A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and an award-winning podcast

A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and award-winning podcast

Mama Alto: Rise Up Singing

Mama Alto is a cabaret artiste, jazz singer and trans non-binary femme who tells two interwoven stories about gender and generations.

Mama Alto is a gender transcendent diva, cabaret artiste, jazz singer and community activist based in Melbourne. She is a non-binary trans femme person of colour who works with the radical potential of storytelling, strength in softness and power in vulnerability.

Mama Alto was the delighted recipient of the 2014 Weekly Award for Best Cabaret at Adelaide Fringe, the 2016 Arts Access Victoria Outstanding Access & Inclusion Award at Melbourne Fringe, and the 2017 Artist of the Year Award at the GLOBE LGBTI Awards.

Mama Alto will be featured in the new Queerstories book which can be pre-ordered on Booktopia.

Queerstories is an LGBTQIA+ storytelling night programmed by Maeve Marsden, with regular events in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. For Queerstories event dates, visit www.maevemarsden.com, and follow Queerstories on Facebook.

To support Queerstories, become a patron at www.patreon.com/ladysingsitbetter

And for gay stuff, insomnia rant and photos of my dog Frank follow me – Maeve Marsden – on Twitter and Instagram.

See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.


Note: An extended version of this story is included in the Queerstories book.


Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the monthly LGBTQIA storytelling night I run at Giant Dwarf in Redfern, with support from the City of Sydney. This week – gender transcendent diva, Mama Alto.

Thank you.

The edges of the foldaway bed hold a strange fascination. The soft foam of the mattress, lovingly swaddled in a soft, worn, cotton bed sheet many times older than I, meets the cold, hard, metal springs and rounded metal bar, which comprise the bed’s frame. I am perhaps three or four years of age, maybe five, and the temporary, portable bed sits at the end of the queen size mattress and base where my grandmother and grandfather will sleep, in this stranger’s home which they rent when they visit us from interstate.

My sister, also older than I, sleeps in the next room over, and we are visiting the night from our parents’ home, which is a short walk away. We spent the day sweeping leaves in the small courtyard, pretending to be Snow White or Cinderella, with our grandfather laughing because in our fantasies to be princesses, we are enacting servants’ tasks.

He gives me a small, soft toy football. “Soon you can learn to play footy,” he says. He chuckles. “Boys can’t be princesses.” He smiles encouragingly, generously, and I feel brave, but still, I look down grimly as he places this small bomb into my reluctantly outstretched palm, my sister nearby happily hums to herself as she sweeps.

Backstage, I am peering into the mirror. The light bulbs are bright along its frame, and I am taming my long wavy hair into shape for the show, pinning it into curls with white gardenias, as I softly hum to myself.

*Hums the first line of Summertime – Ella Fitzgerald*

I think about dreams and fantasies, and how on earth I came to be sitting here, about to go on in a beautiful theatre to be blessed with the honour of singing to people. I gently glide across the dressing room to the costume rack and remove my gown for the evening from the crinkly, black plastic dry-cleaning bag. It emerges like an exquisite insect from a cocoon, sparkling softly in the blinding mirror light, and shimmering gently from the hum of the air conditioning.

I step into the dress and I feel the cares of the day begin to slip away. Returning to the mirror, I make small finishing touches to my make-up, and the weight of my daily battles recedes, as the power that is glamour empowers my heart, one dab of eye shadow at a time.

I think about the train trip earlier that day, the older men who stared as I boarded and coughed under their breath, “Faggot.” The small child at the station who asked his mother, “Is that a man or a lady?” The mother stiffened and tightened her grip on the child’s schoolbag, hissing, “Just don’t look at her. Don’t talk to her.” Then, the walk to the theatre, where a man my age spat on the ground in front of my feet. He met my eye with the horrific gaze of a person who knows that they control the world. The entitlement, and power, and privilege to do what he pleased to whom he pleased, and to always get away with it.

I thought about saying something. I didn’t. I stopped the tears from welling up and I kept walking. He trailed me almost all the way to the theatre, making sure I knew that he belonged in this world and I did not. I ignore the heavy newspaper in my bag and the typed print within it, which condemned and ridiculed me, saying, “gross gender confusion.” “Freakish.” “Unnatural.”

