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Before there was T. Thomason, there was Molly Thomason – but for a while, there was Matthew Thomason.

At age 5, Thomason, named Molly at birth, insisted on being called Matthew. The 20-year-old singer-songwriter doesn’t remember this today, but it’s ingrained in family lore. There’s the photographic evidence – short hair, masculine clothes – and stories, too. Such as the time, on a playground during a trip to Britain, that Thomason asked a group of boys how to do a handstand. The boys complied until one of them ran up to Thomason’s father, trying to figure out whether their new friend was a boy or a girl. A little more than a year ago, the Matthew phase started to make more sense to Thomason: “Suddenly, I’m like, wow, all these things I think about now, these things that are freaking me out, they’re actually not new.”

Thomason came out as transgender to fans in April, with plans to slowly unfold the story of their transition on a blog. On top of a new name – T. instead of Molly – they asked to be referenced with gender-neutral pronouns: they, them, their. They express themselves as masculine, but identify as non-binary, somewhere between the semantic confines of male and female. It’s a change that makes them comfortable, but it’s not without complexities. “The English language just isn’t as flexible as I wish it was,” Thomason says. “You worry not only about fans, but also industry people taking you seriously.”

Music has historically been among the more progressive of cultural enterprises, giving voice to communities that are elsewhere underrepresented or ignored. Yet glaringly few trans voices have emerged in the mainstream conversation, and fewer still have been amplified by the industry itself. Thomason is one of a growing number of trans people looking to claim a rightful stake in the music world, and, in sharing their experience, could become a role model for trans artists of all kinds. “There’s been a lot of cultural change, a lot of political change and strife,” Thomason says. “Everybody’s getting to a point where they’re like, ‘I just want to live my life.’”

T. Thomason, a Toronto-based singer-songwriter who has come out as a non-binary trans person, says their music is inspired by the likes of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan. (Photos by Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail)

A Breaking Point

Because trans people still face threats of systemic violence and societal stigma, it’s difficult to get a sense of the scope of the transgender population. By the U.S. National Center for Transgender Equality’s estimation, they make up between 0.25 and 1 per cent of the public. As low as that might sound, trans people are represented even less in cultural discussions – in music, in pop culture and in the media itself. “I don’t think it’s any secret that the T in the LGBTQ+ alphabet is one of the letters that’s had the least attention,” Thomason says.

But a greater understanding is slowly surfacing. Caitlyn Jenner, the reality TV star and former Olympian once known as Bruce Jenner, revealed her new name on the cover of Vanity Fair this month. She’s the latest in a short, but growing, number of openly trans celebrities, including, on the small screen, Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox and Isis King of America’s Next Top Model. Laura Jane Grace, frontwoman for punk band Against Me!, helped draw attention to trans issues when she came out as a woman in 2012, shedding her birth name Tom Gabel. It was a major milestone for trans awareness – especially when the group’s subsequent album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, documented the struggle behind her transition.

Jenner and Grace have become trans pop-culture figureheads; Jenner will soon star in a new reality show, while Grace has a regular advice column at Vice, and recounted her first year as a woman in Cosmopolitan. Those publications and others have since ramped up their coverage of trans stories, including the vastly disproportionate number of trans deaths by homicide and bullying-related suicide.

Still, the few stories that come out tend to align with broader media obsessions: celebrity, violence, news of the day. They rarely address the world of nuance that exists within the trans universe, such as non-binary identity. And unless there’s tragedy involved, ink and pixels don’t often cover everyday trans people, including independent artists, making their own small differences in the world.

“All that was going through my head when I came out was, ‘I need to do this,’” Thomason says. “But I do think it’s important that there’s more queer visibility in the music industry. … There’s a mentality now: It’s time, because we’re saying it’s time, and we’re out now – deal with it and be respectful.”

Becoming Themselves

Thomason was born in Britain and grew up in Antigonish, N.S., surrounded by an arts-focused family. Their mother, Shelley Thompson, is a screenwriter and actor, and plays Barb Lahey on Trailer Park Boys; their father, Ed Thomason, is the artistic director of the local community theatre company and Festival Antigonish.

It was through that festival, seven years ago, that Thomason realized they wanted to make music. At a concert celebrating the works of Bob Dylan, the 13-year-old joined a crew of experienced musicians to perform You Ain’t Going Nowhere. It was intoxicating. “Everybody in the audience was on their feet and singing along,” Thomason recalls.

But their knack for song has been around since they learned to talk. When their grandmother died 15 years ago, their mother was wracked with grief; on a long car ride soon after, Thomason improvised a song from the back seat about how much Shelley missed her mother. Shelley, overcome with tears, had to pull over. “This tiny child was just so hooked into the feelings of other people,” she says. “Their response to any stress, any sadness, any pain, was to interpret it through song.”

Home to St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish is a tiny, historically Catholic town – people call it Nova Scotia’s “Little Vatican” – but it’s also a highly artistic community. When Thomason came out as gay around the time of the Dylan tribute, they were surrounded by supportive friends and family. They put out their first album, Through the Static, as Molly Thomason at age 14, and spent their high school years zig-zagging around Nova Scotia with their mother, playing shows. “It was a bit like being a hockey mom,” Shelley says.

Soon came another album and a move to attend the University of Toronto in 2012. They dropped out after their first semester to focus on making music full-time, and released their latest record, Columbus Field, in 2014.

Thomason’s work, particularly on Columbus Field, has been compared to that of Joan Jett, Chrissie Hynde and Cherie Currie. Situating one female artist’s work in another’s, though, is a blindered, anachronistic approach – especially when the performer doesn’t identify as female. While Thomason admits Jett was an influence, they were equally guided by Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and, unsurprisingly, Dylan – “my biggest lyrical influence for as far back as I can remember.”

