By Reid Vanderburgh
August 9, 2023
Reid Vanderburgh lead this vitally important workshop during the 2013 Annual Leadership Symposium in Atlanta.
Trans Inclusivity in GALA Choruses
There are three types of GALA choruses – men’s, women’s, and mixed. When we talk about trans inclusivity in the men’s or women’s choruses, we immediately bump up against the definitions of “man” and “woman.” Within a mixed chorus setting, we may bump up against these definitions if sections are defined as “women automatically sing soprano/alto” and “men automatically sing tenor/bass.” If sections in a mixed chorus are defined strictly by vocal range, there are still issues to be addressed re trans inclusivity. For instance, a director instructing, “Okay, men, sing these two measures” might instead say, “Okay, tenors and basses, sing these two measures.”
“GLBT” flows off the tongue easily, but it might be more accurate to say “GLB” and “T.” Gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, etc. are all labels for sexual orientation, describing various forms of relationships with other people. Gender identity, on the other hand, describes one’s relationship to oneself. When you look in the mirror, are you satisfied with the gender of the reflection back at you, which others will call a man or woman? Is that label okay with you? Sexual orientation and gender identity are different forms of identity, so it can get confusing to use “GLBT community” as if these all describe the same kind of thing. (I encourage you to read the following trans terminology list: http://www.transtherapist.com/adults-transitioning/trans-terminology)
The first step in becoming trans-inclusive is to “unpack” the definitions of “man” and “woman,” to turn off our gender autopilot. Are these labels based on biology? What does that mean – chromosomes, having a penis (or not), having a vagina/vulva (or not), surgery, hormone levels, what? How much of our definition is about social gender roles? Do we believe, in our heart of hearts, that someone can change from being a man to being a woman, or vice versa? What level of change is necessary for an individual to undertake before we accept them as men, or women? Is it good enough if they tell us that’s who they are, regardless of how they look? How do we feel about the person who says their gender is somewhere in the middle and they want a pronoun other than “he” or “she?” Do we perceive a fellow chorus member differently if we find out they haven’t always lived as the gender we perceive them to be? How would we feel if we find out the person we’ve sat next to in rehearsal for four years is about to transition?
Though one can easily write trans-inclusive language for the chorus mission statement, the above questions need to be addressed by each chorus member, individually, for a chorus to be trans-inclusive. Choruses are social environments, and the most trans-inclusive language is going to fall flat if the chorus members themselves haven’t taken the time to do their own self-examination, and be open to education and changing their ways of conceptualizing gender. Chorus leadership can lead the way by undertaking this self-education openly, encouraging the chorus by example.
The chorus organization can help by providing a forum for education, some kind of presentation on trans identity/issues, but it’s on the individual chorus members to turn off their own gender autopilot and take the issues seriously. This level of self-examination is uncomfortable for most people, let’s normalize that right away, but is ultimately excellent self-education. This is a great opportunity for chorus members to examine their relationship to their own gender identity/social role. While members of GALA choruses have done soul-searching about their sexual orientation at some time in their lives, most have not done the same about their gender identity.
The labels we each choose as being a good fit for us are all a matter of self-determination. We can’t line people up and point to them one by one, saying, “Yes, you’re gay. No, you over there, you’re not gay.” It sounds ludicrous to even think of doing so, and very disrespectful. Yet many of us do presume to have that right when it comes to gender identity. “You, you’re not really a woman because you haven’t had lower surgery.” “You, I can’t consider you a man because you haven’t had chest surgery yet and I can tell you still have breasts.”
Now we enter the realm of privilege. It is cisgender privilege to presume to define someone else’s gender identity, or to claim the right to pass judgment on other people’s self-definitions. The analogy here is the straight person who passes judgment on the validity of same-sex relationships. A gay man or lesbian may ask an opponent of marriage equality, with indignation, “And exactly how does it harm your straight marriage if I want the right to marry my partner?” The trans person might ask, with equal indignation, “And exactly how does it harm your sense of gender identity if I ask you to call me ‘she’ or ‘he’ even if you made a different assumption about my gender when you saw me?”
Gender privilege is quite a topic to unpack, and a full discussion is beyond the scope of this article. Here are questions to further the discussion within yourself, and among your chorus members: How does male privilege play out here? If someone transitions to female, does she still have male privilege? Is there privilege in being trans, visibly or not? What of transmen, do they automatically gain male privilege once they’re seen as men? Have they betrayed the community of women in some way by transitioning? If a transman remains involved with his female partner, does that automatically make them straight? If you find out they can’t legally marry in your state, though they appear heterosexual, does that make them somehow more part of queer community in your eyes? If you are a gay/bisexual cisgender man, how would you feel if you found out a guy you are attracted to is a transman? Or if you’re a cisgender lesbian/bisexual woman, how would you feel finding yourself attracted to a transwoman? Would it make a difference to you if s/he is invisible as a trans person, that they appear to be cisgender? If it does, why is that?
One final point of discussion has to do with the social milieu of the chorus. I sing in the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus. At the moment, three of our 150+ singers are cisgender women, singing first tenor. These women fit in just fine, largely because they make no attempt to change the nature of the chorus. The men around them are just as free to socialize in a male kind of way as they ever were, as far as these women are concerned.
