Choir screams gender. From the traditional to the modern day, from choir dress codes to vocal parts, from the hypermasculine fear of singing to the choirboy image. A great many changes are needed to make choral spaces more gender-inclusive, and one of the first steps is to use language that will include all singers. Recently, many studies have been conducted on how to better include transgender singers into choirs. While many transgender singers fall under the gender binary (the classification of sex and gender into two types, male or female) and therefore under traditional choral terminology, the growing number of gender fluid or non-binary singers in our ensembles require choral directors to give significant attention to non-gendered rehearsal language.
Gender terminology and awareness has rapidly changed in the past five years, and many terms are still debated while new expressions are coming up as awareness grows. A few basic terms such as trans, queer, and transgender have been standardized globally. Gender identity describes how people perceive their innermost sense of self in relation to the social constructions of gender (i.e., being male, female, both, or neither). Gender is different from sex, which is categorized by taking into account three physical characteristics at birth: anatomy, hormones, and chromosomes. The term transgender literally means “trans” or “transgressive” gender, and is both an umbrella term and an identity label used to describe people who do not identify with their assigned gender at birth. This can include transsexual, genderqueer, gender non-binary, gender non-conforming, genderfluid, and two-spirit people. Although often used as an umbrella term for all trans individuals, it can still imply a gender binary. Terms such as trans and/or queer are preferable as umbrella terms. Non-binary describes any gender identity that does not fall within the male/female gender binary. Non-binary is also used as an identifying term by people who identify outside of the binary. This can include genderqueer, gender nonconforming, or gender variant individuals. Gender fluid defines gender identity in which an individual’s gender varies over time. How and when a gender fluid individual identifies is entirely dependent on their feelings of self at that particular moment. Their gender may vary day-to-day, randomly or contextually identifying with a combination of male, female, or any non-binary gender identity. Ciswoman and cisman are terms used for individuals who identify with the gender assigned at birth.
Although it may seem fairly obvious not to call singers “men” and “women,” or “ladies” and “gentlemen,” it is still common in choral organizations. Using the names of the voice parts—soprano, alto, tenor, and bass—is preferable. Choir directors could also go as far as to abandon the traditional names for the voice parts altogether. One could name them by number or give them their own descriptive name following the example of Finnish choir director and composer Petra Lampinen. Lampinen is the artistic director of a Finnish gay women’s choir Kaupungin naiset [Towns women]. She calls the highest part soprano, middle part “alttoset” a nickname crafted from the term “alto,” and the lowest part “örrit,” which is a made-up term and could roughly be translated as “growlers,” implying a low register. While the lowest part may seem low for the altos by standards in this country, many Finnish composers write choral music where the altos may sing as low as C3. All of the octavos for Kaupungin naiset use their ensemble’s chosen part names. The ensemble’s description, “lesbian choir,” does imply women, but Lampinen explains that it describes the viewpoint by which they look at things rather than their gender identity. All singers are welcome, regardless of their gender or sexual identity. They only need to agree with the mission statement and pass the musical audition.
Gendered ensemble names in general can be problematic. Many ensembles may have ciswomen singing tenor, or countertenors as part of the alto section. Many ensembles forgo traditional single-sex ensemble names such as “Women’s Choir” or “Men’s Chorus” and instead opt for the titles Treble Choir or Bass Choir. Creativity can be used and ensemble members may be a great source of inspiration in renaming the ensemble, giving the director a chance to open a dialogue with their students about gender as a spectrum. One may decide to use a more gendered name in the end, but opening new dialogues will benefit the growth of the ensemble and its leader. When teaching vocal technique, pedagogy may require specific attention to the male or female voice. To avoid assuming gender within a section that may have multiple genders represented, the conductor can use the terms “natal female” and “natal male” voice. This will include everyone in the ensemble regardless of gender identity.
Discussion about text settings or poetry should not assume heteronormative relationships or behavior. Heteronormativity assumes that everyone is heterosexual and that heterosexuality is the normal state in society. Included in this concept is the idea that men and women are complementary and should therefore only be sexually active with one another. Any variance from this norm (i.e., homosexuality, bisexuality, etc.) is considered “deviant” or “unnatural.” Heteronormative ways of thinking commonly lead to the erasure or invisibility of non-heterosexual-identifying people.
Admittedly, it is difficult to change the way one usually speaks in rehearsals. It will take practice and determination, just as with learning any new skill. Slips happen, everyone makes mistakes, but repeatedly using gendered terms qualifies as a microaggression on the instructor’s part. Microaggressions can be defined as a recurring comment or action that is directed towards a marginalized person or a group of people and communicates a hostile or derogatory message. These microaggressions are normally subtle, unconscious, or even unintentional in nature. For example, if a trans-identifying or gender-nonconforming student asks you to use specific gender pronouns, but you continually disregard them or do not make an active attempt to use the correct pronouns, that would qualify as microaggression. In other words, if you spill coffee on someone one day you can clean it up, apologize, and move on. Spilling coffee on someone every day and continuing to call it an accident would constitute a microaggression.
