Empowering Transgender Voices Through Singing

Singer and teacher Alexander Pullinger explores the removal of cisgendered expectations in Western classical singing, and the creation of trans-positive singing spaces.

Singer and teacher Alexander Pullinger explores the removal of cisgendered expectations in Western classical singing, and the creation of trans-positive singing spaces.

The pain of not being able to sing with others is something many freelance singers have experienced over the last year, as a result of COVID-19. Many of us who sing professionally have suffered not only from the financial impact of restrictions on live singing, but also the emotional impact. The prospect of not singing together again indefinitely has been excruciating to consider. And yet, for many singers who are transgender, organised singing has always been, and will remain, largely inaccessible. I was entirely unaware of this until very recently. As far as I knew, I had never seen, nor worked with, any transgender singers: not as a boy chorister, nor as a choral scholar, nor anywhere on the freelance circuit in the UK and abroad. For a long time, the strangeness of this had not occurred to me. That is, until I made a connection between conventions in organised singing and the everyday challenges transgender individuals face – a connection I made as a result of being exposed to my (transgender) partner’s experiences in the wider world. I cannot now unsee the viscerally damaging effects of ignorant behaviour – whether it is overt or much more subtle - upon transgender people in singing environments. In either case, the harm is both acute and lasting.

Group singing is a ‘joyful activity which has the potential to enhance the lives of those people fortunate enough to discover the benefits it can facilitate’ (Judd, 2013). It improves mental health (Morrison, 2011), actively promotes a connection to the body, and encourages social inclusion (Defined as: ‘sense of self and of being socially integrated’) (Graham F. Welch, 2014). Conversely, transgender people are well-known to suffer from poor mental health, and often to feel disconnected from their bodies; and they can be particularly isolated compared to their peers (Carmel, Hopwood, & Dickey, 2014). Therefore, the benefits of group singing could be particularly profound for transgender people. However, because of pre-existing gendered and cisgendered expectations associated with voice type, they are either excluded altogether, or risk being subjected to abuse if they participate. The need to make singing more accessible to transgender people is urgent: not only because they are being unfairly excluded from an enjoyable pastime, but also because singing could directly help to alleviate the widespread mental health, body image and social isolation issues within the transgender community.

“Ladies, let’s go again from the top”. This is a phrase I often hear in choral rehearsals, and it takes me a moment to realise the conductor means me. He is actually referring to the altos, of which I am one. I am a countertenor, and sing the alto line –  a voice part regularly associated with women, although I identify as a cis (not transgender) man. Cis men singing alto is, in fact, common practice in church choirs all over the country. When the conductor wants to hear from the basses or tenors, he might say, “Gents, let’s have that passage again”. In choral singing we frequently hear of ‘men’s’ voices (tenors and basses) and ‘women’s’ voices (sopranos and altos). There are certain expectations that any given voice part will belong to a particular gender (‘men sing low, women sing high’). Although these expectations are not always met, they persist, despite major developments in our understanding of sex and gender since 1990. Voice type is a product of hormones and is not defined by gender. For this reason, it can be concluded that assigning a gender to the voice does not make logical sense - even if it might seem simpler to do so. In fact, it is especially illogical if we consider that many people do identify with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth - people whose voices have developed according to their sex. It is estimated that around 1 percent of the UK population is transgender – around 600, 000 people as of 2017  (Stonewall, 2017). It follows, then, that there will be a large number of men, women, and non-binary individuals whose voices defy the gendered labels that could be incorrectly assigned to the way they sound. Transgender people, by definition, do not always meet the expectation that men sing low and women sing high. Therefore these gendered labels are liable to exclude many transgender people from singing.

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We are all members of a society embedded with cisgendered expectations, and singing teachers and choir directors are no exception. Because of this, they are likely to assume sex and gender are the same. This misunderstanding can result in the teacher or choir director unintentionally asking a transgender student to do something they find distressing, whilst also remaining ignorant of this distress. For example, the enforcing of gendered dress codes in performance is, at best, alienating for transgender people, binary and non-binary alike. At worst, it is thoroughly dehumanising. For young transgender singers in an educational setting, the pressure to make clothing choices that reflect the way their voice is perceived by those in positions of power can be highly distressing, and can discourage those singers from continuing to take part in an activity they would otherwise enjoy or even benefit from.

