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Home » Member Profiles » Sasha Romero: Visibility Promotes Acceptance

Sasha Romero: Visibility Promotes Acceptance


Members of the LGBTQ+ community often feel they have to hide their true selves from their friends and loved ones. It can be a lonely existence filled with self-doubt. Acceptance—both of self and from others—doesn’t always come readily. Local 802 (New York City) member Sasha Romero, principal trombone of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (the MET), is the first trans person to hold a principal brass seat in a major American orchestra. She says the visibility afforded by her position at the top of her career field gives her both a platform and responsibility to help lift up others in the community.

Romero’s journey toward self-acceptance started with striving for an understanding of who she was, and her place growing up as young boy in the East Texas town of Longview. “I didn’t really know enough back then to question my identity,” she says. “I realized that I didn’t like my assigned gender at birth. I wanted to be a girl from the age of 5. But I didn’t have the basis to even begin to understand what being trans meant.” Nevertheless, she says, people around her knew something was up. “I wasn’t quite ‘normal’ enough for their taste, so I got bullied a lot, ostracized, and experienced social isolation.”

Being surrounded by a family of musical kids, says Romero, provided a natural platform to earn respect for herself. “My mom was a great soprano with a degree in choral education, and two of my older sisters played trumpet. I wanted to beat them. I’m pretty competitive,” she laughs. “The band director lied to me and told me my lips were too big for trumpet. Really, though, they didn’t need another trumpet player, so I started on the trombone. I took to it like a fish to water.” She adds that if she had grown up someplace else, without Texas’ legendary school band programs, she likely wouldn’t have made it as far as she did.

From Symphony to Opera

Rapid progress on the trombone led Romero to a Bachelor of Music degree at Baylor University and a master’s at Rice. Prior to the MET, she was principal trombone in the Fort Worth Symphony from 2016-2018. She has racked up an impressive list of national and international solo and chamber music competition wins, in addition to being a semi-finalist in the first Brass Division of the 2019 International Tchaikovsky Competition in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Moving from symphony to opera playing in 2018 presented its own challenges. “In the opera pit you’re not the direct source of entertainment, so there is a bit less pressure, even in a high-profile institution like the MET,” Romero explains. “Another obvious difference is the length of typical operas, versus a symphony concert. The rehearsal schedule is very different; more hours, but less stress.” Symphony playing, she says, made her feel like she needed to be more of a perfectionist. “You’re the center of attention, rather than the accompaniment.”

Along with the change of job, Romero says her approach to practicing has also evolved. “When I got to college, I was not immediately the best trombonist there, and I felt like I needed to catch up,” she says. “I practiced four hours a day and was flying out to audition or compete somewhere once a month. Nowadays, in the MET, I have to be more targeted with my practice. I also practice less because of the number of hours I’m actually working. After a six-hour Wagner opera, most of my focus is on recovery, so I don’t injure myself.”

And then there’s the repetition. “Yeah, it can be a struggle,” she acknowledges. “The worst operas for me are some of the 19th century rep where it feels like nothing you play is meaningful, but you have to play all the time. It helps to focus on treating it like a consistency exercise and try to perfect every night’s performance.” Romero is quick to reassure that she loves the job. “But really, just like any other job, anything you do over and over again can become routine if you don’t find ways to keep it challenging.”

Coming Out

Fast forward a few years: settled into the MET as a tenured principal player, professional goals met—but long-simmering personal issues still needing to be faced and dealt with. Romero says she was still figuring things out, still lacking a solid frame of reference to define herself. And then came her turning point, the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We obviously weren’t working, and I was stuck at home all day with nothing but time to reflect.” Like millions of others, she spent a lot of hours scrolling online. “Interestingly, I think the internet algorithms figured me out before I did. I started getting a lot of trans content, and I couldn’t help noticing how much it resonated with me. I already knew that hiding from uncomfortable truths doesn’t work in the long-term.”

Romero understood that she was undeniably transgender, and that she wanted to transition. “I also knew that with my orchestra position, there would be no way to do that secretly.”
And so, Romero came out publicly in 2022 at 31, two years after coming out to her closest friends.

“Worrying about my career gave me the most doubt,” she says. “I had slowly been gathering a cadre of LGBTQ+ friends, and they were my support system. Institutionally, the MET has been great and I’m extremely lucky. This is an important factor in having a safe and stable work environment. Had I come out in a different city or state, that might not have been the case.”

