Transgender and gender-nonconforming children and their families, friends and peers have something to celebrate: a new children’s CD about gender diversity with great music and exuberant lines like “You don’t have to be just a boy or a girl/You can be a beautiful blended swirl.”
The creator of “Rainbow Train,” Chana Rothman, is a Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter, music educator and mother, who shows her range with regular gigs at prominent New York nightclubs like the Highline Ballroom and the Knitting Factory, as well as at Jewish summer camps in North America, Israel and the United Kingdom. Her latest project was motivated closer to home, when her son told her he wanted to wear a dress to preschool.
She told me, “We practiced what kind of language he could use if anyone asked questions or made comments. After the day was over, I realized with shock that it hadn’t even occurred to me to speak to his teacher about it, and ask her to look out for him and/or talk to the class about it. Then I realized that she might not really know how to talk to the class about it, or might not have any experience with this, and it would be good to have resources.”
Rothman didn’t know of any resources, either, but since she was the music teacher at the preschool, she thought, What better way to convey messages than through music? She couldn’t find any songs on the subject, however, so she decided to write her own.
“Any liberation movement needs a soundtrack — no, multiple soundtracks,” she said. Her goals with the album were to “challenge the gender binary; celebrate gender diversity; create a dialogue based on honor and respect; give voice to a growing movement; and do all this in a way that speaks to both children and adults.”
Rothman, who is bisexual, added, “I have lived and continue to live my life in opposition to binaries in terms of gender and sexual orientation, while also recognizing that my current partnership status [with a man] affords me much power and privilege, and trying to use that for social change.”
“Rainbow Train” is part of that effort.
Although Rothman now knows of and recommends a growing number of books, including picture books, that address gender identity and expression, she believes that “music is an entry point that has no real comparison.” She added, “The world needs more music that doesn’t talk down to kids, that addresses hard topics in an approachable way and that has musical integrity.”
Because she wanted the album to include “multiple narratives and ideas,” a friend suggested that she hold focus groups. Rothman explained, “I invited people from many ages, races, ethnicities, religions, gender identities, sexual orientations and relationships to children. I asked them to describe the landscape in which children are growing up in terms of gender — and I asked what messages they would like to send to this generation.”
Her songs came from many of the themes that emerged from the focus groups.
“Some themes popped up organically,” she said. “Others took a lot of prodding and co-writing until I could get the song to be where it needed to be.”
For the song “Gender Blender,” Rothman went even further, inviting children and their parents from her neighborhood over to her house. Her producer, Juno Award-winner Bill Moriarty, recorded a conversation she had with the children after she read the book “Pink is Just a Color and So is Blue,” by Niki Bhatia.
“I was inspired by ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,’ the Grammy-winning album where she featured conversations with kids about love. I wanted to do the same thing about gender,” she explained. “Some of the kids got really antsy and went into the other room to play, but the ones who stayed were so dedicated to the conversation and really dug into some challenging questions. And came up with some deep insights.”
Overall, the songs on the album are positive, inclusive and fun to listen to even for adults, drawing from genres as diverse as folk, ballad, hip-hop, disco, pop, spoken word, rock and Latin jazz. Some songs are overtly about gender identity and expression, like “Gender Blender,” “Boy in a Dress” and “In Utero Soundtrack.” Others are more generally about empowerment, being oneself and being comfortable in one’s body.
“A Better Way” gives us a glimpse of civil-rights leaders like Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk. It’s a great mix of songs you’ll just want to dance to, along with ones that will spark further discussion about gender and social justice.
“Rainbow Train” makes a great companion to “Dancin’ in the Kitchen,” the recent release from Grammy Award-winners Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer about diverse families.
Although the album is now out, Rothman said “Rainbow Train” is just getting rolling. “In its full fruition, ‘Rainbow Train’ is also a play for kids and all ages — a musical, kind of like a family-friendly ‘Kinky Boots,’” she said, referring to the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. “That’s the next project.”