It is crucial to raise awareness of the potential harm that can be caused through lack of awareness, and to create spaces that are trans-inclusive and trans-positive. In singing spaces that are neither of those things, there is intrinsic potential for transgender people to be abused, either through ignorance or on purpose.  This can manifest in a variety of ways, as we will see from the following excerpt by transgender opera singer, writer and activist CN Lester. Writing for the National Opera Studio website, they report:

Over the past few years, I have spoken to more trans musicians (trans singers in particular) than I had ever hoped I would know. All have emphasised the supportive people in their lives, the teachers, colleagues, directors and coaches who have believed in us and helped up [sic] to succeed. But every one of them has spoken of the other people who, through ignorance, lack of care or outright malice, have made our lives worse. Interactions with these people are common, and can be more damaging, than most cis (not trans) people imagine.
At one extreme are cases of insulting and exclusionary behaviour, sometimes turning into outright harassment. It’s being told that there’s no place for ‘people like you’ in the music industry or educational institutions, being humiliated in masterclasses, and being cross-examined and insulted in auditions. There are educators at universities and colleges who tell aspiring singers that we should give up, that no one will hire us, that our ambitions are laughable and our talent doesn’t matter. It is being treated as though we are something shameful and disgusting.
But it’s also the discrimination that comes under the guise of curiosity, and the ways in which unexamined behaviour from those around us can diminish and exclude us. I have become used to new colleagues asking about my genitals: what they are, am I going to get them altered, “what are you really?”. I get asked how I have sex, told that I’ll have to “make up my mind”, am misgendered, and turned into an awkward joke. Not everyone does this – but not everyone has to. It happens enough, and with sufficient regularity, to poison a great many working environments, and make it hard to connect with my colleagues, to give the best of myself, and to feel safe and supported at work.

(Lester, 2019)

This account points to systemic issues in the world of singing: a high level of personal intrusion and intolerance in a variety of singing-related situations, enacted both by colleagues and people in positions of authority.  Elsewhere in the article, Lester describes how many transgender singers, after a while, cease to be involved in singing altogether, because of the conditions described. Lester indicates that even those who would pursue singing as a career are prevented from doing so by an environment that is predisposed not to accept them. Here we can see the devastating impact of gendered and cisgendered expectations on the futures of many aspiring singers.

As we have seen, singing spaces are often unwelcoming for transgender people at present. However, there are changes that can be made today that will help considerably, and I have made some recommendations below.

1) Use of language

The use of gendered language in rehearsals immediately dictates how the group relates to voice types. To cisgender singers with higher voices, being referred to as ‘ladies’ will probably not be noticeable to those who do identify that way. But for those who do not, for example transgender men, it can be profoundly distressing and invalidating. The same applies to transgender women with lower voices being referred to as men. Further to this, choirs described as being ‘for men’ or ‘for women’ have the potential to deter non-binary singers altogether, as well as those whose voices are more typically associated with a different gender. Conceivably, a low-voiced choir described as being ‘for men’ would not be a welcoming space for a transgender woman tenor or bass. A high-voiced choir ‘for women’ could be unwelcoming for transgender men; and either a ‘men’s choir’ or a ‘women’s choir’ could be exclusionary for a non-binary person (Jackson Hearns & Kremer, The Singing Teacher's Guide to Transgender Voices, 2018).

2) Dress codes

In my experience, the conductor often sets the dress code for performances. There is often one dress code given for men, and one for women. For instance:

Men:  Black trousers, black shirt, black dinner jacket, black shoes

Ladies: Black knee-length skirt, black blouse, black shoes

While this approach may be unremarkable for the majority of singers, it can leave some transgender singers feeling unable to dress in a way that matches their identity (assuming they have not already been put off from singing at the rehearsal stage). First of all, a binary, gendered dress code (i.e. one for men and one for women) is by definition incompatible with non-binary identity. Secondly, transgender people who are not regularly read as the gender they are (a concept known as ‘passing’) can expose themselves to harassment, because they may be seen to be cross-dressing. Thirdly, pressuring them to present as a gender other than their own can cause dysphoria and distress, and communicates an attitude that their gender presentation would necessarily be subjected to ridicule and harassment. One solution to this could be to have the same clothing options, perhaps listed and itemised, but not to specify that any particular combination is for men or for women. In practice, this leaves the singers free to choose, while still allowing them to adhere to the specified concert dress code. This small change, a few words in a pre-concert email, removes the restriction that could otherwise be needlessly distressing and alienating. Here is one solution:

Black shirt, blouse or roll-neck top   

Black knee-length skirt or black trousers

Smart black shoes, low heels or flats

3) Auditions

At present, auditions largely take place under the assumption that auditionees of a certain voice type will also be a certain gender. This is a potential barrier to transgender people who, in the context of their gender, will often have a voice type the audition panel might not be expecting. Further to this, members of the panel may also have absorbed prejudices against transgender people, as held by wider society. Here, CN Lester’s suggestion of blind auditions would be helpful for the first round, to counteract the current prejudice against gender diverse singers (Lester, 2019). I should stress that singing spaces must be made accommodating to transgender people before, and not after, they have been encouraged to apply. This is because, otherwise, a well-intentioned openness to transgender applicants could unwittingly invite them into the transphobic, and potentially unsafe, environment they sought to avoid in the first place. In short, a practical and demonstrable trans-awareness and a trans-positive attitude is a prerequisite to the necessary adjustment of the audition process. I would like to amplify the call for auditions based solely on voice type,  actively removing any connection to gender; a connection which, I will reiterate, is not only alienating to transgender people but also illogical.  

