How acceptance and support at a Deep Ellum club spurred a second coming out for trans musician Ivan Dillard


Ivan Dillard gave up on music, until a queer music showcase opened his eyes to his love of song … and his gender identity. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)


ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor

Ivan Dillard remembers a key moment in his coming out process — actually, his second coming out.

Ivan — born Aleah — had “tried to be a lesbian for 10 years! Oh, how I tried and tried!” he sighs. Then last year, he finally decided to present as a trans man, and a major step toward that was the decision to use the men’s room at the Deep Ellum club RBC (Rhythm Beats Culture).

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-6-38-43-pm“The first time I started to use the men’s bathroom, I was a little scared about it,” he says. “But as I approached [the restrooms], a six-foot-tall trans woman cam out of the women’s bathroom and I was like, ‘This will be OK.’”

That club has ended up being a sanctuary for Dillard … and a second chance personally as well as professionally in his fascinating journey of self-discovery and acceptance.

It wasn’t an accident that the revelation occurred within Dallas’ thriving live-music scene. Dillard — a classically-trained cellist who attended the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU — came from a family that valued music and education. (His aunt was even a gospel singer/songwriter.) But while the East Texas native has always loved listening to symphonic music, playing it was another matter. And at Meadows, that set him apart.

“I was kind of a black sheep; my senior recital was of all living composers — no Bach or Brahms on my program,” he says. “I was always wanting to play contemporary music and use my instrument outside [concert halls]. That’s still what I want to do.”

While still in school, Dillard played with a few bands, and tried to find his groove in Deep Ellum. It didn’t work out, though.

“I started playing Deep Ellum in like ’09, but I didn’t feel that much energy at that point. It was harder to get people to come out there,” Dillard says. And so he gave up music entirely. Cold turkey. Nada.

“I had quit for a while because I was really depressed. I just didn’t have fun,” he says. “I didn’t write, I didn’t play, I didn’t go out, I didn’t listen to anything except what was on my iPod.” Instead, Dillard — then still presenting as female — pursued another interest: Boxing.

“I did it really hardcore — I got [ranked] all they way up to no. 9 in the country [in the lightweight class],” Dillard says. For years, he took a break from music altogether. “Then one day it just all came back.”

Part of the impetus was attending shows at RBC, especially the recurring Monday night Outward Bound Mixtape Sessions, a hodgepodge of experimental and left-of-center musical and performance-art acts that in many ways removed Dillard’s blinders — about Deep Ellum, about his love of music and about his sexual identity.

“Gender dysmorphia is the worst — you don’t feel human because you’ve become disconnected from yourself,” he explains. “Going there was part of my coming out. There are so many different kinds of people. Everyone is ‘queer’ in their own, different way — it’s very avant garde.”

On Monday nights, he says, “you can hear everything from an ambient ensemble with light projections to like a hardcore metal band to someone having a nervous breakdown onstage through effects pedals … I’m not even joking. Everyone who shows up there is just open-minded and there to experience whatever you put in front of them. The energy you feel is life energy.”

Audiences at this Monday’s event will get a chance to experience that energy as Dillard and his trio The Mystiks make their Outward Bound debut.

The experience just as a patron affected Dillard’s own musical style, preparing him to share his own aesthetic. “It made me go further in how I perform. The performer after me goes by [the pronoun] ‘they.’ My music has been influenced by the energy I felt. I write songs I wanna hear — music that doesn’t have a chord progression I’ve heard 500 fucking times.”

Dillard attributes his courage to come out as trans to “Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox and also to little 16-year-old kids at Booker T., who are changing their pronouns from he to they. I thought, it’s time to step up — the kids are over it. I’m almost 31. Time to be me.”

It’s an exciting evolution for the trans artist.

“Since coming out, the music I wrote a year ago is not the same as what I write now. I feel young, I feel light — like there’s a weight off of me. Oh man! I just … like… ya know, it feels like when I was in my first band and we were just loud for the hell of it.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 23, 2016.