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Here’s How I Learned To Love Myself As A Transgender Man In the Music Industry (Guest Column)

Mastering engineer Emerson Mancini details his coming out journey, and reveals how artists like Kendrick Lamar helped them learn self-acceptance in the process.

Emerson Mancini is a Grammy-winning mastering engineer whose resumé includes work on albums like Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Lizzo’s Special, Jon Batiste’s We Are and many more. Below, he explains his path to coming out as transgender and how the grace shown to him by his colleagues and artists such as Lamar is invaluable to acceptance of the self and others.

I sat in my velvet-lined mastering room in a panic, the mastering engineer’s equivalent to The Actor’s Nightmare: I had an artist coming in forty-five minutes to listen through an album that wasn’t done yet.

I hit play. “My auntie is a man now,” Kendrick Lamar’s voice said through my speakers. My stomach tightened. I hit stop.

Unsavory messaging doesn’t usually bother me. Artists regularly broadcast all sorts of homophobic, misogynist, emotionally distorted and toxic coping mechanisms. I took a breath and reminded myself that passing judgment isn’t my job. My job is to elevate every song that crosses my path to the best of my ability. I resumed working.

“Back when it was comedic relief to say ‘f–got’ / ‘F–got, f–got, f–got,’ we ain’t know no better / Elementary kids with no filter, however / My auntie became a man, and I took pride in it.” I stopped working, clicked back to the beginning of the song, held still, and listened.

By the time the song was over, I was overwhelmed. My eyes stung and adrenaline pumped painfully through my veins. I didn’t have time for these feelings, yet hope screamed through my chest. A rap song about trans acceptance, crafted from a personal perspective that didn’t gloss over how much more easily society accepts trans men; how in the same breath trans women, particularly black ones, face danger, violence, and condemnation; how the safe haven of churches became pulpits of shame and blame. This kind of acknowledgment could change so much. Suddenly, this was the most important thing I’d ever done. 

I’m trans. I didn’t always know that. Even at the beginning of this year, I wasn’t sure. The story I was used to hearing was that trans people always knew they were trans. I didn’t know when I was five that the body I was in was wrong for me. My existential and physical mortification at the changes that came with puberty seemed comparatively inconsequential. Since I hadn’t been certain I was trans since I was a child, that meant I wasn’t. 

Growing up, I played Trans Support for everyone else. I read all the Kate Bornstein books and regurgitated the information. I told everyone else to be who they are, that Bornstein said being trans is meant to be fun. I never really understood what the fun part was, and never gave myself permission to do the same. I watched others access joy as though watching a documentary; neither the permission nor the joy registered as something I could understand, let alone experience. 

The question “Am I trans?” repeated in my head decade after decade, punctuated by fear. No, I told myself, because if I was, I’d have known already. No, I told myself, because the few times I got drunk enough to admit my questioning out loud, my friends — people who purported to be LGBTQ allies — rolled their eyes and scoffed at me. “That’s not how it works,” they said. I wasn’t gay enough. I wasn’t trans enough. I wasn’t enough. I starved myself to silence the cacophony in my head. As that form of coping became more untenable, I drank myself into oblivion instead.

During the pandemic, I turned inward. I learned to stop running from the parts of my life and myself I was ashamed of, to sit with everything about me I considered terrible and to let go of the pain and self-hatred I’d carried. I learned to forgive my past selves for the harm they had caused to me, to themselves, and to others. I was able to offer my current self the extraordinary gift of compassion.

Having top surgery provided freedom I hadn’t been able to access in a long time. The first time I went for a run with a flat chest was magical. I began to realize how much of what I thought was plain old body dysphoria was actually gender dysphoria. Suddenly, I didn’t mind that there was fat on my body now that there wasn’t a specific kind of fat in a specific place. I didn’t hate myself every time I looked in the mirror.

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I considered dating, but immediately hit a snag; what category did I fit into? Who would be attracted to me? While I knew gender roles fall apart at the slightest inspection, it felt different when it was about how I’d be perceived. How would my identity affect who might be interested in me? Do boobs make or break being a woman? Does nipple placement? Was I still a woman to straight men? To lesbians?

After getting rid of a thing that’s bothered you since puberty, it’s confusing to be so compelled to preserve the social membership you’ve always known. If I identified as non-binary, would my “woman card” be revoked? When had that become important to me?

In college, I was so surrounded by men that another woman in a classroom made me uncomfortable. In my early days in the music industry, all the women I met were in administrative roles, not in creative or engineering ones, and they terrified me. I was constantly afraid of being found out. For what? Unsure. But it was something, and it was huge. Why was I so afraid of being expelled from a group within which I was always uncomfortable?

No, top surgery didn’t cancel any of my membership cards. My chest was my business, not anyone else’s. My friends encouraged me to try a more gender-neutral name, and I started crafting a secret, second identity under a name I shared only with a few trusted people. I carried my secrets atop my chest like fake, invisible padding; like a fake, invisible persona.

At night I would lay in bed, basking in solitude. I’d put a hand on my masculinized chest, where no one could see, and delight in my little secret I was too afraid to tell anyone about. I tried sleeping or walking around my apartment without a shirt on. I couldn’t. Not the first year.

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For my 35th birthday, I bought myself a video game. Set in a dystopian future, the pensive cyborgian main character had half his body replaced by augments without his consent years prior. He never asked for this, but embraced his new body anyway, walking around his apartment shirtless, and not hiding if someone saw him.

