something was better than presenting nothing, so I put my head down and wrote, abandoning my original idea and pivoting toward what would become Uncompliant when the Nash weaponized a white woman’s tears to fire one of the few voices in the room who had been pushing for increased diversity and progressive change for years.
And then I got stuck in a situation where I had to identify sexism I’d previously experienced but didn’t want to misgender myself, so I used different wording than the NCC bandleaders were used to and got blasted in a reply-all that closed with “don’t bring the ‘female-coded body’ component into this. . . . That’s a 100% BS take.” Two groveling emails later and a frantic text conversation with my drummer, I knew I was leaving—but instead of walking out then and there like I absolutely should have, the long-instilled fear of professional reprisal coerced me into staying through the end of the cycle.
I worked on my pre-performance talk for Uncompliant for a week leading up to the show, imbuing as much “fuck you and fuck this” as I could into something that still sounded appropriate for the audience at the Nash. After the cycle, I resigned, but I wasn’t completely honest as to why I was leaving. Yes, the Nash’s decisions that semester left me not wanting to return (especially with my own work), but when it all boiled down, I didn’t feel safe in the ensemble. I didn’t correct the record until earlier this week, when I pointed out to the former teacher that recruited me that NCC had been billed to me in ways I described as “someplace with people who get it, who are actively doing the work as educators and performers to improve the community for oppressed and marginalized people, who would be compassionate and listen to learn from my experience and expertise.” Yet, as I wrote elsewhere in the same message, that wasn’t accurate, because when it mattered in tangible rather than theoretical ways, support vanished: “none of you knew I was nonbinary yet, but in that moment, I realized that what was supposed to be among my safest of professional spaces was actually one in which even the known parts of my identity were not respected. I was not allowed the space to speak on my marginalizations from a position of authority—instead, I was further pushed to the margins as your own co-leader stomped on my identity and deemed it irrelevant based on his, as far as I’m aware, zero personal lived experience as a person of a marginalized gender.”
So I didn’t come out.
In fact, NCC set me back seven months, pushing us forward to May of 2020. Two months into the pandemic, I fully realized no one was getting hired anytime soon, and I decided I’d rather completely reboot when life started coming back rather than try to hang onto those gigs only to likely lose them as soon as I was honest. So I finally wrote the damn thing, and started writing more explicitly about queer experiences instead of subtly sliding them in and hoping people wouldn’t think too much about them.
By the time I’d been out for a year, I’d lost nearly all of the friends who’d been excited when I announced I was moving back—because it turns out a single, privately-shared concern about being met with “hey, girl!” and similar sentiments is still enough to shatter egos around here. Suddenly, rather than our friends, the people I was trying to figure out how to maintain relationships with were being referred to by those speaking to me as their friends. As I was asking to be allowed back in so I could teach on gender and queerness and inclusion, I was met with “we’re handling it, we’re good” and “I, a cis person, know these people are not transphobic!” I realized I’d been removed from the equation, but what I didn’t know at the time was that in the same swift blow, the conversation I’d thought was private was simultaneously misinterpreted and shared with almost the entire cohort of jazz TAs at ASU—people who I’d once called dear friends. Weeks later, one helped me correct the record after I explained what I’d actually said (once he told me the gossip had started). But I currently have no interest in going back to that friend group, even though two years ago it was shaping up to be the single friendliest space for me in the entire scene. I’ve had enough. (If you know this is about you and you show up in my mentions, good fucking luck.)
Here’s the thing: the people I’m talking about here are folks who are supposed to be teachers, mentors, peers, classmates, and artists purporting to do the good work. Most of them have directly profited from that assumption for the better part of a decade, requesting and accepting educational labor from myself and others without taking meaningful steps to stand in the face of established power imbalances and radically change our community. They are the very same people for whom I compiled a list of over one hundred sources on feminism, sexual assault, and trauma because they were too unmotivated to fucking Google it. They have spent the past seven years sapping my emotional labor, turning me away from my musical studies because I was expected to spend so much additional time justifying my right to fucking exist. And they did it all with a smile, as they told me they were my friends and people who cared about me even while they forcibly gendered me in ways I did not want, shoving me into the Women In Jazz box despite the fact that I had not asserted to them that I was a woman.
I started thinking the word genderfluid in 2015 or 2016, but it took another four years and a pandemic to have the freedom to say it publicly. I absolutely blame the white, cishet jazz scene in Phoenix for that delay—my teachers, my former friends, the social forces designed to keep me and others like me compliant. I’ve written it in blatant terms before: “I could not have survived the two years I spent around ASU Jazz if I’d understood my genderfluidity enough to try to perform it.” And that cost me some things I can name and some things I can’t. When I finally had the courage to share, those same people who used to tell me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do without them departed within a year. Once again, when it mattered in tangible rather than theoretical ways, suddenly I was the aggressor and they were just defending their good friend the status quo.
I’ve spent much of my adulthood educating these people in particular about how to treat gender-marginalized people like the vibrant, wonderful humans they are. I have lost countless hours they’ve gotten to spend on projects and concerts poring over resources, assembling arguments, and picking my words carefully in the hope they’d be valued. Yet even still, I am heralded as “a strong voice for social justice” (in the words of one of the teachers in question) while never actually being treated as an authority or an expert, even relative to the more privileged cisgender people—often men—around me. My voice has never been truly valued, even when I’ve spent my time and energy on simpler explanations for basic concepts when these people refuse to take me at my word.
But now I have a found family beyond these people who used to cast themselves as essential to my success and wellbeing. I have an entire server full of Sinfonians who not only listen but actively look to me for guidance. I have a small but growing community on Twitch that shows up to talk queer theory with me. And no, not all of these people are professional musicians, but enough of them are that I still have plenty of music talk in my life. Even without the supports many of my classmates started their own careers with, I know I’ll be fine.
I’m not going to spend any more time or effort trying to reach people who have listened to me speak for seven years and still don’t find me worth looking up to. Will I still make educational content? Sure. But I’m done putting it together in the name of folks hopefully deciding to treat me and my people better. I’m done wasting energy on those who at the first sign of criticism or support requests turn on me and reignite year-old accusations that nobody ever bothered to actually talk to me about. Any education I give, on Coming Out Day or any other day of the goddamn year, is a gift, and I’m going to focus on the people who correctly see it as such.
I’m not your fucking entertainment. Stop treating me like a cute thought experiment.
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