Nyssa Ornitier sits on a stool in a cramped rehearsal space and clicks off a four-count before launching into a blast beat.

The other members of the band Imipolex follow in stride, transforming the growling feedback into a galloping riff.

Ornitier’s shoulder-length, dyed-black hair flies as she pivots from toms to ride cymbal, stretching the song into a head-banging groove. An easy smile spreads across her face.

“It’s such a … full-body experience to play drums that it’s like one of the few times where I feel super in the moment and just, like, actually … in touch with my body and what I’m doing,” Ornitier said. “I’m not thinking about an embarrassing thing I did when I was 8 years old, or if my friends have decided that I’m a bad person for some reason, don’t like me anymore … any of that kind of, like, weird anxiety or thoughts is not really there when I play drums.”

Ornitier, 32, started toying with music at age 10 with an acoustic guitar. At 13, it was an electric guitar and Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath riffs. At age 27, it was drums.

Around that same time, Ornitier – already a well-known fixture in Portland’s heavy metal scene – was coming out as transgender. It was a lengthy process, she said.


“You hear the kind of … cliche story of, ‘Oh, I always knew when I was like 3 years old that I was a woman,’ or whatever, but I just didn’t have that experience.”

Identity in general had always been elusive for Ornitier. Discovering heavy metal music in high school was life-changing.

“It took me until I was much older to have an actual concrete sense of self at all,” she said. “So growing up being able to be like, ‘All right, I’m a metalhead. That’s who I am. That’s my whole thing,’ gave me something to actually latch on to.”

Heavy metal, apart from being a vast genre, has created community, Ornitier said.

“The metal scene, holistically, it’s a lot of people who have felt ostracized in some way, kind of all finding a common ground,” she said.

That community has continued to be there for Ornitier after she transitioned. In addition to playing for blackened-death metal quartet Imipolex, Ornitier plays drums in the trio Lepra – a mix of black metal and post-punk that includes an organist and occasional flute interludes – and guitar for classic heavy metal quartet Hessian.

“Almost everybody, I would say, was supportive. I can’t really think of anybody that was not supportive,” she said. “But I do feel slightly like more of an outsider sometimes, because of being trans.”

For Ornitier, the most positive part of transitioning has been the loosening of self-imposed restrictions.

“I still retained that part of myself that is a metal musician,” she said, “but I’ve been able to express and expand so many other dimensions of myself that I hadn’t been able to experience before.”

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