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Making space: Exploring questions of trans and nonbinary inclusion in the music industry

Joni Newham speaks to members of the Saffron community about their experiences and what genuine inclusion really looks like.

“The issue is the lumping in of nonbinary people with women and female-only-led spaces, collectives, playlists, shows, parties, etc. I know you mean well, but if you’re cis, and you’re deciding this, and you’ve not consulted trans people on this – then what you’re effectively doing is gatekeeping” 

In this 90-second statement shared via Instagram reels in July 2023, British producer and DJ I.JORDAN opened up a conversation about the experiences of transmasculine and nonbinary people in the music scene. Their short video struck a chord with us here at Saffron, where our mission to redress the gender imbalance music tech often involves creating spaces that bring together underrepresented groups in the industry – be that cis women, nonbinary people and trans people of all kinds. 

Moved to explore this question further, we sought out the perspectives of our community. In the piece that follows, Saffron mentor Joni Newham aka Outsider speaks to other trans and nonbinary individuals about their experiences. Her exploration illuminates commonalities and differences in their perspectives – and in doing so invites introspection and further dialogue. 

Nothing contained herein is intended to be definitive so much as a prompt for ongoing conversations. Quotes in this article have been edited for clarity.

The difference between real inclusion and representation

When it comes to being a nonbinary person invited into women’s spaces, “I feel like I’m the cis guy in the room, almost like I shouldn’t be there,” explains Kyma, a London-based DJ and producer. “I have to play into a certain side of myself – I can’t fully be me. I have to lean on as much of my feminine energy as possible not to come across as a threat, so [cis women aren’t] uncomfortable in a space that’s catered to [them].” 

It’s a compromise: Kyma feels their choice is between living as their complete, authentic self, or accessing a platform and support network in an industry that doesn’t otherwise make space for them. “I’m like, well, this is ‘for me’ in terms of being a minority within this community, and so I try to utilise as much space as I can..but in doing that it’s like, is this really my space?”

It’s a concern that others share. “There’s been groups that frame themselves as being for ‘women and nonbinary people’ where I’ve had some of my worst experiences,” says Dylan, a Saffron tutor for Mix Nights in Birmingham who DJs and produces as Romo Weeks. “There’s a lot of situations where I think people create things like that to further their own interests; they’re just using trans-inclusive language and doing it to be seen that they’re doing it. You’ve actually got to figure out how to include people, as opposed to just writing all the different identities you can think of on a poster.” 

This is something that I. JORDAN raised in their statement. Adding our identities to the list of people you’re trying to reach isn’t the same as actually making spaces that accommodate us.

The ways we move through the world are different to cis people, and if the goal is to include us then that needs to be accounted for.

“I feel like I’m the cis guy in the room, almost like I shouldn’t be there” says Kyma

Unmet human needs lead to self-exclusion

A good place to start is with basic, material needs. “I feel like half of my life is just trying to find a toilet,” says Dylan. As a nonbinary person, entering gender-separated bathrooms opens them up to potential harassment in both men’s and women’s facilities. Instead, they rely on using disabled bathrooms when gender-neutral facilities aren’t provided. This introduces another set of difficulties – if they’re even available, they’re sometimes used for storage, or poorly maintained. “Or a lot of the time,” Dylan continues, “they lock them. So you have to go and ask someone for the key, and then as a trans person, you’re outing yourself.” It’s a very basic, practical concern that often leads Dylan to avoid certain venues, “because I’m so stressed about it that I’m not even thinking about DJing…so then trans people are just cut out of places.”

Very rare are the instances where a venue or hosting organisation implements a ‘no trans people’ policy, but unmet basic needs such as these encourage trans and nonbinary people to self-exclude from majority of spaces that, in their material construction, assume cisgendered (and able-bodied) attendees by default. If measures haven’t been taken to accommodate trans and nonbinary people’s basic needs, what explanation is there other than that we are unwanted, or at the very least, that cis people’s needs are more important than ours?

In many ways, the ‘bathroom debate’ that has been consuming an increasing amount of attention in Western media over the past several years seems like a trivial matter as a focal point for discussions about trans rights. But when legislatures across the world are moving to block trans people from accessing facilities that match their gender, and when we have seen a nonbinary teenager in Oklahoma pronounced dead in the aftermath of a violent attack in the bathroom at their school, one can begin to see how efforts to police trans people’s lives revolve around these simple human needs as much as anything else. At its extreme, the control of trans and nonbinary people’s right to exist looks like hate crimes and bathroom bills. Closer to home, for most of us, it looks like the everyday occurrence of being denied the knowledge that we have somewhere to pee without fear of judgement or altercation.

