Representation vs. Risk for Marginalized Composers in Scary Times

[I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice! This commentary is provided for educational and entertainment purposes. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for legal services.]

State legislation looks pretty grim right now, folks. For some of you, this isn’t a surprise—at time of writing, the U.S. collectively has already introduced over 400 bills to limit the rights of queer (and often specifically trans) people. Operating in tandem with that are renewed efforts to quash anything that can be even tangentially connected to white-supremacist misrepresentations of CRT, which despite being a legal theory not often invoked by anyone who doesn’t work with the law in some capacity has more recently been used as a catchall for any media or organization that makes racists uncomfortable. We’ve got drag bans and restricting access to trans care; we’ve got renewed book bans and attempts to ban identity-based affinity groups. To put it bluntly: it kinda sucks out there.

Of course, some states have responded by expanding access to care, enshrining rights into critical documents, and refusing to cooperate with states whose legislation would apply to folks who cross state lines to get something they need. There are people working tirelessly in every state to slow or counteract the nefarious forces at work around them. But it would be imprudent to ignore that for many—hell, likely all—marginalized people in the U.S., our risk profiles have changed over the past few years.

As artists, many of us have probably heard (too many times) about how important it is for us to be our “authentic selves.” I’m not as intimately familiar with how that manifests for performance-only folks or musicians on other tracks, but in my own development, I’ve been not only encouraged but at times pressured to lean on anything that makes me unique.* Most often, that pressure has come via an expectation that I lean on my identity.

Let’s be clear: I DO think it’s important to find marginalized composers whose music you love and program them consistently without tokenizing them. Without these efforts, we still have far less access to a professional composing life than our systemically empowered peers. Some of the high points of my career have come as a result of someone seeing me for who I am and deciding to give me a shot. But more and more, I see an immense pressure on marginalized composers to take every opportunity possible to get our identity information in even greater circulation than our music. And in the context oof recent legislative developments in the U.S. (and abroad, though I’m less knowledgeable there), that’s riskier than ever—though you wouldn’t know it by looking at some of those uber-popular diversity databases.

Read more: Representation vs. Risk for Marginalized Composers in Scary Times

The stakes are changing. So are the tools used to criminalize us. Digital surveillance is being used against us more and more, forcing us to be more careful of what we share and who has access to our data. Legislators and police are finding new ways to prosecute us (or recycling old ones). Everything from the GPS in our phones to our private communications can be weaponized if someone finds a way to claim it as evidence. And all this is happening as some of those Diversity People(TM) in and around classical music continue to demand access to our information in ways that will likely enrich them even as they may endanger us.

Those of you who have been around since 2020 or so know I’ve had my information on and off various lists and databases over the years. Though I’m not always able to share as much as I’d like to, I try to be relatively transparent about the choices I make. And as it becomes more and more dangerous to exist openly while marginalized, I want to start discussing how I make decisions about where my information goes. Each of you will have needs and concerns that differ from my own, so I’m not out to make a one-size-fits-all model; I’ve just learned so much from others, and the least I can do is pass that along.

Because we don’t know exactly how policies like Don’t Say Gay or the anti-CRT bill in Florida might impact marginalized composers. We don’t know if the drag bans that criminalized performance might extend to a trans composer taking a bow when their work is played. We don’t know if the wave of book bans may someday extend to sheet music or if teachers will (uniformly) be instantly penalized for looking into marginalized composers using a device or internet connection their school has control of. We do not know if legislation to make drag performers (and, theoretically, trans people) register with the state will pass—Tennessee’s just introduced a bill to try it. And if it does, we have no idea what lengths a state will go to in order to identify anyone who doesn’t comply, but if there’s a bounty on it, plenty of the internet’s least savory characters will be out crawling websites and doing the dirty work.

This isn’t fearmongering. We genuinely don’t know. And, IMPORTANTLY, it’s probably going to take the courts years to sort it out. Stays and injunctions might be issued, but they might not. (We can look at recent abortion policy to see how this might play out: plenty of abortion bans are technically tied up in courts, but in many jurisdictions, providers have had to stop offering care anyway due to legal liability.)

These increasing, ill-defined risks significantly affect everyone they target, and it’s important to remember that although many composers may not reach the legal definition of a “public figure,” existing at least somewhat-publicly on the internet is for many of us a must if we want to continue doing paid work. Depending on your situation, assuming some risk likely feels mandatory—and when that’s the case, it’s even more important we each know what aspects of that risk we do and don’t control. These days, anytime I’m making a decision on if I should offer my identity information to a site, resource, or organization I’m not part of, I’m thinking not only about what I’m currently comfortable with but also about what I might need to suddenly change or remove in the future to make sure I can still work with as many musicians as I can.

My aim isn’t to hide. There’s only so much of that you could conceivably achieve, and for folks who aren’t white and abled, it’s often logistically impossible. But by making informed choices—using information many organizations do not give us and may not have themselves—hopefully we can all estimate our rough levels of risk exposure and take steps to protect ourselves if something changes.

I’m hoping to talk more candidly about how I’m evaluating specific resources in dedicated essays, but for now, I want to just lay out a few big things I ask generally when someone wants to use my identity information these days:

  • What are they using my information for?
  • How will my identity information be displayed and categorized?
  • What benefit am I supposed to receive for the use of my information?
  • How is data being solicited and collected? What digital safety protections are in place for that process?
  • How is the organizer securing my data? Are they aware of GDPR or CCPA and their responsibilities to users in Europe and California respectively? Is there a clearly stated, easy-to-use Forget Me process?
  • In the event there is a Forget Me process in place, is it available to composers regardless of jurisdiction? (Can people not in Europe or California easily have their data deleted?)
  • How fast can the organizer process general changes to identity information (that are NOT Forget Me requests)?
  • Does the organizer retain control of the data from collection to publication to maintenance?
  • Are other third parties involved, including companies/nonprofits/investors/etc.? What control do they have over my data?
  • Are all parties aware of potential legal risks to listed composers? Does the organizer offer a statement or acknowledgment of potential and known risks to anyone considering granting use of their information?
  • Does the organizer have a history in the DEI space, especially re: listing marginalized composers? Does that improve or lessen my confidence in this effort?
  • Is this likely to benefit the organizer more or the composers? How do I feel about that?

So that’s part of where I’m headed on here this year. No promises on upload frequency—definitely not weekly—but I’ll publish things as they’re ready. Hopefully, some of it will be useful. And if the shitshow in my email inbox this month is any indicator . . . we’ve got a lot of nonsense to cover.

Until next time, stay safe, and don’t give your data out without asking questions. I’ll talk to y’all again soon.

*Just a note: my composition teachers haven’t been the ones pressuring me to go identity-first. Lots of those folks running databases and their own diversity initiatives have, though!

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