For us here in Minnesota, it’s important to show our guests a good time and we hate to see them leave. That’s one of the reasons why we scheduled our Transgender Voices Festival in the middle of April, just in time for our best, largest blizzard of the season to shut down the airport, and much of the Twin Cities, for several hours. Fortunately, the city buses ran perfectly on time, so I only had to walk a mile home from the depot, through 16+ inches of snow, the wind blowing ice crystals in my face the whole way. Totally #WorthIt.
Why was it worth it? The voice is one of the most gendered parts of human anatomy, and is the one we use every day (unless we belong to an order of monastics). For many transgender folk, and especially transgender singers like myself, vocal dysphoria is a daily struggle. I’ve spent my entire adult life fighting with my lyric baritone voice, trying to force it into places that it couldn’t go, resisting formal training, and practicing poor vocal care. I hate my “gorgeous,” “sexy” voice. Still, I love choral singing and choral music, so every week I shove that hate down into hiding so that I can participate in something beautiful larger than myself. So, when One Voice Mixed Chorus artistic director Jane Ramseyer Miller (she/her) approached me to be on the advisory committee for a festival/conference all about the unique physiology and psychology of the transgender voice, I was honored. I knew on a personal level how necessary the event would be to many people in the transgender community and to cisgender educators who are interested in being allies.
Two of the first things festival manager Max Gries (they/them) said as we began the planning of the program was that the event should, as much as possible, be centered on the transgender experience and perspective — featuring trans and nonbinary identified voice teachers and other music professionals — and that we should provide numerous opportunities for communal singing. Our opening gathering set the tone with Eli Conley (he/him) and Daniel Osprey Huffsmith (they/them) teaching us some of their songs. Most memorable was “Forget Your Perfect Offering” the song from Leonard Cohen that Eli taught us about acknowledging, accepting, and even loving our “cracks” and imperfections. Our culture, especially in the performing arts and entertainment industry, pushes us very hard to attain perfection. For many trans people, that means being constantly reminded of all the ways in which we don’t measure up to cis-typical standards. How radical, then, to discard all of that, to let ourselves be seen as we are, not more and not less! As I said in [the introduction to] my short barbershop
quartet trio (down a bass who had come down with a cold) that was performed during the opening, “Let us fearlessly share and help each other discover and proudly claim our own unique, valid, and unashamed voice.”
Most of my Friday was spent with the incredible André Heywood (he/him), who directed a choir of around twenty transgender and gender nonbinary youth from around the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota. Many were students from area high schools brought by choir teachers and GSA advisors as a field trip. I cannot describe how beautiful it was to see these young people proudly stand and sing songs from the Justice Choir Songbook together. Sawubona. “I see you.” “I am here.” Simple words, but bold and powerful. It gave me and other older members of the community who came to listen to their performance a deep sense of hope and gratitude for their presence in our community.
There were many informative and emotionally powerful workshops and panels for both transgender people (singers and non-singers) and cisgender educator-allies. On Friday afternoon and during the day Saturday I attended several workshops, including one on the physiology of the transgender voice by Speech-Language Pathologist Erin Donahue (she/her) and one telling stories of our experience as transgender people by Shannon TL Kearns (he/him) of the transgender-led Uprising Theatre Company. I participated on a panel of transgender singers and performers talking about their experiences, which range from Venus DeMars’ (she/her) 20+ years fronting the punk band All The Pretty Horses to those of a transgender vocal student currently attending Macalaster College, whose Music Department hosted the festival.
There was a reading session led by Erik Peregrine featuring choral repertoire by transgender composers Mari Ésabel Valverde (she/her) and Michael Bussewitz-Quarm (he/him). There were song circles, including one exclusively for nonbinary people. I was moved by one “enby” friend’s description of how at home they felt being in a room of exclusively nonbinary people, rather than [their usual experience of] being alone while trying to navigate our extremely binary culture.
The capstone of each day was the TransFusion cabaret, with artists spanning the gender and genre spectrums. There was an adult trans choir that rehearsed both days and performed as part of the Saturday cabaret. Many of the singers who are local to the Twin Cities will continue rehearsing as a Trans Voices choir and the group will perform with One Voice Mixed Chorus at their June Pride concerts.
In short, there was almost more than we could fit in two days, let alone two abbreviated days (thanks, April blizzard). Everyone I’ve spoken with reiterated how powerful and meaningful the festival was for them and expressed hope that such an event might be held again in the future. We talked about how we might help make that happen at the advisory committee’s post mortem, and during the final sharing session at the festival several attendees from other cities expressed interest in hosting the next one. So, here’s to many more years of celebrating our beautiful Transgender Voices!
– Joselyn Fear (she/her) is a composer, vocalist, and educator currently living in St. Paul, MN. She has sung with One Voice Mixed Chorus (Minnesota’s LGBTA chorus) since 2015. Some of her previous compositions, along with her “deadname” can be found at her domain, which she promises she will get around to updating at some point. Her default social media platform is Facebook.
Check out the complete list of workshops and presenter handouts.