Something in me snapped and I started reaching for the life I wanted, the existence I craved. I started working out. I started not being afraid of my body even when the sun was out. I started asking about testosterone. I accepted myself without concerns about membership. I gave myself permission.

I realized if I changed nothing about my mannerisms, nothing about how I spoke or reacted, but became noticeably masculine, I’d become Jack McFarland from Will and Grace. When I imagined it, I was suddenly filled with joy. It had never occurred to me that “sassy effeminate man” was an option. I’d been too busy making lists of all the reasons I couldn’t be a man: I was too short, too introverted, wasn’t big and strong, had wide hips, tiny hands, and little feet. There was no magic wand I could wave over my head when I went to bed to wake up a foot taller with a close-shaven beard and the kind of glow reserved for comic book superhero transformations. 

But sitting on my sofa with a book hanging precariously out of my hands, I could see myself in an embarrassingly plain white turtleneck and khaki slacks, cartwheeling into a room to yell “Will, you are not gonna believe what just happened!” I laughed until I cried, because the image wrecked the illusion that held me back. If I could be Jack McFarland — even lacking his full capacity for sass and dramatics — then Bornstein was right; gender is fun.

Trying testosterone felt like snapping puzzle pieces together. There was a quiet relief that grew until it was overwhelming. I’d finally given myself permission to stop trying to jam the square peg into the circle hole. Ani Difranco has a lyric, “You know they never really owned you/ You just carried them around/ And one day you put ‘em down and found your hands were free.” I didn’t know how heavy a weight gender had been until I put it down. And in the absence of that weight, joy flooded in. 

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With relief came a new worry. Soon, I would no longer be able to pass off my changing voice as simply being tired, as more of my features became blatantly masculine. Yet outside of a few close and select friends, I hadn’t said anything to anyone. What was I supposed to say to my parents — immigrants from a different culture and generation — with whom I’d never broached the topic of gender? While loving parents, they didn’t have a history of being receptive to queer-related news. Where was the line between my life being nobody’s business and being able to live honestly and openly? What about my credits, the career I’d built in the music industry?

Then, Texas Governor Greg Abbott decided trans children shouldn’t be allowed medical treatment and that any parents who helped them should be prosecuted for child abuse. Florida introduced their “don’t say gay” bill. Several other states followed with more hateful, anti-trans legislation.

I’d discovered my joy, my relief, my deliverance. Around the country, white cis-gendered men were trying to take that away from others. I knew the right thing to do was to be as public as I dared. But how — and who to tell first — daunted me.

In marched Kendrick Lamar, with an album as vulnerable as it was self-assured, as introspective as it was scathing societal commentary. An album from the perspective of a man challenging the roles we’re locked into, whether they affected him personally or not. 

It’s impossible to have a conversation about trans rights or gender without having one about racism, about privilege, about patriarchy, about who holds power, why, and to what lengths they will go to preserve it. During the #MeToo movement, I wrote, I shared statistics, I yelled at anonymous cis men on the internet. I didn’t feel good about it. I didn’t see anything changed by my anger or resentment. 

In my mastering room with Kendrick’s team, there was no fury, no elevated blood pressure, no blaming. We were finishing a powerful album and we were there to elevate art. The space between each of us was cushioned by kindness. When the album was finished, they were the first people I came out to in the industry; I was met with love and open arms.

If there’s one lesson that album has taught me, it’s to approach everything with love, honesty, authenticity and hope. To leave the fury and finger-pointing at home. Kendrick didn’t need to stick his neck out for trans people; he chose to. It’s an arduous path to the grace we all can offer ourselves and others if we have the courage to do the work.

It’s easy to feel bleak about the current state of affairs. Yet, as in art, if we want to adequately transcend ourselves and our time to add a snapshot of humanity to the swirling cosmos, historical context is vital. Eight years ago, when Laura Jane Grace came out as trans, it was a shock to the system in the music industry. I’m not sure the Wachowskis have yet to escape their transness as an unyielding topic. What Leslie Feinberg endured is beyond the pale. I wonder what it was like for Wendy Carlos. Of course, everyone I mention is white, which is why they were allowed to live at all; it isn’t a luxury we often afford to trans people of color, women in particular.

When grim moments draw near, I remember that in the ‘80s and ‘90s, lesbian nurses went out of their way to take care of the gay men no one would touch while they died of AIDS. I remember it took twenty years to lift a ban on gay people holding federal jobs. I remember that transgender wasn’t even a word until 1965, and still classified as a disease until 2012. 

We stand on the backs of those who have fought and died to get us as far as we are today. Culture and society is shifting, and these laws are desperate measures dealt by a minority with disparate power to control something they cannot change. All those people fought against that now-diminished power to protect their joy and to allow others to have it too. I stand with them. I stand with you.

If you didn’t think you knew a trans person, now you do. If you’ve ever felt alone, unwelcome, not gay enough, or not trans enough, I’m here to tell you that you are valid and you are enough exactly as you are.

Kate Bornstein encourages us all to laugh about gender. My whole life, I struggled to understand where to find that joy. Now that I’ve found it, I refuse to let it go. 

Call me Emerson, or Em, if you like. And please, for the love of all good things, protect trans women of color above all else.