Transition: First Movement in Sonata Form
Photo by Caelie Frampton
By Quvi Taylor
My roommate, Camille, banged on the bathroom door, concerned. “Hey, do you need help in there? How is it going?” They had seen me leave the kitchen with scissors. I hollered, “I’m good, I’ll just be a minute,” and uncoiled my waist-length hair, still styled for my final university singing exam. I secured it into small ponytails, then I started cutting.
That morning, Camille had placed a bouquet of roses in my arms as I headed out to sing for an unimpressed jury for the last time. I had foregone the gown that a mezzo soprano would wear. Instead, I wore a plain pantsuit, a red rose in my buttonhole. I didn’t know how I would celebrate this chapter of my classical musical career closing, except that probably, when I came home, I would cut all my hair off and start living as a man.
Being a woman was a necessity to complete my singing training as quickly as possible. It wasn’t painful, but it didn’t fit. My interests turned away from a music career and toward the forest of bravery and survival that sprang into view when I engaged with other queer or Indigenous activists. Meeting people who, like me, were both queer and Indigenous provided a final resolution. We are two-spirit; we are reclaiming roles in society meant for us outside of being men or being women: healers, storytellers, people called to sit with death and welcome birth.
After 10 minutes with scissors and a friend’s rescue topiary work, the change to my gender was drastic. In class, a teacher frowned at the attendance list, tentatively called me “David.” Teenage tenors clustered around me as we seated ourselves for choir practice, before realizing I was an alto.
My university picture ID, taken with long hair, was now causing confusion. I went to the office to get my picture retaken and I casually mentioned that they could also change the Ms. to Mr. in front of my name and remove my feminine middle name. I knew they wouldn’t do it; we had been battling with the registrar over using preferred names, taking gender markers off of class lists. My palms swam in sweat marks on the counter.
“That requires proof of a sex change,” the clerk said.
I scoffed. “That would cost one hundred thousand dollars,” the costs for psychiatry, hormones, sex-reassignment surgeries. No, they were unable to just remove the honorific and the middle name altogether. The clerk looked for a code to enter to charge me for the new ID and chose “damaged.”
Finally, during a rehearsal for Fauré’s “Requiem,” the conductor reminded us of the dress code for a church performance: tuxedos for men and long, black skirts for women. Gender dysphoria took over, a sickly sound like an orchestra de-tuning. I had never seen an alto in a tuxedo in a university choir and I wasn’t going to be the first to ask. In a moment I was out on the sidewalk, staring at a blue sky, wondering where to go now that I was never going back.
Sometimes a change is as simple as a haircut and a new wardrobe and for much of my private life, that was enough. Gender-segregated space, though, became a question with two wrong answers. I passed my visits to the barbers in near-silence, with gestures and tight smiles and grunts under very unnecessary hot shaves. In bathrooms, I didn’t want to scare women and I didn’t want men to assault me. Mall security refused my request to use the accessible washroom. The single-stall bathroom at my workplace was outside the office, across the building, up a flight of stairs.
In bathrooms, I didn’t want to scare women and I didn’t want men to assault me.
The tension between what people saw and what they wanted me to be was the worst when people heard my voice. On a karaoke night at a bar, I used the men’s room and another patron followed me in, kicked my stall door until it slammed into my head. He shouted at me, “Est-ce que t’es un homme?” Are you a man? Pain and fear turned into recklessness as I shouted back, “Est-ce que t’es un homme?” and pushed past him, my bladder still full.
I returned to music school, five years later, after carefully calculating how to graduate in six months with an F in choir. As I picked up an alto score at choir practice, a new conductor marvelled at having a real male countertenor in the chorus. I immediately went shopping for a tuxedo. When I showed up dressed in a suit taken from three thrift stores and Zellers, another conductor, who knew me prior to the haircut, did a quick double take, then composed himself.
At the same time, I decided to be a parent and I stopped going to the barber. I imagined my children playing with my long braid someday. I grew the hair for seven years, before finally a tiny hand yanked that braid, kept it alive and, one magical day, brushed my hair gently. Soon this child started referring to others using pronouns—not “baby,” “kid” and “person,” the three categories of human that mattered. When I heard her call me “she,” my chest deflated. I had put off committing to a definition of my own gender with her, maybe hoping she would never acknowledge my gender, even though she knew much about her birth through her dad’s body.
So I decided to cut my hair again. I asked a self-taught queer home barber. I let my two-year-old make the first cut, at her request. She felt confident in her skills, having been to the barber with her dad earlier in the day. After sawing through a huge hank of my waist-length hair, she threw down the scissors and returned to play. The barber and I talked of our pasts in the same community, around the time of my first haircut. With my hair falling to the floor, and our partners caring for our kids underneath our feet, we cut until we found me.
Looking in the mirror felt great. Feeling my sharp, clippered neck felt better. Seeing myself in the facial expressions of everyone else felt the best. I decided I would finally call my grandmother in Alaska, who had been so angry when she learned of my life and love. I wanted her to know my children had our Iñupiaq family names.
Phone calls with Grandma are always through shouting, at first because of her hearing impairment, then because of arguing. As soon as Grandma understood who had called, she said, “I have to ask your forgiveness.”
“Of course, Grandma, why is that?” I knew why, though, as her daughter—my auntie—had been reminding her regularly, through her dementia, that my wedding she attended was a gay wedding, that my husband had given birth to our children.
“I have to ask you to forgive me. I have been so angry. I was so mad I couldn’t even look at pictures of you. What you did is not in our culture.” I have been to my territory in northwest Alaska four times in my life; religion and politics have obscured any parts of my culture relevant to my gender and sexual orientation.
“Things are different now, Grandma,” I replied, hoping that soon they will be.
Quvisuq (Quvi Taylor) is Iñupiaq/English/Scottish/Irish born and raised on Witsuwit'en territory. After training as a singer, then a registered nurse, he is now raising food and children on Stz'uminus territory.