I have always loved choral music. From an early age I remember being fascinated by the complexities of harmony, and the beauty of the dissonances against stunning consonances. All students of the 5th grade were required to participate in the 5th Grade Choir. Performance opportunities were scarce; we performed at a local shopping mall—where I finally learned to blow a bubble with chewing gum—as well as our own graduation ceremony. To this day, the Shaker Tune “Simple Gifts” reminds me of my thrilling ascension into the secondary sphere of my public education.
By the time I arrived at the middle school level, I was determined to stay in choir. It seemed like a fun place to be, and the music experience was incredibly rewarding. My sixth-grade choral directors nurtured, developed, and inspired my dedication to the craft. Walking into the choir room felt like home, and while I didn’t seem to “fit in” anywhere else, my jagged puzzle piece of a personality somehow was assimilated into choir culture.
As any middle school or junior high educator can attest, strange things happen around this particular portion of adolescence. Hormone levels start to fluctuate, voices start to change, body odors start to develop a specific funk, and student behavior and verbiage become inherently unpredictable. I did not escape this particular trend in the seventh grade. Puberty comes for us all, leaving nobody unscarred in its destructive wake.
It was around this time that the pillar of my academic home began to shake. Cracks formed at the base of this structure that the choral room had erected, and it was dangerously close to shattering. My passion for the subject remained steadfast, but I started becoming hyper-aware of the gendered nature of the choir classroom. Sopranos and altos were the women, tenors and basses were the men. There was no distinction, no blurred line. The problem was, I existed as that blurred line. I existed in the in between. It was in the seventh grade that the word “transgender” was added to my vocabulary, and I realized that this identity described me.
I can’t say with exact precision when I learned the word; I can’t even begin to narrow down the moment I recognized its meaning in myself. What I can say is that my self-proclaimed home began to lose its luster. Adolescent me didn’t understand how to grapple with the gendered norms. My voice dropped faster than the Times Square Ball on New Years Eve. I went from a light and clear soprano to a bass II. I not only had to figure out how to sing in a chest voice and barely function in the falsetto register, but I had to wrestle with the qualms of identity that the voice change evoked. I no longer could sing with the rest of the girls, and no matter how much I felt that was where I belonged, I was resigned to sing in the “men’s” section.
This dispute between my self-identity and my voice did not resolve in high school. In fact, the problems were highlighted, exposed, and brought further into my perspective. In an effort to maintain a social status quo, I pushed my identity down, compressing and ignoring it in the hopes I could just follow the societal expectation of masculinity. This compression led to innumerable therapy appointments, severe depression, and culminated in a suicide attempt.
So, I stopped compressing my identity, I stopped hiding who I was—at least to the people in my school. It wasn’t a medium of expressing myself so much as it was survival. However, my choir director did not really know how to accommodate my needs. I was scared of making too big of a ripple in the social strata, so I didn’t make a fuss, but the divide between my identity and the choral ensemble continued to grow. As a senior in high school, I yearned to study music at the collegiate level, but I didn’t know if there was room for a transgender music student, let alone in music education. Despite the internal fissure I was facing, I applied, auditioned, and ultimately elected to attend my undergraduate institution as a music education major.
In a new school and state eight hours away from my hometown, I made a last-ditch effort at being a “boy”. I introduced myself by my birth name and gave it the old college try. Within two weeks, my depression had resurfaced, and I found myself slipping under the surface of its dark waters. I found LGBTQ resources at the Women’s Center and got help. It became clear to me that my transgender identity was not going away, It was a part of me, and if I didn’t acknowledge and accept myself, I simply would not survive. I announced the new “me” to the world and began living life as an openly trans music education major.
Needless to say, students and faculty alike were shaken. Trans issues hadn’t hit the mainstream yet, there was no Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, and Caitlyn Jenner was still living under her former name. Many addressed me delicately or simply ignored my pronounced identity. To their credit, I was still learning how to explain and educate others about my identity; I was still developing my confidence; I was still learning how to be me. I simply didn’t know how to tell my professors or colleagues the proper way to address me or what I needed, and if I’m being brutally honest, I was scared nobody would accept me for being true to myself. I continued to wear the choir tuxedo without complaint, I continued to allow professors to use masculine pronouns, and I continued to acquiesce to the gendered norms.
My junior year of my undergrad came around, and I had grown frustrated with the status quo. After years of activism and work in the LGBTQ sphere, helping to found a statewide non-profit organization dedicated to transgender support in the state, I was no longer unable to explain who I was. A friend helped me “rip off the Band-Aid,” and I began living as female full time. I sent a courtesy email to my professors, let my friends know how to address me, and attempted to live my music education major life as normal.
The gendered backlash in my choral ensemble was swift and strong: a pink and blue wave that crashed against me, challenging my identity. I was a bass, but I dressed and lived as female. Where did I belong in the standing arrangements? What uniform would I wear for concerts, the tuxedo? Or what I lovingly deemed the “trash-bag” choir dress? When my director referred to the “men” or “women,” where did I fall? What would my hotel rooming arrangements be for the choir tour? All of these things and more were problems I had to address and figure out for myself, by myself. While I’m sure trans people existed in music ensembles long before me and will continue to exist long after me, there weren’t easily accessible or acceptable solutions to these problems at the time.
For these reasons, I developed this website to serve as a resource for all music educators, regardless of particular field. There are certain challenges that trans individuals face naturally in music ensembles, and many directors find themselves at a loss navigating them. Whether it be some basic terminology used in the LGBTQ community, or specific questions such as “what should my transgender student wear for concerts?”, my hope is that this website offers concrete, practical advice for the music educator. I hope this can bridge the gap between music educators and transgender students, so that the music ensemble can still exist as a place where trans students can learn, develop a passion for music, and ultimately call home.
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