Miska Salakka from the Transgender Support Center in Helsinki, Finland, suggests that inclusive language starts in all promotional materials. According to Salakka, trans singers often drop their choral activities as their gender dysphoria grows, as singers question the voice part they have previously sung, or if they fear harassment that coming out may cause. A well-crafted advertisement for a choir implies that all singers are welcome, regardless of their gender identity. Salakka also suggests that conductors send a separate invitation to any trans organizations in a school or the community to emphasize accessibility and gender-inclusivity. Choral organizations are traditionally extremely gendered spaces and reaffirming the inclusivity and openness of your group may be necessary for trans singers to feel confident enough to audition. When meeting a new singer for the first time, Salakka suggests always asking for the name that the singer wants to be called instead of their legal name, as well as their preferred gender pronoun. Some of the options include she/her/hers, he/him/his, or they/them/theirs.
Whitman College, among a few other colleges in the United States, has made great progress in this regard. All electronic student rosters include the student’s preferred name and gender pronoun. Unfortunately, this is not yet a norm in all institutions. Salakka suggests making this a habit with every single new student, so as not to alienate anyone whose gender expression does not obviously adhere to gender binary expectations. Until proper introductions have been made, it is safest to just use the student’s name and avoid gender pronouns altogether. It is also important to be open for discussion about vocal parts with new singers, as some trans singers might want to switch or at least explore the possibility of singing a different voice part than they have sung in previous ensembles. Terms used for voice parts still tend to imply gender and identity within an ensemble. It is up to each instructor whether exploring new vocal parts should be done in a group setting or private lessons.
The first choral rehearsal can already set the tone of inclusivity. When conductors introduce themselves, the introduction should include the preferred name that they wish to be called, for example Mr. XX, or Dr. XX, preferred gender pronoun, and any other pertinent information they may want to share. With this simple statement, the conductor has already established that they are open to gender nonconformity and do not assume all singers sing voice parts that are traditionally expected by their external gender presentation. In large ensembles it may be too intimidating to have all singers introduce their preferred gender pronoun, so this may be done first in a smaller setting: for example, within the section. It might also be helpful to have students pick pairs and introduce their partner. Preferred gender pronouns come naturally without having to point them out. For example, Jane introduces Jordan by saying: “This is Jordan, they like to ski.” And Jordan responds: “This is Jane, she likes cats.”
As humans, it is inevitable that we will make mistakes. Some of us are notorious for saying the “wrong” thing in the heat of the moment in rehearsals. The first time you make a mistake with gender pronouns or use terms such as men or women, just continue and make a mental note to not do it again. If it happens a second time, apologize and then continue, remembering that overtly apologizing or explaining oneself can be awkward and uncomfortable for all parties involved. It may be helpful to practice gender-neutral language with a colleague or a friend outside the rehearsal setting. Continually making the same mistake and not correcting oneself can quickly turn into a migroaggression.
Fortunately, most of our students are further along than we are with regard to the use of inclusive language and acceptance of different gender expressions as a part of the gender spectrum. More research is being conducted on this topic and the atmosphere is slowly making progress towards a more positive, productive, and inclusive awareness. Miska Salakka reminds us of the many Scandinavian studies that have recently shown how choral singing promotes a sense of unity and happiness. It is crucially important to open up all singing spaces to groups of individuals who may face oppression in other aspects of their lives. An inclusive safe space starts with the language used and encouraged in that space. For further reading about choral dress code and inclusive spaces, as well as sample classroom and group exercises, please consult the Perry Grant summer research project at Whitman College conducted by the authors of this article. Our handbook on “Gender Inclusive Choral Spaces” will be available later this fall.
“Glossary of Terms.” Human Rights Campaign. Human Rights Campaign, n.d. Web. June-July 2016.
Killermann, Sam, and Meg Bolger. “Comprehensive* List of LBGTQ+ Vocabulary Definitions.” It’s Pronounced Metrosexual. Sam Killermann, Updated Aug. 2016. Web. June-July 2016.
“LGBT Terms and Definitions.” International Spectrum. University of Michigan, n.d. Web. June-July 2016.
“LNGT A-Z (Glossary).” We Are Family Charleston. We Are Family, n.d. Web. June-July 2016.
Miska Salakka. “Gender Inclusive Choral Classroom.” Personal interview. 17 Aug. 2016.
Petra Lampinen. “Gender Inclusive Choral Classroom.” Personal interview. 8 Aug. 2016.