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Profiles in Pride: Tona Brown

The Norfolk native is an accomplished classical musician and transgender activist.

Norfolk native Tona Brown has had an accomplished career as a classical violinist and mezzo-soprano that runs the gamut from a performance at Carnegie Hall to singing the National Anthem for President Obama, the first transgender artist to do so for a sitting president.

It all started in the fifth grade when her school’s music director took her class to a performance of Peter and the Wolf at the Kennedy Center.

“I was a dancer at that time,” she recalled. “But Peter and the Wolf really inspired me because of the way the piece showcases each instrument in the orchestra.”

When the First Chair violinist performed a solo, she was enthralled, and the music director sensed her excitement.

“He said, ‘You can be anything you want. Why don’t we get you a violin?’”

It was that first violin rented from a music store that changed the trajectory of her life. Although her parents thought it was just a fad, Tona stuck with it and following middle school was accepted for Governor’s School of the Arts in Norfolk. She made the move from Northern Virginia and stayed with family to attend the school and finish high school, first at Granby High, then graduating from Maury in 1994.

“It was an unsettled time,” she recalled. “I stayed with a few different family members, but they were all going through a lot of stuff. Music was the only real solid foundation I had, and going to the Governor’s School changed my life because I was around other people who were as focused and disciplined as I was.”

It was also at the Governor’s School where Tona experienced a diversity she did not experience in the public schools.

“The Governor’s School had cool kids, from Goth kids to artists, dancers, and a huge LGBTQ student and teaching body,” she said. “You were uplifted and respected compared to being bullied and belittled.”

Tona was also embracing her gender identity as woman around that time which became apparent when she started studying voice.

“That was a groundbreaking thing that helped me accept that I was trans,” she said. “My voice was in a lower register, and that was something I couldn’t fake or worry about what people had to say about it.”

“Everyone has that ‘Come to Jesus’ moment where you’re going to have to figure out what is going on with yourself and accept it,” she said. “That was one of those moments for me. It certainly wasn’t the last, but it set me on the road to being who I am.”

Since then, Tona has gone on to become a fierce and visible LGBTQ advocate through her music and released her self-published memoir, Tonacity, available on Amazon.

“I just want people to understand that transgender people are human beings, period,” she said.  “The fight that we’re seeing with the current political climate is really harming trans youth. It harms us all.”


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