While there are sure to be many high points at Monday’s semi-annual Trevor Project event, Trevor Live, one performer will be making a stop there on her way to a historic appearance at Carnegie Hall.
Tona Brown is a violinist and mezzo soprano who also happens to be transgender and, when she steps onstage at the legendary Carnegie Hall on June 25th, she’ll be the first openly transgender African American performer to appear.
But first, this Monday, she’ll appear at Trevor Live, which honors those who have contributed to helping spread the message of equality to the LGBTQ youth. The Trevor Project is the nation’s leading provider of crisis intervention and suicide prevention to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and questioning youth.
Besides Brown’s performance, the evening, which will be hosted by Wanda Sykes, will honor Arianna Huffington with the Trevor Hero Award and web personality Tyler Oakley will receive the Trevor Youth Innovator Award for his work in the community as an advocate. Goldman Sachs will also be awarded the Trevor 20/20 Visionary Award.
I had the pleasure of talking with Tona Brown earlier this week to find out how she’s preparing for both TrevorLive and the Carnegie Hall appearance.
How did you come to be a part of TrevorLive this year?
Tona Brown: The Trevor Project actually contacted me. I’m a huge fan of Trevor Project because I’m also an educator, I teach music lessons, and I’m all about making sure LGBT youth are treated with respect, that people are not bullied, suicide prevention, all that. So I found it really amazing that they contacted me and when they told me that they wanted me to perform, I was elated.
As far as being trans, when did you realize that when you were growing up?
TB: Actually, being trans is something that ever since you’re a child, people around notice that you’r different. I don’t really know when my Mother knew but the family knew. I know when I started knowing I was different was around 5 or 6 when other kids, you go to school or preschool or you’re at the playground and you notice you don’t do things like everyone else. you realize you’re closer to the opposite of your birth gender. But I didn’t officially transition fully until after college when I was 22 or 23. It started happening in college where my friends actually made up a nickname for me because it was always a question when we went out public.
Around 22 or 23, I had the conversation with my mother and she already knew. She said, ‘don’t you mean you’re a transgender woman?’ I said, ‘Yeah! How did you know anything about that?’ I had a very supportive family and that’s another reason I believe in projects like The Trevor Project. I actually did face bullying slightly, nothing to the extent of what I have read, but I had a very protective mother, and aunt and grandmother. [laughs]
And I think we can all relate to the fact that mothers always know, right?
TB: Hello? Right!
What was the nickname your friends called you?
TB: It’s how I came to my name. It was Tonacity, which is the screen name that I use online. And, of course, that’s a little too much for a name so we shortened it over time to Tona.
I’ve talked to [trans actress/advocate] Laverne Cox often at the GLAAD Awards and other events and we’ve said that we’re at a trans moment where it’s so out there in the press and people are being educated on it and maybe it’s becoming a part of the norm. Do you see that?
TB: I do. I don’t feel like it’s becoming the norm but I feel like for the first time in history transgender people are actually allowed the opportunity to tell their story in an authentic way. In the past, people had to hide. It was against the law and I heard that here in New York and other places you actually had a city ordinance. You had to pay the city just to dress in the gender that you were not born. You had to say you were a drag performer and you pay the tax pay for it. People don’t know this stuff!
So now that people are saying ‘Look, this is who I am. This is my experience but I want to be respected if I tell you this.’ So many times people transition and they just blend seamlessly into society and now people are saying ‘I didn’t have a role model.’ That’s why I came out. I actually came out with GLAAD in 2005. I’d been performing, I had come back from Europe and done all these things and I realized there was no one else like me that I had heard about. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any other transgender opera singers…now is just a time of people saying ‘enough is enough and I need to share my story.’ For me it’s about transgender youth so they have role models and people that they can look at and identify with.
Talk to me about Carnegie Hall, which I know is a very big deal!
TB: The Carnegie Hall event is such an amazing thing. I had a conversation with my friend, who is a writer named Nathan James, who is going to be one of the presenters at this show, and we had a mutual conversation where he said ‘Why don’t you perform at Carnegie Hall?’ He said, ‘With your permission, can I send them a proposal?’ So he did and they got back to me within four hours. They said ‘We have never done anything like this but we’d love to do this.’ I was really shocked but another fact that people don’t know is that they’ve never done an LGBT-affiliated event at Carnegie Hall either, not just trans? But how do you have an event place where LGBT people haven’t had use of the building. It just blows my mind!
According to the historian at Carnegie Hall, they have never had an LGBT-affiliated event and they will consider this one an LGBT event because I’m out, I’m headlining it and we’re going to be talking about From Stonewall to Carnegie Hall, that’s the theme of the overall concert. We want to share with people that transgender people had a huge role in the Stonewall riots and if it wasn’t for the Stonewall riots it would’ve taken a little bit more time before the President and the Government realize that we needed to treat everyone fairly. It really shook things up.
So we’re going to have Nathan James, who is going to be talking about the historical significance of this event and how this event maybe couldn’t happen 10-15 years ago. I also have a wonderful hostess named Tammy Peay, who is a comedian, who’s going to have everyone cracking up. She’s a lesbian, a crazy girl who is so beautiful and she really wanted to be a part of this and I was like ‘yes!’ My pianist a country white man, a heterosexual, a regular joe-schmo named Charlie Gilmer, and we’ve been playing ever since college together off and on so he’s also in this show. We have a lot planned for people! The repertoire is African American composers and it’s been shown around the world African American composers only get about 3% of the overall programming time so I wanted to change that…what’s interesting is some of the people that we all admire like Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, there have been composers who have written music to their poetry so [the audience] will be able to hear some of these works.
For more information on Trevor Live, visit the Trevor Project website. For more on Tona Brown, follow her on Twitter or get tickets for her Carnegie Hall event here. For Tona’s debut album, ‘This Is Who I Am,” visit ITunes.