As I gently paint one last layer of lipstick on, I feel the bitterness transform. I look into the mirror, at the goddess I can be – not something I paint on, but something that is always inside me, now coming through. I hear the excited and apprehensive murmur of the audience as they take their seats. I stand, I breathe deep, and think of all the divas who have come before me. Power and love surrounds me as I prepare to step onto the stage, but I remember one last thing, and turn back to the mirror. I fix my hair, spraying the curls and flowers and pins into place with a solid layer of hairspray.

Lying there in the bed, I think about earlier that morning. My grandmother was fixing her hair in the bathroom mirror, using her enormous hairspray can, which was a pink colour reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy’s outfit, and which had similarly vintage style typography. The spray had a distinctive smell, noxious but comforting.

Like the hairspray can, my grandmother held a certain fascination to me – sophisticated but mysterious, elegant but everyday. Thusly fascinated, I would follow her around the house eagerly, watching her elaborate morning ritual. Watching her neatly and deftly styling waves into her thick silver hair, I absentmindedly sit atop the waste bin lid. Catching sight of me in the mirror, fearing for my life and perhaps for the structural integrity of the bin, she pivots around on one sensibly heeled shoe and swoops me up off of the lid and onto the tiles.

“Now, now. You won’t be able to sit there for much longer. You’re getting to be a big boy now,” she says. I cross my arms, and my face feels hot and flushed. I burst into tears and shake my head, and perplexed, she strokes my hair. Later, I hear her talking to my grandfather while I pretend to be asleep in the foldaway bed. She says, “I just don’t know quite what upset him, but I think he must have heard his dad tell his sister that she’s a big girl, and that there are jobs and responsibilities that come with being big and grown up. I think he must’ve got upset when I used that word “big.” I can’t think what other word it could’ve been.”

I open my mouth and the first notes fly from my throat. The stage lights blind my vision slightly, blurring the audience, but I am comfortable here. It is familiar and it is warm. I am in control. A songstress, and a princess, and a priestess, and a diva. The notes resonate into the theatre.

*Sings* One of these mornings, you will rise up singing…

High, and clear and soprano at first, they mellow into my huskier and weaker alto tones before mellifluously soaring back once more into the highest honied realms. I’ll go off script a little bit. Just so you don’t think that I’m being a bit self-aggrandizing, those are actual press quotes.

*Audience cheer and applaud*

I can hear audible gasps in the audience because it is that first electric moment of my show where you can always feel the audience shift, but they cannot place the gender. Some are curious. Some are horrified. Some are intrigued. The gentle make-up, the hair in tight curls and pinned with flowers, the luscious gowns, these all suggest the feminine. But, shapes of the body, the jawline, the speaking voice, perhaps, some people can see something masculine. But, the singing; singing occupies some other place, somewhere between or beyond genders. High and feminine, but not quite female. Yet, not the depths of a male baritone or tenor. “Countertenor,” the classical music historians and the teachers from my past whisper, in scandalised sotto voce, as though it is a dirty word. But I am lifted by the music into another place and time, and dismiss any thought of science or theory, of gendered constructions to categorise the voice type because I am what I am.

*Sings* One of these mornings, you will rise up singing.

Applause rings through the theatre at the end of the first song, and I pause to take in what I can through my spot-lit blurry vision.

*Sings* And you’ll spread your wings.

I see friends and family but mostly strangers.

*Sings* And take to the sky.

I gently smooth out the flowing folds and gathered fabrics of my gown, and I smile, holding out my arms to welcome the audience. A distinguished but very elderly and very frail lady in the front row, who I don’t know, cheers, so I blow her a kiss and she catches it, delighted, as the pianist begins the second song.

The morning, my grandfather is the first one to wake up, moving quietly around the house, first turning on the heaters, next, opening the blinds, fixing the breakfasts, boiling the kettle, and running the water in the bathroom until it runs hot, so that my grandmother’s bath will be warm enough. I try to sneakily roll from the little foldaway bed onto the floor, try to pad gently and silently on socked feet across the hallway on my secretive mission. My grandmother watches with silent amusement as I crash around noisily from her neatly structured array of bed pillows.

