Sophia Tuffin - Braving the Change
On August 28th, 2015, Sophia Tuffin made a second attempt to end her life. Two days later, she made the decision to live the rest of her life as her true self. Fast forward five years to the day, and Sophia tells us how this has shaped her experience of working as a company stage manager.
Madeleine has been asking me to write something for SWAP’ra for about two years. I’ve always been happy to add a voice where transgender people aren’t represented, but something has always seemed to pull me back from truly expressing my thoughts. Until now I haven’t been able to figure out what this is.
Every time I have sat down to draft what I’d like to write, I always seem to freeze. In part, I know that this is because I’m not used to writing anything more expressive than a show report. Lately, however, I have come to realise that I also feel a huge pressure to represent my entire community whenever I do put pen to paper.
To the best of my knowledge, I am the only transgender person working in opera production in the UK. Opera is a very small world, and most people who meet me either know I’m transgender, or find out very shortly after. I don’t try to be ‘stealth’ (keeping people unaware that someone is transgender) because it is such a small world. This does, however, mean that new colleagues and company members can form strong opinions of me before I ever really interact with them, or even get a chance to do more than send them a contract.
When a person transitions, there are a number of extra pressures that each person might face. Firstly, there can be a pressure to represent all trans people, and to conform to what society feels is acceptable. Secondly, there is often a pressure to conform to a certain gender role. From my perspective, feminism has made things a little better for a lot of people, but trans women still regularly face an expectation to fit into a traditionally ‘feminine’ role. Women in positions of authority are often told they’re ‘bossy’, ‘shrill’, ‘angry’, ‘loud’, and receive this “constructive criticism” typically for displaying the same behaviours that many men exhibit without scrutiny. For those who tried for years to fit into a masculine role in society, and are now transitioning, it is often very hard to follow the thin line between their past experience, and what society now expects from them.
For me, there are things that I am thankful for in my career - I find it easy to control a room, and I rarely have to fight to be heard. I am aware that these are instances that many women continue to struggle with, but I have always felt that trying to conform to the stereotypical personality type expected of me, repressing skills that come naturally to me would harm me more than it could ever benefit. Recently, however, I’ve been thinking that maybe I’ve misjudged this a little.
When a person transitions, there are a number of extra pressures that each person might face. Firstly, there can be a pressure to represent all trans people, and to conform to what society feels is acceptable. Secondly, there is often a pressure to conform to a certain gender role.
Until 2015, I was working solidly as an Assistant and Deputy Stage Manager across the UK and Ireland - around half of my year was spent in opera, and the other half was ‘everything else’. I am conscious that I have a huge amount of privilege – I am white, I am not an immigrant, I went to private school. Add my previous male privilege on top of this, and I had pretty much the easiest ride imaginable. Five years ago, I realised that Stage Management wasn’t the place I wanted to be for the rest of my career. This realisation happened to coincide with a decision to transition, though I don’t particularly think the two epiphanies are connected. I knew that opera (and, to an extent, classical music in general) was the industry I wanted to be in, but I was starting to feel like I was treading water in the jobs I was doing. I wanted to experience something different, as well as develop a new skillset.
In December 2015 I started applying for roles across the industry, in any capacity that I felt I had the skills for and that I’d enjoy working in. I am still searching.
Given the events of 2020, I know that this process is going to be even harder for the next few years. I can’t say for certain whether being either a woman or transgender has hurt me during my job hunt. I can, however, leave you with some numbers, and ask you for your opinion:
Since 2015 I have applied for 416 roles across the UK.
Around 60% of these roles were within the classical music space.
I have been interviewed 93 times.
Of those 93 interviews, I have been offered 1 job (for a company I then stayed with for nearly three years).
While I have never explicitly been told that my identity has been a factor in losing out on a job (of course I haven’t, that’s illegal), I do have a nagging feeling that I would have found things to be very different if I was still pretending to be a boy. I have, of course, requested feedback from every interview to try to learn, but feedback tends to be the same: ‘We were very impressed with your CV but ultimately felt that another candidate’s experience was more aligned with the job we were advertising for.“ While it is not acceptable that we are judged on something we have no control over, I personally would rather know that my identity was a problem for a panel, rather than continue to have a nagging feeling.