In 2004 I was a founding member of TransVoices in Minneapolis, the second ever transgender choir on the planet. It was the brainchild of Jane Ramseyer Miller, the artistic director for One Voice Mixed Chorus, generated out of a Transgender Voices Festival that she organized after watching 2 FTM members of her choir transition and experience different singing challenges as a result. The weekend conference, the first of its kind anywhere, brought together a variety of singers, activists, and vocal specialists from as far away as California to talk about a range of voice issues for trans people—from what happens to your vocal chords when you transition to techniques for increasing pitch range to vocal care suggestions. At that Festival, Jane started a transgender vocal ensemble to sing in a collaborative concert with One Voice called “Blurring the Lines: Music and Gender”—which eventually became a freestanding organization called TransVoices, of which I was Co-Chair.
I was not planning to sing with the trans choir at all. In fact, I was so self-conscious about my voice that I nearly missed the entire Festival. Though I knew it would be perfect for me, I ended up being a half hour late because I sat immobilized on my bedroom floor, unsure if I could really coax myself into going. I went to the singing workshop at the end of the Festival really just to challenge myself, but ended up having such a good time that when Jane asked who wanted to join the chorus, I found my hand going up quite to my surprise and almost against my will!
During the eight weeks of rehearsal, in the safety I felt with Jane and the others in the choir, my confidence in my voice grew. Choir rehearsal was what I most looked forward to in my week and I began to feel more powerful and tapped into a reservoir of self-expression that I was not previously aware of. Voice is such a huge aspect of our gendered personas so the choir became an unexpectedly profound space as people got to sing in the vocal range that matched their internal sense of self for the first time in their lives. It was amazing to look around and see tall stunning women in dresses and heels at times singing bass, to see tiny guys with beards at times singing soprano, and everything in between. How refreshing to be in a group of singers not divided up into men and women—that dynamic had always left me wondering where I fit. Instead we organized largely into melody and harmony and from the beginning there was only one directive for the group: find your pitch. And if that changes day to day or between songs, just move around until you find your fit. If only all of life could be that way!
While the experience of the choir was extremely empowering for all of us, it was also a space of vulnerability that taught me a lot about new models of social change. For many of the cross dressers in the group, singing with TransVoices was the first time they appeared in public in the clothing of their choice. As the 12 of us stood there in front of the 80 member One Voice choir, audience members responded dramatically to our courage, repeatedly sharing how they were moved to tears and how much they’d learned from our presence. Concert surveys demonstrated how audience members, as well as One Voice and TransVoices singers, grew more comfortable with and accepting of their own and others’ gendered expressions. One Voice members and GLB audience members began to see their commonalities with transgender experiences. At one concert an audience member remarked to me, “Everyone always talks about trans inclusion, but this group really shows it.” The choir was a hugely important opportunity for visibility for trans communities in the Twin Cities and community education about trans issues, including within GLB organizations.
My experience with TransVoices profoundly reshaped my vision of social change. Although I had been a queer activist, and political activist more generally, for well over a decade by this point, it was such a different experience for me—instead of endless meetings to talk about how angry and victimized we were—to come together with folks to create something really positive, from our vulnerability, from our hearts, from our creativity. Not only was it hugely personally empowering as I tapped into the power of my own voice—quite literally—and my creative expression, but I saw that it was hugely effective as a form of genuine social change. Contemporary activists talk about reorienting our social change models from “calling people out” to “calling people in” and the choir, for me, represented this paradigm shift. As a trans person, I see one of my roles in life as being a bridge and a bridge builder and I saw again and again the way this choir built various types of bridges—bridges that I needed for my own survival—and my vision for social change has not been the same since.
Since that time, I have sang with a variety of queer and other choirs—including One Voice in Minneapolis, Harmony Chorale in Denver, the One World Inspirational Choir at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, Mosaic Gospel Choir in Boulder, and the Second Baptist Gospel Choir in Columbia, Missouri—but in the back of my mind I knew someday I would start my own trans choir. The strong impetus for this came in 2012 when I attended my first GALA Festival, the gathering of gay and lesbian choirs from all over the country that meets every 4 years, and discovered, much to my dismay, that there was not a transgender presence anywhere at the 5 day event. Among the 54 choirs that performed, there wasn’t a single trans chorus, in the evening production “celebrating GALA’s LGBT history” there was no mention of transgender people, and, although there was a Festival Men’s Chorus, Women’s Chorus, and Mixed Chorus, there was no Festival Trans Chorus. I ended up setting up a table with a homemade sign outside Boettcher Concert Hall to gather trans folks attending the Festival and determined that in 2016 the erasure of trans singers would not happen again.
Although TransVoices, the choir I sang with in Minneapolis, was for singers anywhere on the trans spectrum (and at the time I was not yet on hormones), this new choir we are forming is for anyone touched by trans issues, not just trans identified people. I am extremely passionate about this aspect of the vision. As I went on hormones in 2006, I learned what a self-absorbed path transition can be and how instrumental advocates—the people we unfortunately refer to as SOFFAS (Significant Others, Friends, Family, and Allies)—can be to transgender survival. While the personal journeys of trans identified people are beginning to get more attention and support in the mainstream, the gender, sexual and personal journeys of partners, family members, and friends of trans folks are largely invisible—the needs of this diverse community oftentimes erased even to members themselves who are often so concerned with supporting the transgender person in their lives, they shut out the impact on their own experience.
In addition, where there are support structures in trans communities, they tend to be extremely segregated—such that those on the masculine spectrum meet in one room, those on the feminine spectrum meet in another room, and partners and family members meet in yet another room. While of course it is important for people to have a safe space to talk with others going through similar challenges, I wanted to create a space where everyone touched by transgender issues could come together as one family—and each aspect of the community could find its experience reflected back. In that vein, the organizing members of what is currently being called the Colorado Trans Community Choir and Arts Collective (until we meet and together choose a name that signifies the shared vision of members) reflect the spectrum: Sam Bullington, the Artistic Director, is trans identified, Angela Gayan Galik, the Executive Director, is partnered with a trans person and is bringing a song she wrote about that experience, and Jesse Maclaine, our Assistant Director and Accompanist, is a friend/ally to trans community.
In addition to the expansive vision of the choir regarding identity, we wanted an expansive artistic vision for the choir as well. While TransVoices was comprised only of transgender identified singers, this new choir welcomes contributors from the arts more broadly. In the decade that has passed since I sang with TransVoices, our engagement with multiple forms of media has increased exponentially, especially for young people (and the number one question I have received repeatedly about this choir so far is what is the age limit because there are so many transkids who are coming out and needing somewhere they can go for community and mentorship), so this Choir/Arts Collective welcomes not only singers of all levels of experience, but musicians of all sorts, poets, storytellers, visual artists, and cultural workers of all kinds. All of our performances will include some kind of spoken word and multimedia presentation as part of our presence.
We hope that you will feel inspired to join us for this initial season! Although forming this choir has been my vision for many years, it is meant to be a collaborative grassroots community project. I will provide the container for people to gather and grow in and will shape this container, but ultimately it is up to us as a community to decide where we want to take this project. As a founding member, you have the opportunity to help influence the direction of this venture. This Colorado Trans Community Choir and Arts Collective really began when I had the courage to get up off my bedroom floor and show up to the Transgender Voices Festival back in 2004. Although it was one of the most challenging and courageous acts of my life at that point, I found immediate and life changing rewards—and I certainly had no idea at the time where it would take me. Where is Life wanting to take you? Come join us and find out!