I tug my grandfather’s arm as he strolls back towards the bedroom holding two bowls of cereal, and he looks down with love. “Today,” I ask, “can you pretend I am a little granddaughter?” His face furrows; confusion and concern. “Benny boy,” he says very quietly, “that’s a bit silly.”

He walks into the bedroom and hands a bowl to my grandmother, kissing her on the forehead. “Your hair looks nice today.” As he says it, she beams. My sister sleepily enters the room and sits on the edge of the mattress, and I silently decide to never again speak out loud the idea that I might be a girl.

The foyer is abuzz with noise and life as I enter from the theatre, and the distinguished elderly lady from the front row is propped up on her walking frame. The wheels of the frame gently rock back and forth like the tides. She is sobbing openly, and I cautiously approach. As she sights me, her face lights up through her tears, and she lets go of the walking frame to grab me. The frame happily rolls away of its own chaotic accord, and the woman’s daughter fearfully dashes after it.

The elderly lady grabs a hold of my arm, at first, I think for balance. I have changed from the gown into a beaded jacket, and my hair has begun to unravel from the tight curls and flower pins. She sighs, looking at her hand as it presses into the sequins on my sleeve. I can’t help but wonder what she is thinking, but as I help her into a chair she begins to speak.

That day, after my grandmother has fixed her hair and walks from the bathroom to the kitchen, I linger by her vanity. I carefully pick up the hairspray can and try to quietly spray a small amount into the air. I close my eyes and I breathe in that strange breeze, imagining that I might be someone else who would wear something like this. I open my eyes and catch a glimpse of myself in her hand mirror, a strangely magical contraption, which magnifies the face across a concave surface. Eyeing my distorted reflection with suspicion, I wonder if anyone would understand the strange way I feel about the short-haired boy glaring back at me. I push the hand mirror face down on the table and scamper to follow my grandmother.

The lady I do not know settles into the chair gently, and suddenly, as often happens after singing to people, begins to tell me her entire life story.

*Audience laughs*

She starts with her humble upbringing in a small village. Then, her religious parents; her very, very religious parents. The invasion of their village, the marches, the camps, the death and the destruction, her miraculous survival, and her long-lost uncle, a musician, who came to her rescue after the war.

“When I hear music,” she says, “I remember him.” She begins to sob once more but retains a beautifully articulate manner of speaking through her emotions. “After the war,” she says, “I was so traumatised I could not speak for years, but he was a clever man, my uncle, and instead of trying to talk with me, he played me music, he took me to concerts, he took me to see singers, and that healed me until I could speak. I was just a little girl, and these people filled with so much hatred for someone just because they are different…” The depth of her emotions and the weight of history overwhelms her, and her voice begins to crackle and croak.

Her tears amplify and she struggles for breath as she looks into my eyes. Her daughter waiting nearby with the renegade walking frame, begins to rush forward but the lady holds up a firm palm and dismiss her. She looks into my eyes again. “People can hold so, so much hatred for someone just because they are different, like me. Like you. And, I see you there singing, singing that music that reminds me of my uncle. And I think you are beautiful. Whether you are a beautiful woman, or a beautiful man, or neither, I really don’t know, but… “

She pauses and thinks, and I can tell she is struggling with a thought that is confusing and slightly painful. She takes a deep breath. “I don’t know, but I don’t think I care. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that no one can decide for you, no one. Never let anyone choose for you. Only you can choose. Never, never let anyone else tell you who you are. I didn’t,” she says.

She takes a heavy breath and her hand reaches once more to the sequins of my jacket. As my last few curls fall from their flower pins, I can smell a faint trace of my hairspray. It is noxious but comforting. She closes her eyes and quietly hums a half-forgotten song.

*Sings* One of these mornings, you will rise up singing.

Then you’ll spread your wings

and take to the skies

But ‘til that morning

There’s nothing that can harm you

So, hush, little baby, don’t you cry.

Thank you.

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Queerstories is produced by Maeve Marsden and recorded by wonderful technicians at events around the country. Editors and support crew have included Beth McMullen, Bryce Halliday, Ali Graham and Nikki Stevens.