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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."