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In Conversation with Amy McCarthy

Chatting to Amy, whether in real life or on the phone never ceases to provide an endless stream of laughter, tears and ideas. Amy and I met as two of the Australian musician guests at the Sichuan Symphony Orchestra in January 2019. We bonded then as she was my fabulous partner in board games, with Amy being fiendishly skilled in every game she tries her hand at, and mutual interests in various social justice issues. Talking to Amy has given me so much insight, understanding and empathy for her life as a trans woman, as she continues to break barriers and be a champion for trans rights, all the while navigating her musical pathways, life at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and now, the coronavirus crisis currently affecting all of our livelihoods in various ways. This interview is more lengthy than usual, so I hope you enjoy the read, and join me in thanking Amy for sharing her experiences in this conversation right now.

A few words describing your mood and where you are writing this now?

I’m feeling calm but uncertain about things, a general symptom of the rapid changes we’ve faced to stop the spread of COVID-19. I’m at home in my room enjoying a quarantine diet of sleep-ins and Lipton ice-tea.

Describe your work (ordinarily, and how it has been impacted now) That’s not a simple question. I normally make all of my money as a freelance musician, playing with many contemporary groups and orchestras around Sydney. One by one I watched all my gigs get cancelled and indefinitely postponed. I like to do things and amidst preparing for auditions I’ve been accepted to go on Operation to Darwin with the Army for 6 months. There’s no routine to my life but I’ve enjoyed every challenge and new experience that has come my way.

Amy - you’re a busy woman; Recently, you were involved in work recently battling bushfires of the New Year. And you also made speeches for the United Nations a few months ago on a completely different topic. Could you tell me a little bit about these two recent excursions? I volunteered with the Army Reserves to assist with recovery efforts following the devastation of the 2019-20 bushfire season. For 40 days I travelled all around NSW doing hands on tasks to assist with community recovery. It was hard work but very rewarding to be able to help.

About the speeches, last year I had the incredible opportunity to share my research and personal experiences on transgender rights with the United Nations. I had spoken with Dr Elizabeth Coombs, the Chair of the UN Taskforce for Privacy about my experiences transitioning and what I thought the key issues were. She was in Australia and was looking for LGBT+ perspectives for the latest UN report she was drafting: Privacy – a Gender Perspective. I researched the global challenges people faced with transitioning and how they impact our human rights and presented the findings as part of two talks and two panels at a conference in New York. The first talk was on broader issues, focusing on policy issues and what countries can do better to support trans people (for the record, Australia has some glaring human rights issues in the way their policy treats trans people), and the second talk was about reshaping social media to be respectful and understanding of trans issues. The research and consultations formed the basis of some ground-breaking recommendations put into the report, which was released earlier this year.

OK - Wow, wow, wow… These are the things I wanted to ask you about at the last time we met; Unfortunately, we didn’t have time because it was the VC Charity bushfire relief concert night, and lots of other things are in the way now…. I think we need to backtrack for our readers too. Could we hear more about your experience with the army reserves first.

Certainly! I was on deployment for the first chunk of the year going up NSW, starting with Singleton, then Taree and finally Coffs Harbour. We lived in vacant military centres and went out each day doing a variety of tasks in the local community. Some of the many things we got up to include clearing fire trails for the RFS in Wollombi and Cessnock, helping BlazeAid build fences for farmers in Wauchope, helping fill and distribute sand bags for flood victims in Coffs Harbour with the SES and helping council rebuild public fences in Nana Glen. On top of that the Lancer Band had the opportunity to put on a Bushfire Relief Concert in Port Macquarie after hauling our gear with us on operation! All in all it was an emotional experience seeing the devastation the fires brought; coupled with the devastation the floods brought to Northern NSW in February. I consider myself very privileged to have been able to assist in that capacity.

...And with your speech at the UN, I’m interested in hearing your full speech of course, but if you were to summarise it for readers, perhaps on a personal level; What are some things that we should know about Australian policy’s treatment of trans people, and is there anything we could do to reshape social media to be respectful and understanding of trans issues?

What a lot of people don’t know about Australia’s laws surrounding trans acceptance is they’re substantially farther behind compared to most Western countries (especially in NSW), and even if we brought them up to standard, they’d still be unacceptable on a Human Rights level. The main paradigm shift people need to understand the context of trans rights as a human rights issue is what I call the “Depathologisation of transitioning”. In short, gender diversity is a personal expression that has no reason to be governed by medical authority. Imagine if we made gay couples see a doctor to verify they were gay just so they could get married. It’s laughable, yet we do exactly that with trans people trying to affirm themselves, and in some cases we also demand surgery to validate this experience. What this does is it dehumanises trans people, strips their agency for self-determination (which is a human right), and invades their privacy and personality (also both human rights). The product of these human rights abuses is a society that thinks it’s ok to belittle, demean, and hurt trans people, which is why I work as hard as possible to push for change.

Talking a little bit more about social media, we have to be very careful about the information we share and how it’s used. A lot of the privacy violations that occur because of social media and cyber use affect everyone, but they tend to disproportionately affect LGBT+ people. One example is the gay dating app Grindr got in a lot of trouble not too long ago because data it collected on users’ HIV status and sexual preferences was being sold to advertisers without the consent of users. This has also been widely seen with period apps, with users having their self-surveilled period data sold to advertisers without them knowing. Social media and online technology is a space that is so crucial for trans people because many trans people don’t have support from family and/or friends when they come out, leaving them to rely on social media to find support. As part of this, social media needs to be a space that respects trans identities and the privacy of everyone. A step in a positive direction has come from Twitter, which has explicitly included transphobia and anti-trans remarks as grounds for account suspension.

