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Pride 2017: Violinist breaks barriers with SF Symphony

by Bob Ristelhueber

Eliot Lev takes a break during rehearsal with the San<br>Francisco Symphony. Photo: Bob Ristelhueber <br><br>
Eliot Lev takes a break during rehearsal with the San
Francisco Symphony. Photo: Bob Ristelhueber 


San Francisco Symphony violinist Eliot Lev came out with a bang this year â€" and made a little history too.

He is the first out trans member of the venerable music organization.

After revealing his gender identity to the symphony's musicians and staff in a series of emotional meetings in January, Lev then talked about being transgender in a video shown during the Symphony Pride concert at Davies Symphony Hall in April. The video, featuring several LGBT members of the orchestra, showed Lev holding hands with his fiancee as they walked their dog in a park. It received a huge ovation from a sold-out hall that included Mayor Ed Lee and gay former state Senator Mark Leno.

That night at Davies "was incredibly moving," Lev recalled. "Not just because of the positive reaction in the audience to what I had to say in the video, but rather how we are as a community and the support we have for each other. However unsettling current events are, it's great to know you have your queer family with you here in San Francisco."

It had been a long journey from St. Petersburg, Russia to the stage of Davies Hall. Like any musician making the passage from child star to world-class professional, Lev put in arduous years of single-minded, dedicated work. But this same struggle also sidetracked him from another journey he needed to make, namely coming out as a transgender man.

Lev's musical talent became apparent almost from the moment he first picked up a violin at age 4. His father was a cellist with the St. Petersburg Symphony. After Lev enrolled in the famous Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory he quickly became one of the most promising young musicians of Russia. At age 14, he won the prestigious Glazunov Violin Competition in Paris and later joined the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra under the baton of the world-renowned conductor Claudio Abbado. In 2006, Lev came to the U.S. to study with noted violin soloist Vadim Gluzman at the Chicago College of Performing Arts.

Even after arriving in the U.S. at age 19, there was little opportunity for Lev to explore his emerging gender identity. He was preoccupied with studying and then working his way up the career ladder in a fiercely competitive field to secure a green card that would allow him to stay in this country permanently.

"There is the pressure of survival," he said. "As someone on a student visa you need to get a job, and the immigration issue meant always putting your career first because it's a necessity in terms of having an opportunity to live here."

Along the way, there were bumps in the road â€" his first application for a green card was rejected by immigration officials. But his successes â€" landing positions first with the Charlotte Symphony and Utah Symphony, and in 2014 as a second violinist with the San Francisco Symphony â€" gradually gave Lev the breathing room to begin coming to terms with his gender identity.

"Growing up there were no words for it, and how can you be something that there are no words for?" he asked. "But over the years I just started having the freedom to examine who I am as a person, and as the journey continued that's how I ended up here."


Decision to come out

Eliot Lev, right, and his fiancée, Stephanie MacAller, relax with their dog, Penny.

Lev, 30, met fiancee Stephanie MacAller, 30, who works for a biotechnology company, in March 2016, around the same time he finally got his green card. They met through an online dating app at an early stage in his coming-out process. Still using his birth name, Lev's personal profile identified himself as genderqueer, and he had already adopted the shorter hair and more traditionally masculine clothing he wears today.

"That was right before he was calling himself Eliot, but he looked like a cute boy to me," MacAller smiled. "I liked him." After what she calls a "whirlwind romance," the couple got engaged this past January 6. "We were at home reading poetry to each other" when Lev dropped to one knee and proposed, he recalled. MacAller quickly accepted.

"Lucky for me," Lev grinned.

That milestone in turn sparked Lev's decision to come out as transgender to his symphony colleagues.

"I think our engagement had a lot to do with it, because here is a person who is supportive of me no matter what," he said. "In a way, my transition did start before we met, and in a way it started after we got engaged, so as Steph pointed out it's one big continuous thing. It's not something you do overnight but something that takes several years to absorb and live with."

But how does one come out to a hundred fellow musicians plus the many staff who make the symphony run? Lev chose to make an announcement at an all-staff meeting in January.

"If you don't tell everybody at once it becomes almost a rumor, and that's what I wanted to avoid most," he said.

The issues involved were very personal and fundamental: "It's not somebody I'm dating, it's what name do you call me, what pronoun do you use. Those are very basic things," he said.

Robin Freeman, who handles public relations for the symphony, was at that staff meeting.

"They said, 'You have a special guest,' and we didn't know who it would be," she recalled. "It was just so touching, and at the end we all stood up and gave him a standing ovation."

Lev said the reaction from his colleagues was better than he expected.

"To come into a room with some familiar faces, but also a lot of strangers, and to make one of the most personal announcements in your life was a very interesting experience," he said. "Their reaction was so much warmer than I ever expected. I knew it would be one of tolerance and understanding but there's a great gap between tolerance and overwhelming support. So they more than bridged that gap."

As the first openly trans musician at the symphony, Lev knew that addressing the musicians would be an intense experience, but he never doubted they would be supportive.

"It's a very wonderful environment where it's safe to be a human being," he said. "Not just safe but encouraged as well."

With gay longtime music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, there was never any question that there would be support from the top of the organization. Lev had performed under Thomas' baton once before, when he played in the New World Symphony in Miami.

The Symphony Pride concert in April was especially important for Lev, since it was scheduled after the symphony canceled a series of concerts in North Carolina, his former home, in protest against that state's "bathroom bill" that targeted transgender people. (The bill, HB 2, was repealed in late March, but advocates said it was a repeal in name only, as the state's LGBT residents have no protection from discrimination.)

"As far as meaningful concerts go, that was probably right at the top of my list, one concert you don't forget for the rest of your days," Lev said of the Pride concert.

Lev believes he has an opportunity not given to many trans people.

"Visibility is very important, but it's one thing to come out as trans in San Francisco, and a totally different experience in a lot of other places," he said. "Yes, it does take courage to go public, but where your life won't be threatened and your employment won't be threatened that's courage but it's not insane risk. For those of us in a position of privilege here or anywhere, it's crucial we're as open as we can be about who we are."

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