The Life Of… a Tran Activist and Opera Producer

By CN Lester


Interview with CN Lester - author of Trans Like Me, singer-songwriter, trans activist, classical singer and composer.

You’re a musician, writer, academic and activist. Did you always expect to have such a multi-faceted portfolio? What were your primary motivations and goals during your early career?

I’ve been composing and playing music, and writing, since I was very young, and struggle to imagine how it would be possible to leave any of those practices behind – to that extent I think I always expected to have a multi-genre career.

Both activism and research feel part of the mutual obligation we all have towards one another; as a marginalised person, I couldn’t work for a life and a career without working for my own equal rights, and it would be bizarre to attempt to work for my own rights without working for equal human rights more broadly.

How do you manage to  create a  balance and focus between all of these different projects?

I’m not always sure that I do! It’s definitely a juggling act, and it helps to have external deadlines and collaborators. I’ve been extremely lucky to have such an understanding PhD supervisor, Dr Lisa Colton, and agent, Laura Macdougall.

But ultimately it’s the compulsion towards the creation and fulfilment of each project that keeps it all spinning.

Can you tell us about your Transpose for Barbican event?

I’ve curated, produced, and performed in three editions of Transpose for the Barbican so far, and we’re hoping that the Winter of 2021 will see our fourth production together. Transpose is a multi-genre arts event – music, poetry, spoken word, visual art, film – highlighting the talents of trans creatives.

Could you  detail a rough timeline of how the event went from an initial idea through to collaborating and completing the project with the Barbican?

I started Transpose in 2011 for two reasons: to raise funds for a trans friend’s medical expenses, and because I was sick of dealing with transphobia in the music industry, and wanted a space where trans artists could be appreciated for their talent.

I thought it would be a one-off; the audience thought differently. In the years before I pitched the project to the Barbican, I ran between one and three events per year at different venues throughout London, including Tate Modern and Hackney Attic. Each event would have a theme, a small ensemble of different artists including myself, and would raise funds for a trans and/or LGBTQI cause.

I was encouraged by friends and mentors to grow it as an event, and was extremely grateful that the Barbican answered my pitch with interest, and took a chance on me.

Working with an organisation as prestigious as the Barbican can present its own opportunities (and challenges). What did you learn from this collaboration? What characteristics are necessary when project managing an event like this?

I’m definitely still learning from our collaboration – I would say that it’s one of the most important characteristics to have, the desire to keep learning.

The other would be the ability to work, and work hard when that work can be difficult, dull, invisible, and (sometimes) feel never-ending. Being on stage is the easy bit – it’s the remaining 99% of the work that takes effort. But without it the performance would never happen.

In 2017 you published the book Trans Like Me. Can you tell us more about the book?

Trans Like Me is a collection of essays that explores and answers the most common questions asked about trans people and trans lives. At the time of writing, the majority of trans books from mainstream publishers had either been autobiographies or highly academic – with Trans Like Me I wanted to use my academic background to create a work that was deeply researched, but accessible to a general audience, making use of elements of life writing without becoming a memoir.

It’s the book I wished I’d had when I was growing up, and I’ve been deeply moved by the critical and popular response to it – I think it’s a book a lot of people needed.

How do you believe the music industry has become more inclusive of trans musicians and performers in recent years?

I do think that the music industry has become more inclusive of trans people, over the past five years in particular – I wouldn’t be answering these questions if it hadn’t! But I feel pretty tired of just how long it’s taken us to get to this point, and by the ways in which some cis people pretend that we’re a new phenomenon. Having been out for twenty years, since my mid teens, I’ve seen
a lot of denial, exclusion, and cruelty from those working in music, most of whom pride themselves on being liberal and open-minded.

I’m very wary of being labelled as difficult or ungrateful by talking about this publicly, but still want to ask every cis musician currently becoming more open to the existence of trans colleagues after years of silence: “What took you so long?”

There’s a huge amount of work that needs to be done to create an inclusive industry, how do you feel the industry can adapt to allow trans musicians and others to flourish and progress?

There’s no short and easy answer to that question! But a lot of it lies in transparency and accountability. I don’t know a single musician from a marginalised background who hasn’t had to deal with prejudice and discrimination – we all have our horror stories – but we often have no way of having those stories heard, believed, and acted upon.

We need to have industry-wide processes for holding individuals and organisations accountable to the 2010 Equalities Act and basic employment law, without victims of discrimination being punished for whistleblowing. We’re an industry like any other, vulnerable to abuses of power and human weakness. The longer we pretend we don’t have a problem, the more that problem festers. 

What have been some of your career highlights so far?

Two tours to Australia, one in 2018 and one in January of 2020, have definitely been up there – those memories are precious to me, particularly working at the Sydney Opera House.

There are the more obvious ones such as performing live on Front Row and having my work praised by The New York Times – but right now I’m feeling a deep yearning for every backstage, onstage and rehearsal experience of the last decade.

What projects are on the horizon for you?

I’ve been lucky enough to have kept going with a number of online performances and appearances during the COVID-19 2020 pandemic, with the Arts Club, Studio Voltaire, and UCL – so I’m going to try to keep building on that as we head in to Winter and ongoing COVID uncertainty.

The reduction in live performance opportunities means I’ve had more time to compose. I’m gradually gathering together the music for my fourth album, and for a range of contemporary classical pieces. I’m in the research stage of my second book (non-fiction), writing up a fiction project and trying to work out what I’m going to do with my PhD thesis.

Beyond that, I’m trying to use the time to level up my vocal and piano technique. My neighbours are probably sick of the Broschi and Dohnányi, but it’s helping me both physically and mentally. 

CN Lester  

By CN Lester

Ahead of graduating @tashadmusouk is making their professional debut in Vernons Girls at @RoyalCourtLiv from 9 June…
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