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We must acknowledge that gendered expectations do not operate in isolation. It is well documented that Western classical singers are far more likely than the population at large to be white, and they are far more likely to be middle class (Bull, 2019). I have met very few black or working-class singers on the freelance choral scene. The current racial landscape of classical singing contributes to unconscious bias about who should be admitted into the singing environment (Barone, 2020). We must consider this when examining how the wider Western classical music tradition excludes a diverse range of transgender people: a singer who is black and transgender will likely face compound and interconnected difficulties in accessing opportunities to participate in classical singing, as the ability to assimilate becomes harder. An intersectional understanding of transphobia is therefore necessary to fully dismantle the obstacles to this group (Hill Collins & Bilge, 2016). In the wake of Black Lives Matter, I would urge institutions who have already begun to acknowledge their contribution to systemic racism to address issues of diversity with an understanding and awareness of intersectionality. This would be in the hope that, in particular, black transgender and queer voices can also be heard – a group the most silenced, and the most violently silenced, of all (Savage, 2020).

We know that singing in groups is good for us, and that transgender people could be helped a great deal by it; but the scale of obstruction against them is so great, the conventions so pervasive, that it will take a concerted effort from cis allies, working with transgender singers and teachers, to end this cycle. It is an insidious one: widespread trans-exclusionary conventions and attitudes make choirs and singing studios unwelcoming, or likely to be so; often, transgender people avoid singing as a result, meaning they do not train, do not perform, and do not see themselves represented on stage. Because of this, the singing environment remains unwelcoming, lack of understanding continues, and transgender people remain invisible and maligned. My main aim is to introduce these issues to practitioners, many of whom may not have considered them. The targeted changes I have suggested will help to i) make transgender people feel welcome and safe; ii) make them more likely to be accepted into prestigious singing and teaching positions; and iii) increase the number of transgender singers on main stages around the world – which will in turn encourage young transgender people into singing environments that accept and nurture them. This means the existing cycle of erasure and hostility can be replaced by one of visibility and acceptance, and the transgender community will be able freely to access the profound human benefits of singing.

To some, the idea of overhauling all classical singing environments for the benefit of a small minority might seem extreme. However, removing oppressive restrictions on the most vulnerable benefits all of us. It will bring diversity of lived experience (meaning richer musical offerings), and foster greater compassion. Ultimately, it will allow all of us the freedom to express ourselves without being bound to rigid gender norms about what we can wear, whose voices can be heard, and whose stories can be told.

This article is based on an earlier one funded by Sound Connections, ‘Facilitating the Empowerment of Transgender Voices Through Singing: A case for the removal of cisgendered expectations in Western classical singing, and the creation of trans-positive singing spaces’. You can read it here. I am grateful to Lucia Lucas for her insightful feedback.

Recommended reading: Liz Jackson Hearns and Brian Kremer, The Singing Teacher’s Guide to Transgender Voices

Alexander Pullinger is a singer, teacher and advocate for trans voices. You can find out more at his website: www.alexanderpullinger.co.uk or via his Twitter.

             Barone, J. (2020, September 23). Opera Can No Longer Ignore Its Race Problem

Bull, A. (2019). Class, Control and Classical Music. London: Oxford University Press.

Carmel, T., Hopwood, R., & dickey, l. m. (2014). Mental Health Concerns. In Trans Bodies, Trans Selves (pp. 305-332). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Graham F. Welch, E. H. (2014, July). Singing and Social Inclusion. Frontiers in Psychology, 5.

Hill Collins, P., & Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Jackson Hearns, L., & Kremer, B. (2018). The Singing Teacher's Guide to Transgender Voices. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing, Inc.

Judd, M. D. (2013). The Psychological Benefits of of Participating in Group Singing for Members of the General Public. Psychology of Music, 42(2), 269-283.

Lester, C. (2019, June 12). Taking to the Stage: Life as a Trans Opera Singer. Retrieved from National Opera Studio: 

Morrison, S. a. (2011, May). Group singing fosters mental health and wellbeing: Findings from the East Kent "singing for health" network project. Mental Health and Social Inclusion.

Savage, R. (2020, July 23). 'I feel targeted': U.S. trans murders near record high. Retrieved November 2020, from Reuters

Stonewall. (2017). The Truth About Trans. Retrieved November 2020, from Stonewall