Romero says support from her MET colleagues can be complicated, but most of that is due to discomfort from lack of knowledge about how to deal with her. “When I came out, I gave a speech in front of the whole orchestra. Literally everyone clapped,” she recalls. “But trans people are still sort of new to most people, and education is lacking. There can be a hesitance to interact with me due to a fear that they might do it wrong. But it’s not hard to just say hello, and I am very okay with having civil discussions if anyone wants to know more. In the end, I deserve to exist there as much as they do.”

Facing Intolerance

Romero says she’s grateful to not have to deal with many overt negative reactions in the music community, except online. But it’s always there, always lurking. “It’s hard to explain what it takes every single day to deal with transphobia. Actor Samuel L. Jackson was once asked on a late-night talk show how he handled his experiences with intolerance. He said, ‘Mother [expletive], that’s Tuesday.’ I expect it. And if you don’t experience it every day, you don’t grow a thick skin.” She says her prominent position helps. “There are consequences for musicians if they treat me badly. But I know other trans people don’t have that.”

It follows that hearing about discrimination against those who are less protected can be infuriating, she says. “It’s equally bad for those people who are close to us. It prevents engagement in our lives. I’m trying to do everything I can to make sure they can enjoy the same safety and acceptance that I do.”

One thing she does is to be extremely visible. “Not just being present in the community, but publicly and unapologetically taking a stance. Calling out specific behavior, which can mean burning bridges, career-wise. There are things I used to get called for that I no longer do,” Romero says. “But the point is to make us less alien a concept for others.”

Another concrete step in the music industry is ensuring that marginalized communities get equal opportunities to perform. “My website has a number of resources. I do what I can, when I can, but it never feels like it’s enough,” she says.

Romero finds it ironic when others obsess so much about trans people and expend so much negative energy. “They think more about trans people than I do,” she laughs. She believes combating negative rhetoric starts with understanding why it appeals to people. “Anti-trans policies are based in disgust, not to put too fine a point on it. The antidote to disgust is exposure. Once you realize someone is a fully-fledged human, or you see children rejected by their families, you can learn to empathize with them and get over your own fear. Those kinds of things can chip away at the support structures for bigoted beliefs. If you do that for enough people, you can start to see a shift.”

Empowerment—literally giving power and support to marginalized communities, politically and economically—is also key. “When we have power, we have a voice to speak to the world. We need to be loud and bold and, yes, sometimes angry about it. If there are no consequences to changing beliefs, people won’t change. It’s about fostering social environments that are hostile to antisocial beliefs and actions,” she says.

Romero emphasizes that orchestra managements and the AFM can also do their part, specifically regarding fair and equal representation. “As I’ve come out and gotten to know more marginalized people, so many stories I hear end with ‘… and I didn’t receive the support I needed to achieve justice.’ Sometimes it feels like transgressors are protected by orchestra managements just because they’re good at their jobs. The union has been very effective at protecting our rights as working musicians. But if it doesn’t step up to fully represent victims, then perpetrators have no reason to acknowledge the harm they’ve done.”

From Opera to Studio

Unsurprisingly, music education plays a prominent role in Romero’s push for equal treatment and acceptance. She currently serves on the trombone faculties at the Manhattan School of Music, Rutgers University, Mannes School of Music, and Bard College Conservatory of Music. “Growing up being judged harshly all the time helped me to become immune to being judged as a musician. I wanted to prove teachers wrong who said I didn’t have what it took. That experience has become a tool in my own teaching,” she explains.

In tandem, she strives to find ways for LGBTQ+ students to be seen and heard. “Trans students often reach out to me, and I offer them a safe space to talk.” Outside of the studio, Romero acknowledges her position as a prominent example for others. “LGBTQ+ musicians often tell me that my simply existing in this role has helped them to see that their own aspirations are possible. If you don’t see yourself out there, you begin to doubt you can do it.”

When not teaching, Romero just tries to live her life as a typical New Yorker. “It’s a great place to be a weirdo, and I mean that in the most loving sense. You will never be the weirdest person in New York City at any given time. That anonymity gives you freedom,” she says.

To those experiencing what she lives every day, Romero has a few final words of advice: “Don’t wait to be yourself. There’s never a bad reason for deciding to be who you are most authentically, at any point in your life.” She also advocates learning about history—especially the history of feminism and queer liberation movements. “There is a stunning lack of education about the enormous amount of work that went into me being able to do my job as the person I am,” she says.

And again, she emphasizes visibility: “The more you put yourself out there, the more people who don’t accept you will self-select themselves out of your life. You’ll be left with the ones who truly care, and who want to support you and others like you. It can be a scary thought, but it’s the only way to achieve progress.”

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