“I feel like half of my life is just trying to find a toilet” says Dylan

The creative cost

“I think being trans and being around all these stresses takes up so much brain space,” continues Dylan. Being in spaces where organisers have thought through how they’re going to accommodate trans people frees up more room for them to focus on their art and creativity; to do what they’re actually invited to do – play music for people to dance to. It’s a matter of trying to level the playing field, they say, “I feel like a lot of cis people can do a lot of creative things, because they’ve got all this space in their brain to do it.” 

A way to create more room for our creative lives to flourish is by being in community with other queer and trans people. By surrounding ourselves with others who understand our experiences, we can cultivate a sense of safety and connection that provides the social and emotional context for creativity to happen. For instance, Dylan has a social circle in which some of the responsibilities of navigating public space as trans people are shared amongst the group. Relying on each other to take practical steps like finding inclusive venues and keeping each other safe frees up a little of that brain space for everyone, rather than it all being on the shoulders of one person. It’s a feeling that Kyma has also found, when getting involved with Pride events. “I think it’s because they don’t have to try,” they say in relation to queer organisers, “I think when people try to be inclusive – like ‘try’, that’s not even a part of their regular life, right? It feels inauthentic.”

In accordance with queer spaces not having to ‘try’ to be inclusive, Kyma doesn’t have to ‘try’ to be perceived in particular ways; softening their more masculine traits and even modifying their musical selections. They reflect on how, early in their career, they played more melodic, soulful house tracks. “My friend used to call it ‘house for the girls ’…The guys would come on after me – they always put me on first – playing very fast, very heavy house.” 

Dissatisfied with both the music they were playing, and the way that they were treated by people invested in a very rigidly structured house music scene, Kyma decided to embrace their harder tastes instead. “My style went from being melodic to being very heavy-hitting, and that made people start to pay attention to me. I felt like if you didn’t notice me before, I’m gonna make you notice me.” By refusing to compromise and package themself in the way people expected, Kyma was able to find a creative expression that not only felt more authentic but helped them connect with audiences. “I’ve been able to travel and actually do things because now, my music sounds like me. And people like it, people enjoy it!”

“A lot of the music is about transitioning, and experiences with change and otherness” says Sarahsson

A different palette of emotional experience

It’s a similar sentiment to that of electronic musician Sarahsson: “I’m aware this is quite a privileged and unusual circumstance, but since coming out it’s actually been easier,” they tell me. When starting out, her music was, in her own words, “a flowery version” of the straightforward techno scene in her native Exeter. Several cities and music communities later, it was finding a receptive and heterogenous scene in Bristol that enabled them to discover a creative and personal expression that felt fulfilling. “I think a really basic part of it is seeing other people doing what they want to do,” they explain, “that’s one of the most welcoming things you can see in a scene.”

When trans and nonbinary artists and communities are able to support one another, we can create connections that open up new ways of understanding ourselves and the world we live in. Sarahsson’s music has connected her with other trans people, yes, but also with people who don’t share that experience, and nevertheless find something resonant in her artistry. “A lot of the music is about transitioning, and experiences with change and otherness, and [queer] people have really visceral reactions which are so beautiful to witness and be able to share. But then doing exactly the same set for a nearly entirely straight audience, people latch onto such different things. It’s so valuable and really fruitful to hear what people find in the music; it’s a completely different palette of emotional experience to draw from.”

For Pakistani artist and Saffron Member Jaan-e-Haseena, that power of music to knit communities together has been crucial. Embracing her trans identity led to a violent experience with her family, from whom she had to flee. Leaving the environment she knew behind, “music became a way of producing a culture for myself,” she says, “and I saw that sharing that culture with my friends and community really brought us all closer together and helped to create a support system for me.” Her current artistic practice is informed by this insight: “I just want to experiment with sound, because I feel like the people I have affinity towards are the structurally non-conformist people who are trying to create new cultures, and ideate new ways of belonging in the chaotic worlds we exist in. Music is like a language in that sense – people who share that language [understand one another].”

“Growing up in Pakistan, it was very natural for me to become the way I am and seek the art that I was seeking” says Jaan-e-Haseena

The confluence of culture and trans experience 

The power of trans experience to create ways of understanding our broader cultural context is something Jaan-e-Haseena believes in strongly: “Anywhere in the world, you’re growing up under a state that controls how you’re socialised and what narratives you have access to, and as trans people I don’t think we can bear any limitation on what we have access to.” With the history of colonial violence under the British Empire and the subsequent creation of the nation-state for the region’s Muslim population, Pakistan is, for Jaan-e-Haseena, a country with a dysphoric national culture. “Everyone grows up here being like, what does it mean to be Pakistani? It’s very dysphoric to be a citizen of the state; everyone is dysphoric in that way. Growing up in Pakistan, it was very natural for me to become the way I am and seek the art that I was seeking.”