Thomason didn’t consider they might be trans until around the time of Columbus Field’s release, when they found themselves treating a female partner with a “misogynistic, straight bro” attitude, and tried to parse their feelings. “It was a weird, learned behaviour of how masculine people supposedly treat feminine people,” Thomason says. But it was regrettable behaviour that led to self-growth. Talking it over with friends, they started to root out the cause. “It was my own way of rejecting femininity. I was overcompensating, and learned from that.”

Thomason spent the next few months discussing gender identity with family, friends and members of the trans community. By fall, they started identifying as trans to a small group. After years of going by Molly T., they befriended a hotel doorman named T. while on tour and thought the name was “so cool” that they shortened their own to match.

They later flew home for the Music Nova Scotia Awards and to star in a short film their mother wrote. It was an awkward, in-between time: the film role was female, and they were nominated for Female Artist Recording of the Year at the awards. After some earlier, vague discussions, Thomason came out as trans to their parents in an e-mail just before the holidays.

Their parents have been nothing but supportive, though the situation has its challenges. Ed fears he’ll lapse in using their desired pronouns; Shelley describes the past few months as “a journey of understanding and acceptance – and of trying to make sure my focus is always on their happiness.”

At the same time, Thomason approached their manager, Sheri Jones, about their gender identity. “All you have to do is figure out what you need to be comfortable,” she told her client. It was Thomason’s first vote of confidence from the industry. It wouldn’t be their last; they’ve received nothing but support from everyone they’ve worked with.

Jones, who in the 1990s managed the genre-challenging gay fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, has seen the music community become far more welcoming in terms of sexual diversity. “Five years from now,” she says, “I don’t think anyone will bat an eye about this.”

Lifting the Haze

While there’s a greater understanding of the trans community than ever before, many people still have a hazy, dated understanding of trans issues – not knowing, for example, that being trans has everything to do with self-identity, rather than surgery or hormone therapy, which are simply choices some trans people make.

Grace, of Against Me!, has helped lift some of the haze. But while Rolling Stone declared her the first “major rock star” to come out as trans, there were others that laid the groundwork. Some of the world’s more prominent trans musicians, in fact, hail from Canada. Rae Spoon, a multiple Polaris Music Prize nominee whose work has explored both country and electronic music, has identified as trans for more than a decade – first as male, then as non-binary. And Lucas Silveira, frontman of Toronto rock band The Cliks, has been widely credited as the first out trans man ever signed to a major record deal, back in 2006.

While young trans people regularly come to Silveira for advice, he hasn’t mentored anyone as closely as he has Thomason. They first discussed trans identity last fall, just before Thomason flew home to Nova Scotia, and have kept in touch since. “It’s amazing to see how they’ve progressed,” Silveira says.

Spoon, too, played a crucial role in Thomason’s gender understanding. Last fall, a friend showed Thomason a YouTube video of Gender Failure, a live performance by Spoon and the artist Ivan E. Coyote that has since been turned into a book. With some humour, it explores the frustrations that language and society place on people who don’t identify as strictly male or female. “Suddenly I was just like, ‘Whoa, that’s real,’” Thomason says. “That’s where I fit in.”

Seeing others come out and be comfortable in their identity, Spoon says in an interview, makes a huge difference. “I was actually 20 when I came out as trans, and when I came out I identified as male,” they say. “Up until then I hadn’t met anyone who’s done that. It takes meeting someone, or seeing someone doing something, to imagine that it’s possible.”

Time to Take Risks

When Spoon first came out as trans in 2001, “it was pretty rough.” Over time, trans issues have become better understood, but there’s still much work to be done for fair trans representation in the arts – especially music.

Major music festivals, Spoon points out, remain dominated by male performers, and showcase few straight women, let alone gender minorities. (A few have come to the fore, though. Transgender singer Antony Hegarty, of the Mercury Music Prize-winning band Antony and the Johnsons, played Barcelona’s Primavera Sound Festival last week. Up-and-coming Nevada pop artist Shamir Bailey, who identifies as having no gender, will play the Pitchfork Music Festival in July; and Baltimore’s Lower Dens, whose frontperson Jana Hunter identifies as gender-fluid, will play Toronto’s NXNE this month.)

But for Spoon, much of their career skirts around the established industry, focusing instead on building grassroots audiences. In frugal times for the music business, Spoon says, “people aren’t taking risks, and I think being trans could be seen as a risk for more mainstream or bigger-money kind of ventures.”

While there was some early mainstream excitement around The Cliks’ music, Silveira says the band quickly hit a glass ceiling, something he’s warned Thomason about. “The main focus wasn’t on my music. It was very much on my gender identity,” he says. “It can be shocking, sometimes, the walls that you run into. … Most of what I do now is within the queer community.”

As the number of public trans artists grows, that might change – and Thomason is in a unique position to be a leading voice. “To have someone like T., who’s willing to be a potential role model and speak about their journey, is empowering,” says Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, where Thomason is a peer resource worker. “It’s a really positive thing to know that you can be true to who you are, and have a good life, and educate and work toward changing society.”

While Thomason hopes their story will inspire others, they admit their decision to come out was driven by a need to feel comfortable in their own skin. And although Thomason has three records out, effectively making them an established artist, they’re only 20 years old, with a long career ahead of them. “I chose to do this now, as opposed to when the next record came out, because I wanted to get it over with,” they say. “And then, hopefully, when the record comes out, it’ll be about the music.”