Trans Brilliance: CN Lester on Music, Psychology, Gender, and Activism


TransEthics: I’ve interviewed a couple of non-binary people in the past. How do you define “non-binary”?

CN Lester: I would probably say that I don’t define it — I think the very appeal is that there is no fixed definition — or, rather, than everyone has their own, and we respect individual interiority — that’s the whole point. I don’t personally used the term non-binary (unless repeating someone else’s choice to use it) for a number of reasons.

The main reason being that gender is not a binary. Sex is not a binary. It never has been, it never will be, and I object to having to define myself, and the whole complex web of humanity, in reference to a lie which has caused untold damage. As ever, that’s not to say that men and women aren’t men and women — just that there have always been more descriptors than just those two, that those descriptors need not be fixed to specific entry requirements, and that every person (man, woman, neither, both, either, more options) will have their own take on what gender and sex mean.

TE: What does gender mean to you?

CN: It feels like a category as enormous, and as varied, as something like language. In fact, I think I would probably best describe gender as something similar to language.

We have different cultural categories of meaning. Those categories are constantly in flux based on individual challenges and broader social shifts. We’re always having to navigate the boundaries between our internal meanings and external signals. We can encounter difficulties in translation, and sometimes we can fail to understand someone else at all (and accuse them of “talking gibberish”).

We have some languages (genders) which are seen as more legitimate than others – we can use it to wound, to liberate, to comfort, to oppress. Gender isn’t one thing — it’s an enormous category that contains so much of what it means to be human – and I think we can find ourselves in dangerous waters when we try to reduce it to something singular.

TE: Would you describe yourself as a transgender person?

CN: Absolutely.

TE: You brought up language. Some non-binary people I know have described themselves using the term “enby”. How do you feel about that word?

CN: It’s not for me, but that’s just personal preference. I know quite a lot of non-binary people who dislike the word ‘androgynous’ (or find it problematic in various ways), but I’m really fond of that as a descriptor for myself. I think it’s all about respecting personal accuracy.‏ (I was going to say ‘preference’.) But it’s far more than that — it’s about being accurate to the actual person.

TE: How should one most accurately refer to you when referring to your gender?

CN: “Trans person” is easiest – the ambiguity feels right. If an additional adjective helps, “genderqueer” or “androgynous” both sit right.

TE: How would you respond to people who would criticize genderqueer / non-binary / androgynous people by saying that you’re simply rebelling to rebel, and that your gender identity isn’t valid?

CN: I’m finding increasingly hard not burst out laughing! (laughter)

As many, many other people in similar situations have said: “So which tree did your gender grow from?” If they’re so determined to believe that gender diversity is a modern, ‘fake’ phenomenon, then they can give back their internet access, painkillers, central heating and cars.

TE: How much of an influence do thoughts such as these have when you’re writing your music?

CN: I think it’s a general attitude towards… life? I hate the ways in which we can police each other, objectify each other, claim that we’re more legitimate, or more deserving, or more anything than anyone else. The incredible thing about music is that it’s based on empathy, on connection, on dropping your guard and allowing yourself to enter into communion with others. I think that musical element really informed who I wanted to be, who I still aspire to become — and, while there are plenty of musicians who are bigots, it’s feel to me that music as phenomena is the antithesis of bigotry.

TE: I never heard any of your music before last week when I watched you play streaming on the web. I cried it was so wonderful. Is this a typical response when people hear your music for the first time?

CN: Thank you so much! Um… yes, it does seem to be.

I imagine it might be related to amount I cry when writing it. Also, I cry to music all the time — it’s one of the best things about it. Quite a bit of my music psychology research relates to extreme response to music — it’s the closest I get to religion, I think.

TE: Music can be very spiritual for some. Which came first for you: Your desire to write and play music, or your notice of how music can have an extreme effect on people?

CN: It was the extreme effect it had on me. Most of my earliest memories are music related, and when I first heard an orchestra live when I was four, my brain kind of exploded. When I realised that it was possible for me to spend my time MAKING music? And grow up to make more music? I was completely hooked. And beyond lucky to have a family who were able to support me in that.

TE: Do you like to cry when you are writing your songs?

CN: It’s not so much liking — it just happens sometimes. Not in a bad way, or necessarily a sad way… just having all your emotions set to overdrive.

TE: I know what you mean there. Music isn’t all you do though, is it?

CN: No – I also write, research, and do as much as I can in terms of trans/LGBT/queer/feminist activism.

TE: You mentioned your music psychology research. Tell us a bit about that.

CN: I started getting seriously interested in music psychology as an undergraduate. I did as much as I could during my Masters, and then went straight into a PhD in music psychology, focusing on working with data coming in from neurological research in musical response from a psychoanalytical/musicological angle. I took a break from that after 2 years, and was focusing mainly on performing and writing.