There are three well-into-transition transmen in PGMC at the moment, half a dozen straight cisgender men, and a pre-transition transwoman who still presents as male and hasn’t (yet) asked the larger group to switch pronouns. I can’t speak for the others, but I know precisely the kind of organization I’ve joined, and don’t presume that the organization change to accommodate me. All any of us want is for our identities to be respected, if and when we tell chorus members what those identities are. Though we might wish people wouldn’t make assumptions about us, we are also well aware that it’s not an unreasonable assumption that anyone male-looking joining PGMC is, in fact, a gay man. A gay cisgender man. Most members are just that.
On occasion, a chorus may find they have a trans member who has an unreasonable expectation, perhaps getting angry any time anyone makes a mistake in referring to their gender. Perhaps expecting instant adjustment on the part of chorus members who have never thought about these issues before. There is a steep learning curve involved, and turning off that gender autopilot is not easy work. It’s a process, and it’s unreasonable on the part of a trans person to expect that process to be instantaneous, or easy, or smooth, or without pronoun slips. Or to expect that every chorus member has in fact undertaken the adjustment process at all, there may be some who remain uncomfortable with trans identity.
The main thing is, are most chorus members making a wholehearted effort to adjust? Most trans people allow for slips and periods of adjustment; this is their lived experience, in all arenas of their life, as they proceed with the profoundly life-changing process we call transition. Most trans people also realize that not everyone is going to make the adjustment; they will pick and choose who they socialize with accordingly. The chorus can be a great source of support during this time, but may also have to set an organizational boundary if a trans person has unreasonable expectations. Some trans people handle this level of change better than others. Some individuals may have needs too great for a chorus to handle without unduly disrupting rehearsals. (This can be the case with any chorus member, regardless of their particular identity.)
Transition is a difficult, often-overwhelming, life-changing process. So is coming out gay/lesbian/bisexual. There is some overlap of experience, early in the process – coming out to family, to friends, striving for self-acceptance, figuring out how precisely this identity fits us, etc. Finding these points of commonality can enable cisgender chorus members to stay centered and supportive when a member is early in transition. Learning about the differences in experience is useful in understanding, for example, why it’s so triggering to trans people to have folks use the “wrong” pronoun.
If you are cisgender and lesbian/gay/bisexual, think back to your early coming out experiences, and what you found helpful and supportive among your straight friends and family members (or, if you had no support, what would you have wished for?). A cisgender chorus member won’t understand how it feels to be trans, anymore than straight friends and family members can understand what it feels like to be gay/lesbian/bisexual. But ask yourself, is visceral understanding, from a first person perspective, really necessary in order to feel supported? Or to provide support?
For the artistic directors: It’s all about the voice, isn’t it? You may find a pre-transition transman joining your men’s or mixed chorus, then starting to take hormones. His voice will then go through a similar process to that of a teenage cisgender boy. I once sang in a highly auditioned mixed chorus, as an alto. Seven years into my membership, I started taking hormones. When the director found out I was going to transition, she proactively came to me and said, “What can I do to support you?” I said, “Don’t make me re-audition!” She said, “You’re a member, now and always, no matter what section you end up in.” That’s what support looks like.
If you conduct a women’s or mixed chorus, you may find yourself faced with a transwoman who wants to sing soprano. She has been wanting to live as a woman possibly her whole life, and now wants to do things that she associates with women. Wear dresses everywhere. Wear make-up. And sing soprano. Alto might do, soprano is better. But, unless she’s lucky enough to have been a countertenor, soprano might be a completely unrealistic goal for her. It’s not your job to be her therapist, to help her come to terms with readjusting her life goals into the realm of realistic. But you can best support her by listening to her voice, and helping her sing in as high a range as you feel possible for her. And, if it’s really her range to sing a lower part, introduce her to the first or second altos, so she can get acquainted with the idea that they’re women, too. If you are directing a women’s chorus, you may also find it an advantage to have a second alto who can sing a solid low A. Help her see this as an advantage she brings to the chorus. That’s what support looks like.
There’s lots more to say, many more possible questions to ask and answer. I’m available for conversations via Skype or some such. I am a retired therapist, and during the course of my career, I worked with over 450 trans clients, all asking, “How do I want to live my life?” in the context of gender identity. I have conducted numerous workshops and trainings on various aspects of trans identity. In addition, I’ve been singing in one GALA chorus or another since 1986; I’m the only person who has sung in every GALA chorus the state of Oregon has produced. I was a founding member of the Portland Lesbian Choir (1986-1997), a founding member of Bridges Vocal Ensemble (1990-1998, I transitioned from alto to bass in this group), a bass in Confluence: Willamette Valley LGBT Chorus (2001-2008), and now a baritone in the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus (2008-present). My soul has been fed with 28 years of singing in GALA choruses, and I’d like to give something back by offering my expertise in this arena to any chorus that would like to learn. Feel free to visit my website, www.transtherapist.com, I’ve written a lot about trans identity.