First violin

Young, transgender, African-American—violinist Tona Brown is breaking all the rules.

BY Gretchen Dukowitz

April 09 2007 12:00 AM ET

Tona Brown has
always known she was different, but it took her a while to
figure out what truly made her unique. “In church I
was always taught we all have trials. Mine was finding
out who I really was,” she says. “I’m
an artist who happens to be transgender.”

As a child Brown
could dance almost as soon as she could walk, and she
had mastered the violin by the time most people can drive.
Now the 27-year-old Brown, an accomplished classically
trained musician and singer, is facing one of the
biggest challenges of her life: trying to make it in
the conservative world of classical music.

Born in Virginia,
Brown’s family moved every year from her fifth
through eighth grades. They faced periods of severe
financial struggle but found a way to rent her a
violin in fifth grade. Her talent was obvious, and she
would eventually be accepted to the Governor’s School
for the Arts high school in Norfolk, Va. It was there
that she came out—as a gay male. “I
accepted that as who I was, but everyone around me could see
there was something different.”

Then, attending
college at Virginia’s Shenandoah Conservatory, Brown
began taking classical voice lessons but ran into a big
problem—“My voice teachers were trying
to force me to be a tenor, and it just wasn’t
working.”

Brown’s
trouble finding her voice mirrored her difficulty with her
gender identity. When she started growing her hair and
wearing earrings in college, her mother bluntly asked
if she was transgender. Brown said yes. According to
Sharon Brooks, Brown’s mom, “It wasn’t
hard for me to accept Tona because I really believe in
supporting anyone who tells me that’s the way
they are.” Says Brown: “I was the one with the
issues.”

Over time Brown
grew more comfortable as a transgender woman—she
toured last year with the Tranny Roadshow, a
transgender performance troupe. And recently
she’s found success in mainstream productions,
performing at festivals and universities and working
on an album of African-American songs and spirituals.

But being black
is another hurdle. Brown has seen African-Americans get
hired for orchestras only to later get turned away by the
conductor because of their skin. As for herself, she
says, “Of course I’ve encountered
racism. You can’t be black in America and not see
certain things aren’t right.”

The one thing
Brown is uncomfortable discussing is where she is in the
transitioning process. “I don’t want people to
think they can only be successful if they’ve
had certain work done. There’s a lot of underground
surgeries, especially in the black trans community—I
want people to feel beautiful regardless of how they
look.”

And though Brown
can pass for a biological female, she felt compelled to
come out as transgender, knowing full well the risks:
“Professionally, the challenge is that
classical music is very conservative. But I’ve been
able to support myself and perform all the time. People need
to know that you can be a trans woman of color and
still have a successful career.”

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