I looked at my uncle after playing him my newest music video, "Part of Me." I wasn't sure what response to expect from him. This new video was different, unexpected, and a stark departure from my debut, "I Am a Girl." His face registered an expression that was all too familiar. It's the exact same look that directors gave me when I explained my concept for the video of "I Am a Girl." The same look my songwriting teacher, who is a music industry veteran, gave me when I told her that "Part of Me" would be my follow-up song. The look that gave me a feeling that I was not doing what I was supposed to do as a "trans musician."
In seeking visual collaborators for "I Am a Girl," I found that directors immediately suggested shooting scenes where a trans woman is offering sex services on the street, putting makeup on, cutting her veins while screaming and crying, and showing invasive shots of binding, tucking, or injecting hormones into her body. When I refused to include those scenes in the script, directors who had signed on for the video dropped out at the last minute; they felt those scenes were needed in a video like this.
I understood where they were coming from; after all, this is the predominant theme in trans stories we see today. However, I wanted to reclaim the narrative. With "I Am a Girl," I wanted to show that diversity exists within the trans community; that the community is made up of people of all ethnicities, ages, faiths, and stages within their own transitions. I wanted to show how big a part we have in the fabric of society and that we exist in every sector, making positive contributions. In the video, it was just as important to feature transgender people who are waitresses, teachers, journalists, advocates, architects, and medics without painting them as victims. It was just as important to not paint them with "trans" being their entire identity.
With my new video, "Part of Me," I wanted to advance this concept of showing people right where they are in life and representing all sides of who they are. I wanted to make a statement: The only thing "trans" about this new video is that I, the performer, happen to be trans. I was not making "trans music." I was just making music.
My uncle put down the phone from which the video was playing. He was quiet for a minute before saying, "Summer, do you know this band in the U.K. that has a trans musician?" Truth be told, there are less than a handful of trans musicians in the world who have any degree of mainstream coverage, so it wasn't difficult to immediately figure out who he was referring to. My uncle walked over to the table, picked up his iPad, and started playing a song by Antony and the Johnsons. My uncle gave me feedback as the song was playing: "Summer, listen to this singer. You can hear her struggle, you can hear her pain, it's so obvious. The video you showed me is light and poppy, about a celebrity crush. But you should talk about your struggle as a trans woman; people want to listen to that. You should write more songs about not being accepted as a woman or wanting to be a woman or something like that."
I bit my tongue as I listened. After all, it was similar to what my songwriting teacher had said after I played her my new song: "Summer, I think it would be better if you wrote about not being accepted as a daughter rather than about a celebrity crush. People would respond better to that." I didn't say what was on my mind because I knew what they were implying: The narrative surrounding a trans woman should be limited to one that is sad and painful.
As a teenager, I often looked to the media for evidence that people like me mattered and that we were capable of success. That our stories weren't reduced to only one aspect but were nuanced and varied. But what I saw and still see often proves otherwise.
This is why songwriting is so cathartic and meaningful to me: Through music, I get to tell a different story about myself. Although my song "Part of Me" isn't revolutionary or radical, it is a song that gives me permission to feel the feelings that I had to suppress as a youth in a conservative Christian household. This song, like all my other songs, was my way of learning to see myself through my own eyes and to acknowledge that while there's a part of me that has experienced sadness, there are also parts of me that are silly, sassy, and even downright cheesy. I believe that only when I can acknowledge all these parts will I find the strength to move forward because I'm not leaving any part of me behind.
That is why I'll always do what I'm not supposed to do as a musician who happens to be trans. That is why I will always write, perform, and exist not as a trans musician but as a musician who is trans.