Chana Rothman is not your typical genderqueer activist. A cisgendered female herself, her background is as a music educator and mother, with a background in performance at regular gigs at prominent New York nightclubs like the Highline Ballroom and the Knitting Factory.
Throughout the years, she babysat, taught Hebrew school and outdoor education, and was a song leader in the Jewish community. Her love of kids, culture, religion and spirituality helped frame her musical career, and today, her growing family of five influences much of the rest.
So when the Philadelphia-based singer/songwriter was asked by her son, a toddler, if he could wear a dress to school, she was unsure of how to address the overall situation. Rothman began to search for a way to engage in positive parenting and gender freedom with her child and found few results. Taking matters into her own hands, Rothman decided to write her own children’s album on gender identity and expression, and in May 2015, Rainbow Train debuted.
“Today’s young people need songs that show them all the choices and possibilities that they are allowed to become,” Rothman says. “The more they can see beyond the ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ that gets pushed on them, the happier and more confident they will be. This goes for adults, too.”
Rothman set off on her journey by holding focus groups. She invited people from many ages, races, ethnicities, religions, gender identities, sexual orientations and relationships to participate. Rothman asked them to describe the landscape in which children are growing up in terms of gender, and what message they would like to send to the upcoming generation. The songs for the groundbreaking album stemmed from the many themes of those focus groups. While she has stated that some of the themes for her songs came organically, others took some work so that the final product could develop.
“Gender Blender,” was created by inviting children and their parents from her neighborhood into her own home, and reading the book “Pink is Just a Color and So is Blue,” by Niki Bhatia. After the reading was completed, her producer, Juno Award-winner Bill Moriarty, recorded the multiple conversations Rothman had, and that created the inspiration for the song.
“My goal there is to really introduce children to as many kinds of sounds as possible while building community and musicality and confidence,” Rothman says.
“I think any of those things are terrifying to us because it doesn’t matter how progressive you are, we are raised in a culture that is really transphobic and sexist and really misogynist,” Rothman continues. “Anything feminine is considered a target, whether it’s on the male, female, trans person or gender non-conforming person. It was sweet to see he was comfortable, and I was proud of him for being free to be himself, even though I don’t think he perceives himself that way. I will say, as time went on and that’s what he wanted to wear, I had a lot of my own fear and bias to fight past.”
With this album, Rothman aims to affirm and celebrate the many different ways to express gender, attach a relatable voice to a growing gender-freedom movement, open a dialogue based on respect, honesty, and kindness and provide a usable, danceable tool that can create social change. “Dress Up and Dance” is a particularly notable track that both children and parents can relate to, and perhaps use as a tipping-off point for a conversation on individuality and being respectful of others.
Rainbow Train is a unique tool for guidance to parents and teachers who wish to support gender development by breaking down the gender binary and all of its social inhibitors. As the soundtrack for future generations liberating the status quo, Rothman covers it all: anti-bullying, acceptance, pride and embracing who you want to be. Building confidence with each strum of the guitar, these songs could teach us all a thing or two about stereotypes and societal expectations.
The musical stylings range for all tastes in music, touching on folk, ballad, hip-hop, disco, pop, spoken word, rock and Latin jazz.
Inspired by the works of Ani Difranco, Lauryn Hill and Tracy Chapman, Rothman explored all avenues to break through and open up the dialogue for “Rainbow Train.” Keeping to a positive, inclusive and fun influence, the overall diversity of the album is impressive. Some of the tracks like “Boy in a Dress” and “in Utero Soundtrack” speak to empowerment, being oneself and comfortable in one’s body. “A Better Way” gives listeners a glimpse in civil rights movements, sparking dance style music to encourage the dialogue about social justice. “Rainbow Train” itself covers the topic of growing up in a diverse household.
Rothman herself grew up in Toronto, Canada. Her musical journey began at age 14, when she went to a music camp. As the last chair flutist, each week she participated in musical challenges where she and another camper would play in competition, with the losing musician having to go down a level. What would be a crushing moment to some turned out to be a moment where Rothman realized she did not want music to be a devastating experience for anyone.
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 says, “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.”
The album is a collaboration with many individuals. Along with Rothman, the core musicians include Bill Moriarty, Stuart Fuchs, Sarah Carlisle and Francois Zayas. Many other artists lent their musical talents, but Rothman makes special mention of Mya Adriene Byrne, who co-wrote the song “Everybody Gets to Choose their Own Name.” Byrne is an out transwoman and trans activist.
On the horizon, Rothman hopes to get a new project working soon: a musical and family friendly Broadway production. In the meantime, check out the acclaimed “Rainbow Train,” challenge the binary and continue the dialogue.
“You don’t have to be just a boy or a girl/You can be a beautiful blended swirl.” V
Written by Karla Templeton