The end of April 2018 marks the end of one full season (eight months) in which I was the first woman Tenor in the Oakham House Choir, a near-institution of 31 years led by a 75-year-old conductor. Up to and throughout the final performance, I walked the tightrope of a pioneer [Janelle Monáe: video of a live performance of Tightrope], knowing I’m being singled out for critical evaluation by everyone who sees me.
I had to be consistently better than the average of everyone else who just fell into the role: confident, strong tone, full range, in tune, on time, precise in following the choirmaster’s instruction, never faltering, blending with the men’s voices seamlessly. At the same time, I had to be human and fallible enough for women who are capable of singing Tenor to feel they could follow the same path. One woman told me she will ask to be a Tenor next season. Another woman told me she admired my work and found the idea of singing Tenor both inspiring and intimidating.
My fellow Tenors in the regular choir quickly accepted me as an equal once they saw I pulled my weight. Some of the casual conversation during breaks was a little awkward, but no more so than people who started out as strangers in September. In our recent concert we joined with another choir. Some of them accepted me once they had the experience of singing with me, including the man who sang at my right during the concert. Others continued to express disdain even after the concert. I later learned the cultural background from which the other choir draws has rigid gender roles. A woman as Tenor? Unheard of!
On balance, I succeeded in claiming a space in a small field where I was an unexpected actor. I have the confidence to move on to another, more professionally run, choir for the next season because I succeeded here, in a city and a choir where I had been an unknown outlier.
The tightrope of my professional career in technology is another matter.
I have always succeeded in IT and related fields by delivering far beyond expectations. I left a secure job in a poisonous environment with high hopes of finding a similar position outside higher ed in a new city. I have been met with disbelief, hostility, expectations that I would have evidence of accomplishments well beyond that expected of straight white male candidates for roles, responses that I am overqualified for roles, and discrimination based on my presumed age, sex, and queerness. My willingly leaving a job without another job to go to has also been held against me.
In one competition, I was told that I (who had handled PHIPPA and FIPPA issues at the department, Faculty, and institution level as well as legal and procedural issues for a cooperative corporation expertly) was not as qualified for a role as a man who had worked at the IT manager at a legal firm because of coming changes in the legal landscape to bring in PHIPPA compliance. In another competition, I was told in casual discussion before the interview began that it would be novel having a woman around to keep the men in line. In yet another, I was stared at by a decision maker who took no notes, having perhaps decided that something about my male-conforming appearance or my demeanour was inappropriate. I wear a suit to interviews, and traditional men’s business attire tailored to fit me well when I’m on the job. My hair is short and cut in the way a man or butch lesbian might wear it.
I look at Janelle Monáe’s career and those of other black women performing artists and I marvel at the tightrope they succeed in walking. To me they’re perfect, and human enough to credibly inspire other black women to follow along the path they’ve cleared. These people reach a consistent level of artistry in their lives I admire and, when I am not wallowing in the misery of failing to meet a standard of perfection that changes for every gatekeeper I encounter, aspire to.
I have tried my best to win competitions where the field is slanted against me. I’ve won some in the past, and made good progress on others. I stood on stage as a man among my fellow men this spring, several times drawing resources from a well my peers never needed to build or tap for themselves.
I will succeed. How that looks, I must make others believe I know, while I persist in dancing the tightrope that wouldn’t exist for me and others in an equitable world.