Gender Prison: How transition costs us our talents

 photo sara_buechner_zpsda039f89.jpgConcert pianist Sara Davis Buechner penned a touching story in the New York times on Sunday, which appeared online on Monday morning. The article recalls the trials and tribulations she has endured since she transitioned in 2003.

2003 is the year that she had a botched surgery in Thailand and marked the 5th year since she had played as a soloist with an American orchestra. It is also the year that she was hired as a professor of piano at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (Dr. Davis has a B.Mus. and M.Mus. from Julliard and a D.M.A. from Manhattan College).

But when I crossed the border to Canada, I found plenty of orchestras and recital presenters who were happy to book me. The success of my performing career in Canada has helped me rebuild a reputation back home. I’ve played twice now with the San Francisco Symphony, and also with the orchestras of Buffalo, Dayton, Seattle and others. I am confident I will once again play with the elite groups in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York, earning the same good reviews that David Buechner once did. A new generation of conductors, composers, chamber players and music executives has come of age, and they don’t ignore my agent’s calls as their older colleagues once did.

Sara's story is not unique in that regard. In her case apparently people have thought she no longer had the piano skills that David Buechner once had. I was intensely upset myself to learn people we reporting I had lost my ability to teach when I transitioned. All too often we have to reprove ourselves from scratch after transitioning.

I am reminded of a story related by Stanford neurobiology professor Ben Barres, who overheard another scientist say about him after he transitioned:

Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister’s work.

--anonymous scientist

I am tired of powerful people using their position to demean me just because I am different from them. ... I will certainly not sit around silently and endure them.

--Ben Barres

Sara returned to New York after her surgery in Thailand and consulted a surgeon at one of New York's top hospitals. The surgeon examined her and told her he would do corrective surgery.

I like a good challenge.

--said the doctor cheerfully

The surgeon confirmed Sara's view that we are often considered to be no more than "experimental fodder."

She moved to Canada in 2003 so that she could live openly. She also was able to have coeective surgery at Dr. Menard's clinic in Montreal…at least partially on the government's dime, since Canada had universal health care.

In the United States, once I came out as Sara, I couldn’t get bookings with the top orchestras anymore, nor would any university employ me.

--Buechner

At UBC she earned tenure in 2008. Since Canada also legalized same sex marriage in 2005, Sara was able to marry her longtime partner, a Japanese woman.

The NY Times did a short video with her in 2009.

And US Asians has an interview with her here.

When I was about three years old, I remember learning how to tell the afternoon time of 4:30 p.m. each weekday, from the opening tag line of a classical radio show that began with Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro.” That music just galvanized me, excited me every time I heard it. I looked forward to that excitement every day. It was obvious that I had some special affinity from music from an early age that was not easily explained. Soon after, my brother began to take piano lessons. We had a used baby grand piano in our living room. The teacher, whose name was Veronika Wolf, came to our house once a week. I begged for lessons but she said I was too young. Eventually my mother forced her to listen to me. I could play all of my brother’s pieces without instruction, and could read music notation without any training. Right away Miss Wolf began to teach me! I’m happy to say that, 45 years later, I am still in touch with my first teacher who lives in Israel where she is known as a great pedagogue, a fine composer, and a former Dean of the Jerusalem Conservatory. She’s proud of me, and I’ve had the pleasure of playing some of her very atonal piano scores, too.

--Sara Buechner

In her New York Times essay?

I see signs of progress in the United States; some American insurers have recently begun to cover transgender surgery. There is less need for an exotic flight to a dangerous operating room abroad. We have emerged in numbers at last, and are no longer invisible, discardable or silent. We clamor for our civil rights and are gaining respect and understanding. My generation has done its reading, listening, learning. Times are changing. In the recent election, for the first time voters in two states approved the right to gay marriage.

Her first concert performance of 2013 was with a colleague with whom she had completely lost touch when she transitioned.

[H]e surprised my agent with a kind call, and we healed our friendships — personal and professional — on the concert stage. He enjoyed working with a pianist who was not hiding herself under layers of psychological turmoil and inappropriate clothing. I was happy to see him, and to celebrate his own growth.

--Buechner

She says she misses New York, so she and her spouse tried to purchase a co-op in the Bronx this past summer. The head of the co-op initially greeted her with copious smiles and seemed thrilled to have a concert pianist in the building.

Two days and I assume one Google search later, I was turned down by that board with no reason given — nor required by New York law. My holidays, therefore, were not spent on the East Coast of America; instead, I accepted concert engagements in Asia, in places that have been less judgmental about my gender.

We still have a long way to go.

Anastasia Tsioulcas picked up the story for NPR music…and covers some of the back-story.

As David Buechner, born in the northwest suburbs of Baltimore in 1959, I became an internationally known concert pianist. But from the time I was a child, I understood that I was meant to be Sara.

--Buechner

As David, she won gold at the 1984 Gina Bachauer competition and bronze at the Tchaikovsky competition in 1986, and performed as a soloist with top-ranked ensembles including the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras.

What she goes on to say, however, is that after her gender reassignment surgery, her once-flourishing career stalled out — at least in the United States. Buechner's story has much larger ramifications than its impact within the classical music community, but her assertion that she was rendered unemployable in her home country is troubling, to say the least.

--Tsioulcas

It's a thought-provoking piece, and particularly so when you ponder how, for generations now, openly lesbian and gay artists, presenters, academics, critics, managers, publicists, label employees and so many others have made homes for themselves within classical music. Societal progress has been a very hard-won battle — and movingly chronicled of late in Alex Ross' Love on the March piece in The New Yorker — but I can't fathom a classical music business in the 21st century in which gays would have to hide their identities for fear of professional recrimination. But what Buechner is saying is that progress on LGBT issues, at least in the American classical music community, still stops at the LGB part of that equation — and that's sobering.

Here's Sara talking and playing.

Brown Derby No. 2 Rag, by Joseph Lamb:

Rhapsody in Blue, solo arrangement by George Gershwin:

Sara was also the closing speaker at the Outgames Human Rights Conference in Vancouver in 2001.

More words and music from Sara are available here.

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In the comments at the Times article…

Robyn's picture

…which are worth a read, the following anecdote is shared:

I had known the pianist David Buechner for many years, both from my time as a concert technician for Bosendorfer pianos and later as Director of Artist Services for Yamaha pianos. I had always enjoyed both his personality and artistry and considered him a friend but was a little unnerved when David invited me to lunch to discuss "something important". The piano world was different then and there were some intense rivalries among manufacturers. Therefore I could only assume the worst when pondering what he might be wanting to tell me.

At the end of his explanation of his intention to change his gender, I was so relieved that all I could do was blurt out, "Thank God, I thought you were going to Steinway."

--Eric Johnson

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i'm so glad Sarah is getting back on track...

poligirl's picture

musically speaking, and yeah, we have a long way to go in this country. sigh... but great folks like Sarah (and you) telling their stories is helping i would think...

great piece!  :D

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