The exchange of perspectives goes in the other direction, too; in addition to trans culture being a lens through which Pakistani society can be better understood, the indigenous culture of the Indian subcontinent gives her tools to contextualise her artistic practice. Hijra Farsi is a language that’s been used by trans communities throughout the region since at least the colonial era. It allowed (and continues to allow) members of these communities to speak to one another about stigmatised or taboo subjects in the presence of those who might make them unsafe. It’s an analogy she uses to describe her artistic practice; if someone understands what she’s doing with her music, “that is a very powerful indicator to me that this person is a potential member of a community that I want them to be a part of, or that I want to join.”

Starting points for genuine inclusion

How, then, to create and nurture an environment that allows nonbinary and trans people to create art that inspires and connects communities? As mentioned already, there are no definitive answers, but these conversations point towards some good places to start. “I think there needs to be, number one, more trans people doing these things; leading from the top,” says Kyma. “That will change a lot. The event or the space can be exactly the same, but if you have someone there at the top… By nature, it just completely changes things. It just evolves.” Giving trans people the resources and institutional backing to organise activities doesn’t even necessarily mean catering only to us. Putting us in positions where we can make decisions that are informed by our experiences, especially for events that cater to a broad audience, can make things more inclusive for everyone.

“You can see genuine intentions,” agrees Dylan, “[you can tell if organisers are] trying to figure out how to include us, as opposed to just being cis people talking about trans people.” Simply involving trans people, asking us what we need and being responsive to our concerns is essential to demonstrating that you respect us. If you have trans community members then that’s a good sign, but do they keep showing up long-term? If not, why? Trans people, Dylan says, are paying attention, to see who’s in it for the long haul.

“Do your work as an organiser to create a safe space, and then just let whatever happens happen” – Jaan-e-Haseena

Active listening, allyship and autonomy

We also need, they continue, processes and policies that protect us, and ensure we’re treated with dignity. When the onus is on a trans person to self-advocate and deal with transphobia they’re experiencing in a particular space, they expose themself to risk, and can easily be framed by bad-faith actors as unreasonable or aggressive. “You’re just caught in this situation where you can’t win, because transphobes have victimised themselves,” Dylan explains, “that’s one of the most difficult things in a situation where you’re trying to be mindful of gender [inclusivity].” Talking with trans people in your community and asking how you can support them if misgendering or other behaviours occur greatly relieves our stress. It reassures us that we do have allies we can count on to back us up when we might be unable to address issues ourselves for fear of comfort or safety.

“I think it’s important, whenever curating these spaces, that you should allow people to engage to the extent that they’re comfortable,” says Jaan-e-Haseena. Share resources and opportunities, put them directly in the hands of trans people to make of them what they will. “Just do your best to curate an environment that everyone feels comfortable in; you do your work as an organiser to create a safe space, and then just let whatever happens happen.” Give people the space and opportunity to self-define what it is they need from you, what it is they need from other people, and how they want to engage with what you’re doing, rather than guessing or defining how they should engage with you.

“Let trans people tell you what spaces we want instead of dictating it for us. Let trans people lead on these spaces, give us the platform to create these collectives ourselves,” Concludes I. JORDAN in their video. “And actually think about it – like, is your space actually for nonbinary people? How is it inclusive of nonbinary people? Or do you just want to add ‘nonbinary’ to the end of your ‘female’ because you don’t want to seem non-inclusive?”

“What better word than ‘dysphoria’ to describe the disjointed and, often, absurd experience of being alive in the 2020s?” says Joni aka Outsider

The power of trans and nonbinary art

Trans art and ideas gave me a way of understanding the world that felt intuitive to me long before I embraced my own identity. What better word to describe the disjointed and, often, absurd experience of being alive in the 2020s – the disconnect between what we’re told and how we see things, between the wealth of human suffering and the need to create joy in whatever way we can – than ‘dysphoria’? Trans art, for people of all identities, can speak to reality better than other ways of communicating can, in a lot of cases – but we need to be able to make it in the first place.

Jaan-e-Haseena puts it better than I could: “Art and music is a better language to understand transness in. When you look at trans artists and trans music you’re just like, ‘Okay, transness is just chaos and being a bad bitch.’ Like, period.”

Joni is a producer, DJ, technologist and Saffron mentor based in the East Midlands. Follow her on Instagram.

If you would some support with navigating the industry as a queer/trans person, Joni is available to support 1-2-1 both in-person and online. Find out more about working with her.