Composers, Gender Equality is for Everyone

What does gender diversity look like? Many writers, composers, and musicians have written various articles calling for greater diversity in the field of classical music, yet very few are willing to increase representation for minorities other than white women. Opportunities for Black, brown, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming composers remain abysmal with no sign of public support in sight. While it is great that there is finally a growing sentiment among liberal composers that our current lack of diversity is unacceptable, the need to only elevate (white) women adds to the problem. Many of those calling for greater gender representation riddle their calls with cissexism, language which excludes or doesn’t consider the existence of trans or non-binary people. It is not enough to support women; New Music composers and musicians have an obligation to create an intersectional environment to dismantle systems of oppression.

Cissexism is everywhere, and it is found in most articles calling for greater gender diversity. Every time someone says, “men and women”, or “he or her” as if man and woman are the only two genders, is an act of cissexism. To cisgender individuals, it may seem like normal language, but there is a huge population of folks who exist outside the gender binary. When musicians say that composition studios should be 50% female, that is engaging in cissexism. We do not know what percentage of the population is female, we only know that 50% in the U.S. are assigned female.

A system free of patriarchy is not an even split of men and women, it is the entire spectrum.

Gender is not just based on genitalia. We are assigned gender based on whether we have a penis, and are therefore assigned certain roles to perform the gender given to us. But that has nothing to do with one’s gender identity, which is the gender one feels they are, and may or may not align with the gender they were assigned. The individual may decide to not express their assigned gender, but that can be dangerous in a patriarchy defined by violence, so some people do not publicly express their gender identity. This means we do not know how many people identify as women, men, both, neither, or something outside that binary. But we do get an idea of what gender diversity would look like.

A system free of patriarchy is not an even split of men and women, it is the entire spectrum. Patriarchy forces us to our own binary boxes, but if one wants to get rid of misogyny, then those boxes need to be gone, and people need to have the freedom to express their gender however they like. Unfortunately, it seems difficult to convince the classical world that non-binary genders even exist. Many classical musicians are unable to name a single trans composer, especially one that does fit in the male/female binary. Wendy Carlos is the most prominent trans composer today, with very few coming into greater prominence following her legacy. There has yet to be a non-binary composer given the chance and the safety to become successful as a classical composer while being out and having their gender identity respected.

Du Yun is the first woman of color to win the Pulitzer Prize for Composition.

But even within the gender binary, only a specific type of cisgender woman is often represented. When opportunities arise for women composers, very rarely are those spaces racially diverse. And when there are women of color who achieve success, usually their identity as a woman is highlighted, but their racial identity is swept under the rug. After Du Yun won the Pulitzer prize for composition, William Robin published the article “What Du Yun’s Pulitzer Win means for Women in Classical Music” using Du Yun’s success to trumpet the victory women were celebrating in having all three of the finalists for the prize be women. His article, and many similar articles, spent very little time talking about Du Yun, instead clumping her in with all other female composers. We should applaud the success of all female composers but we should do that by focusing in on their achievements and giving them the individual attention they deserve. It’s possible, and necessary to do both.

Du Yun should not just be remembered as one of a couple women who won the Pulitzer prize. Although no one reported it, I looked through the history of the award and discovered that Du Yun is the first woman of color to win the Pulitzer Prize for Composition. As a person of color, Du Yun’s win was the biggest crack in the glass ceiling in my lifetime. Although she is Chinese and I am Lebanese, I feel a great connection to her and all other composers of color, because we are all effected by white supremacy every day. My pride and celebrations for her were also mixed with anger, and I still ask myself, why did no one write about that? I fear there are still some who believe it’s too soon to celebrate the successes of people of color in the industry. Perhaps they fear that acknowledging Du Yun as a person of color would mean that they would have to deal with the incredible lack of racial diversity among composers.

When I think of diversity, I imagine a space where everyone is free to be who they are. People from around the world, with every possible experience, every culture, millions of genders, and lots of great, unique music. A space where we recognize each other’s humanity and celebrate everyone’s individuality. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done for New Music, and there is no time to waste. White feminism defines itself by creating equality from the top down, with white women first, then people of color, and so on, with trans Black women, femmes, and other non-men at the bottom. The issue is that white women usually have no interest in elevating those below them; people rarely resist the urge to punch down. In practice, this does very little to dismantle misogyny, and only reinforces white supremacy. We need a more intersectional model, where we acknowledge the humanity of all we oppress, and work together to punch up against the systems which created a hierarchy of power in the first place.