A common theme in the performing world is for the performing group(s) to appear uniform or consistent so as to demonstrate unity in the ensemble, whether it be a band, choir, orchestra, or some other musical group. Uniforms can be formal, such as a tuxedo, a dress, concert black, etc. or informal, like a simple T-shirt and jeans. Uniforms can be a powerful display of togetherness, as well as provide a familial and professional sense to the ensemble. This is typically in contrast to the individual expression provided by informal attire worn in the public atmosphere, which can provide its own challenges for transgender students particularly.
“[Ryan] began middle school by unapologetically identifying as gay and cross-dressing in a more flamboyant manner that suited his personal taste. Ryan’s inaugural act was to borrow a T-shirt from his best friend, a girl, and proudly wear it to school...This simple act reverberated throughout the hallways and inducted Ryan into an inescapable social strata—Ryan was a target. No one—students, teachers, administrators alike—knew how to respond.” (Nichols, 267)
When transgender students like Ryan attempt to better express their identity through their clothing, it can cause friction in their academic environment, a friction that music educators worry will enter into their ensembles. Music educators with performing ensembles often ask something akin to, “What should my transgender student wear when performing?” Typically, this is asked as the educator doesn’t know what the best option is in order to maintain a sense of the professionalism of their group, while also wanting to support their student.
Educators are right to ask this question. There is nothing inherently wrong about wanting one’s ensemble to match and share a common unified theme. However, I personally believe that sometimes this question is asked with the expected answer of “a transgender student will just wear whatever correlates to their assigned sex at birth” so as not to disturb the status quo. The problem is that this doesn’t support the transgender student, it simply reinforces a previously held expectation that gender = biological sex, which is not the case.
An argument could be made that the entire purpose of uniforms is to erase individual expression, so that the focus is on the group as a collective rather than each individual. However, every member of the group should feel comfortable in the uniform that they are in, especially in terms of an outward display of their gender. This isn’t something faced with every uniform. For example, marching bands use uniforms that are gender neutral—there isn’t one gender particularly associated with the uniform. However, when looking at something like formal concert attire, dresses and tuxedos are unmistakably indicators of one’s gender, even in the context of an ensemble. Since this is the case, directors should be considerate of their transgender students’ identities.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to different circumstances, every situation is contextual. The first person to discuss a trans students’ uniform with is the actual student themselves. Ask them what they would be comfortable wearing, making sure they know their opinion and comfort is of the top concern. This is about their comfort, not the comfort of their director.
Do provide reminders that while they make their decision, they should consider the fact that they will be wearing these in public for performances, which can have audiences that include, parents, administrators, teachers, and other students, some of whom may be unsupportive. In myriad situations, students can tend to focus on the micro without thinking about the macro. Giving these reminders in a friendly, supportive manner will give students the information they need to make an informed decision.
Some trans students will have no problem deciding to wear something that aligns to their assigned sex at birth. Others will feel uncomfortable with that and are going to want a different option, whether it be a dress instead of tux, a tux instead of a dress, or a more gender-neutral option, like concert black.
A gender-neutral option will be ideal for non-binary students or students who are uncomfortable with both the masculine and feminine options. Providing a third option that is gender-neutral can also help mitigate complex situations that can arise, such as an unsupportive parent refusing to let their transgender daughter wear a dress.
Options can range from formal concert black, my personal preference, to a simple white dress shirt and black pants, or something else that goes along with whatever the uniform’s theme may be. Some directors opt to use choral robes, though I tend to avoid these, as those typically have a religious connotation associated with them. The picture of the choir shown shows examples of "formal concert black".
At the beginning of the year, when it comes time to assign uniforms out or discuss formal attire in a handbook, ensure that the language used to describe the uniforms isn’t gendered. Avoid speaking or writing phrases such as, “Men will wear...” or “Women will wear...” This will help allow transgender students to feel more comfortable in the ensemble.
For example, a possible excerpt in a choir handbook about uniforms and appearance could appear like this:
“Students have 2 different formal uniform options*:
1. A black choral dress that is provided by the department.
-Students are in charge of ensuring their dress is properly hemmed and taken care of throughout the year.
- Please do NOT make permanent alterations to the dress. If permanent alterations are made, a fee may be charged. If there are any issues with the dress, please contact the director ASAP.
2. Black dress pants, long-sleeve white tuxedo shirt, a vest, and tie.
-The vest and tie will be provided by the choral department.
-Students will need to provide their own dress pants and tuxedo shirt.
*Note: If you are uncomfortable with either of these options, please see your director to discuss a third option.
Black dress shoes: close-toed, flats, or a 1”- 2” heel are acceptable. No clogs, sandals, flip-flops, boots, or platforms will be accepted.
At all performances (unless stated by the director) the hair should be placed out of the students’ eyes in a professional style. No bows, ribbons, or barrettes. All hair clips and accessories should be discreet and blend with the hair color.
Jewelry should be worn under the uniform. All earrings should be small loops or studs.”
Note that all of the language regarding aspects of the student’s expression is androgynous. This is not just good practice as our societal gender norms have evolved (there are many men that wear earrings or have their hair long, and women who avoid skirts/dresses), but it helps detract the focus away from specific genderizations while allowing the director to set clear instructions about their uniform expectations.
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