Then got an offer to study with the Music and Gender Identity Research Centre of the University of Huddersfield, focusing on performance and audience reactions to music based on gender. It fits in so well with everything else I’m doing, and I’m loving being a doctoral student again. And looking forward to coming back to my previous research post-doc (all fingers crossed). I think it’s given me a lot of things to think about in terms of being trans, and reduced my patience even further when it comes to supposed biological essentialists, who don’t seem to have a clue about how mind/body/brain function and grow.‏

TE: How do those “biological essentialists” impact your activism?

CN: It makes it hard when people won’t open their minds to how much we just don’t know. It’s comforting and easy to say “There’s male and there’s female, it’s in your genes, you can’t change it, that’s all there is.” To really achieve true equality for trans people (and intersex people, though I can’t claim to speak on their behalf), we have to move away from that.

But moving away from that means opening up to a reality where we don’t know everything about the human body. We don’t know everything about how our brains develop, how possibilities are coded into our genes, how prenatal, neonatal, childhood, and adulthood environment and experiences impact on who we are. It’s a world full of possibilities, but it can be a scary place. But there are two things for me:

Firstly: That I’d always prefer an uncomfortable truth to a comfortable lie

Secondly: That amongst the enormity of what we have yet to learn, we DO know that we can trust each other to describe our own lives, to express our own authenticies‏.

We can choose to believe each other, and to base our interactions on respect of self-knowledge.‏ The kinds of people who want to deny trans people (or any people) the ability to describe their own lives, based on a lie?‏ No. Just no.

TE: How far in the future do you think the cultural acceptance of trans people is?

CN: Not as far as I used to think it was. It feels like it’s growing exponentially. If we keep fighting, if it keeps on growing in the same way? I’m hoping I might have grand kids who’ll live to see it.

TE: At what age did you first realize that you’re trans?

CN: When I first found the words? 15 or 16. When I first became aware of a disconnect between the way I referred to myself and the way society referred to me — probably around 7 or 8. Dysphoria hit me with all it had when puberty arrived, around 9 or 10‏. It was hard to piece it all together.

TE: How would you describe gender dysphoria to someone who has never experienced it?

CN: I wrote a blog post about it.

TE: Care to paraphrase?

CN: Um… trying to narrow it down! To me it feels like my brain knows what body should be there, and the body occupying that space doesn’t correspond‏. A clash between my proprioceptive map of myself and the external self‏. Yes – so that!

TE: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

CN: Yes, I definitely do — one who has a lot of problems with some of the bullshit that goes under the name of ‘feminism’. But I don’t think feminism is unique in having repugnant ideologies under its banner.

TE: Some feminists think sex workers need to be “rescued”, and seldom –if ever– listen to sex workers themselves. What’s your take on that?

CN: Well, I can only speak as someone trying to support the sex workers I know and care about. so any confusions/misapprehensions in understanding are on me.

But it seems totally arse-backwards to try to talk ABOUT people rather than asking them to speak about themselves. as someone who isn’t in sex work, I think my job is to listen and support. I think we, as a global society, need to take action to protect workers and promote human rights. But that’s not a sex work issue — that’s a global issue with every form of work.

TE: Do you think that the people in the sex industries by choice are unethical?

CN: God no!

I think that would be a terrible accusation to level against someone. I think it’s really easy to look at other people’s choices and go “Oh, I would never do that”. And if life’s taught me anything, it’s taught me that that’s a pretty arrogant, narrow way of approaching others.

I think it’s unethical for people to devote their lives to harming others. But there’s surely no intrinsic link there to sex work. I’m sure there are individual sex workers who are unethical, just as there would be people in any line of work (god knows there are enough appalling musicians out there) — but to try to level an accusation like that against a broad group? No.

TE: Do you get a lot of people asking you what CN is short for?

CN: A fair number — it’s off-putting when they ask you in an audition. It’s a good indicator of whether someone is generally respectful or not. Any “that can’t be a name” and they’ve lost me.

TE: Just one more question: If you could open for or perform with one other musician, who would you choose?

CN: Just one? Oh god!

Michael Stipe has my heart forever. Classical music – I’ve always wanted to compose something for Maxim Vengerov. But, to be totally honest? And really soppy? I get to work with extraordinary musicians all the time – I’m still high from a gig last night with Seth Corbin and Daniel Versus the World. I wouldn’t swap that for anything.

TE: I guess that wasn’t really a fair question on my part. (giggles)

CN: No worries!

TE: Okay, so here’s a fair last question: When can we expect a new album from you?

CN: I’m writing it at the moment… so… given the crowd-funding, recording, mixing, mastering and publicity… I’m going to say hopefully Summer/Autumn 2016. It’s called ‘Coming Home‘.

TE: I look forward to hearing it. Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to speak with us CN.

CN: Thank you so very much for asking me. Hope you have a glorious week!

TE: You too.

Follow CN Lester on Twitter. Visit CN’s website and blog.

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