Thankyou for sharing your experience Amy. So back to your musical practice, would you say your musical work is influenced by these larger global issues that you care about and if so, how is this expressed? I think managing both my passion for music and for human rights has been a bit challenging in terms of career paths but I am proud to have music as a medium when I see things I want to fix in the world. Having an artistic expression gives me a fresh perspective on my work outside of music and seeing the challenges people face also in turn gives me encouragement to make my music as powerful as possible. There’s a lot of emotion in life and I think a richness of experiences gives us a maturity of musical understanding.

Can you tell us about a recent collaboration you’re proud of?

Last year I worked with the inimitable Cameron Lam who wrote me a trombone concerto. I love his style and his ideas, and it was a pleasure to perform at the end of last year. I have it in my sights to record and continue performing in recitals so that people can appreciate the breadth of ideas in the work and the message it brings with each performance.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

To be engaged musically is so satisfying for me, be it as a listener and getting transported to a new place or new idea, or as a performer, uncovering the breadth of skill, mastery, and musicality in your discipline. I always strive to see what I can do better, even if it’s not immediately clear what I need to improve, and I like to take this philosophy into all my work.

Outside of music I enjoy seeing the tangible ways that advocacy can make a difference. I enjoy seeing what help can bring to people. And the bigger the scale, the happier I am.

Do you have any musical or life advice you would give to yourself this time five years ago, and that you would also like to share with others? I was a VERY different person 5 years ago to who I am now, more so than most people who say that would be. I couldn’t give them any advice to predict the trajectory their life would take, but I would tell them to allow themselves to be vulnerable. That means many different things and I think it can be employed in all its respects. To the people around you, don’t be afraid to say who you are and what your heart wants, and in your music, you have to be vulnerable to make music. Otherwise you’re producing something mechanical and unemotional, even if technically masterful. With music, the only other thing I can think of would be to look introspectively as you improve. Comparing yourself to the people around you can be dangerous to improvement, especially if they are constantly improving ever so slightly faster than you. If you just aim to be a little better than you were a week ago, you can suddenly see your goalposts, and your improvement.

Who are your big 3 influences right now (musicians and/or non-musicians)?

The first person that comes to mind is Warwick Tyrrell. He won the Principal Trombone job with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in his 20s and now works as a conductor back home in Australia. He had an enviable trombone career and has recordings that are listened to globally, but these aren’t the reasons he stands out to me. The thing about him that influences me is his approach to music and artistry. He has an incredible ear for musicality and a palette of ideas, so every time I work with him I always enjoy the opportunity to see how he thinks, how he plays, and why he makes those musical decisions.

The second person that comes to mind is probably Elizabeth who I mentioned above. She works tirelessly in her role with the UN Human Rights Council and I’ve been blown away by her proactivity around trans rights and privacy policy. I always have a lot of respect for people “with no skin in the game” yet fight for our rights. Her selflessness and approach to her work has greatly influenced me to try to help as many people as possible.

A musical example to round off the list, I have been feverishly listening to Astor Piazzolla’s discography recently. He pioneered the Tango Nuevo style of music in the 60s, after combining his classical composition education with a penchant for writing and playing dances from his home country of Argentina. His playing is virtuosic and his compositions are so vivid and interesting. I definitely take a lot of my musicality from the way he shapes the music he plays. If you don’t know Piazzolla, you may know his two most famous compositions: Oblivion and Libertango.

I love that, and we have that in common that we love Warwick – he also used to conduct an ensemble I am part of - the Chinese Music Ensemble at the Sydney Conservatorium a year ago – and was such a lovely and generous musician and music educator! Last question, particularly apt for now perhaps; When you’re having a bad day/week/month, do you have any strategies you like to use personally, or people you like to turn to? I am a firm believer that high self-worth/self-esteem helps to mitigate a lot of the stress and negative emotion we experience daily. If we care about ourselves, then we treat ourselves with the kindness we deserve when things get rough. Sometimes that can mean having a challenging experience and telling yourself that you deserve to rant about that to someone else. Other times it can manifest itself as encouraging yourself to keep trying at something because you would love to complete it rather than berating yourself for not making progress. We tend to be self-deprecating because we were taught to always put others first, but if we give ourselves a bit more credit then we will be better equipped to handle stresses that come our way, and if things still seem to boil over, a visit to a friend (or in current times, a Zoom session with glass of wine at the desk) to let it all out can never hurt.

~ All photos published in this article provided by Amy. Post interview note: Sadly, many of Amy’s festival/club gigs have been cancelled so she can’t promote her usual work. A one month tour around the country she was invited on was recently cancelled. At the moment the next thing in her life looks to be 6 months in Darwin on Operation, which will be very challenging, but also very rewarding. In the mean time she is writing several articles to be broadly published so we will keep you posted if she publishes anything soon. As Amy has said to me “I think with everything at the moment we just have to ride the wave of life and see what happens. When things clear up I would love to share my new collaborations and we can revitalise a stagnated music industry.”

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