RTRL.39: Accommodating Transgender Singers (Aguirre, 2018)

Source:

Aguirre, R. (2018). Finding the trans voice: A review of the literature on accommodating transgender singers. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 37(1), 36-41.

What did the researcher want to know?

What guidance can existing research provide to help music educators better meet the needs of transgender singers?

What did the researcher do?

Aguirre conducted a literature review of existing research studies pertaining to the transgender singing experience or that provide suggestions for working with transgender singers.

What did the researcher find?

Aguirre first presents definitions of relevant terminology:

  • sex = designation (male or female) assigned at birth
  • gender = social construct that encompasses both gender identify and gender expression and exists on a spectrum (not only male/female but also nonbinary, etc.)
  • transgender = describing one whose birth-assigned sex does not align with their gender identify, gender expression, or both. Note: “The proper term to use when discussing this population is transgender, not the past tense verb ending in -ed, as using the verb form of this word implies that something has happened to this person” (p. 37).
    • male-to-female transgender (MtF or trans-female/woman) = someone whose birth-assigned sex was male but identifies as female
    • female-to-male transgender (FtM or trans-male/man) = someone whose birth-assigned sex was female but identifies as male
    • (**NOTE: Some feel that the the terms MtF/FtM are inappropriate because they suggest that something “happened” to the person. Instead, we might use the terms AFAB (assigned female at birth) or AMAB (assigned male at birth).

Aguirre’s review of the literature found the following:

  1. Many educators feel unprepared to work with the LGBTQ community.
  2. While some studies show that many transgender students report having more positive experiences in their music classes compared to the rest of school, other studies show that some music teachers are not comfortable using gender-neutral language in their classrooms.
  3. The choral classroom may be a more likely source of obstacles for transgender students than other music classrooms. This is due to gendered voice parts, gendered ensemble types, gendered rehearsal language, and/or gendered concert attire that are prevalent among many choral music education programs.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Music educators should be sensitive to the unique needs of all students but especially of their transgender students. Existing research shows that transgender students notice and appreciate their teachers’ efforts to provide a more inclusive environment. Here are some ways that music teachers can make their classrooms a more inclusive environment for their trans students:

  • Avoid gendered language when addressing students. Instead of “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen”, try using a gender-neutral term, such as “students”, “musicians”, or “everyone.” Specifically in the choral classroom, try referring to students by voice part rather than sex (e.g., “sopranos and altos” rather than “ladies/girls”).
  • Be sure to address students by their correct pronouns (e.g., they/them, she/her, he/him). At the beginning of each semester, you might ask students to complete an information/background form, in which you ask them to indicate their preferred pronouns. After reviewing these, prepare for class by devoting conscious attention to practicing the correct pronouns of any students you find yourself misgendering. Practicing the proper pronouns outside of class will help you use them more comfortably and automatically in class. It is also acceptable to avoid pronouns altogether and use a student’s preferred first name. This article provides some helpful tips for using gender-neutral pronouns.
  • Teach your students that “voice part, like sexuality, is independent of gender identity or gender expression…. Tenors and basses do not have to be males, while sopranos and altos do not have to be females” (p. 39). Note that this is not an entirely new concept, as some cisgender females with low voices may sing tenor or cisgender males with high voices may sing alto/countertenor.) (NOTE: Cisgender refers to someone whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth.)
  • If you currently have gendered ensemble names, consider renaming these to be gender-neutral. For example, “men’s choir” could become “tenor/bass choir”; “women’s choir” could become “treble choir”. 
  • Choose gender-neutral concert attire or allow students to choose the option in which they will feel most comfortable. 
  • Be aware of specific needs of trans men versus trans women. Some female trans students (AMAB) may be able to sing in their falsetto if their preference is to sing the also or soprano part. Provide such students with this option as well as guidance in doing so. Male trans students (AFAB) who are starting testosterone may experience voice change similar to adolescent cisgender males and need the same sensitivity and guidance from their teacher.
  • Rewrite vocal parts for specific students when needed.

Resources:

 

RTRL.22: Nurturing Safety for LGBTQ Students (Palkki & Caldwell, 2018)

Source:

Palkki, J., & Caldwell, P. (2018). “We are often invisible”: A survey on safe space for LGBTQ students in secondary school choral programs. Research Studies in Music Education, 40(1), 28-49.

What did the researchers want to know?

What is the nature of the role secondary choral programs play in creating safe space for LGBTQ students?

What did the researchers do?

Palkki and Caldwell surveyed 1,123 collegiate choral students from the U.S. and Canada who identified as members of the LGBTQ population. The survey included a variety of Likert-type items as well as open-ended questions pertaining to participants’ experiences as LGBTQ singers in middle school and high school choirs. 

What did the researchers find?

Quantitative data analysis indicated that high school choral programs were more strongly perceived as safe spaces for LGBTQ students than middle school programs, and respondents reported feeling safer expressing their LGBTQ identities in their high school choral programs. Through qualitative analysis of open-ended responses, Palkki and Caldwell found that “the overwhelming message … was that the singers wanted choral conductor-teachers to acknowledge and/or discuss LGBTQ issues in the choral music classroom…. Participants believed that if choral educators did not discuss [matters of gender identity and sexuality] in a culture and schools that are heteronormative and cisgender-centric, that they were not open and accepting” (p. 35). Without specifically addressing LGBTQ issues, general “no-bullying/zero-tolerance” policies were not effective in helping students feel safe and supported by the teacher. Numerous respondents indicated that directors’ failure to confront homophobic slurs hindered students’ sense of safety. Conversely, having teachers “come out” as allies for LGBTQ students is extremely encouraging. Inclusion of LGBTQ topics in the curriculum, such as LGBTQ composers/lyricists, can be “symbolic and influential” (p. 37). Additionally, “LGBTQ students may feel excluded from experiences and conversations in which they do not see themselves represented” (p. 38), such as exclusively heteronormative language or lyrics. 

What does this mean for my classroom?

Unless we make it explicitly clear to our students that our classroom is a safe space for LGBTQ individuals, they are likely to assume it’s not. Here are some suggestions based on Palkki and Caldwell’s findings:

  • Display a “safe space” sticker or sign in your classroom or on your office door, such as this printable one from GLSEN. One of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents commented, “It might sound silly, but the ‘safe space’ sticker makes all the difference in the world. Even if you don’t talk about it to that teacher, knowing they won’t tolerate any negativity about that makes a world of emotional difference” (p. 37). 
  • Be sensitive and thoughtful when choosing music, consciously considering the feelings and experiences of your queer and gender non-conforming students. As described by one of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents, “heteronormativity in songs is very troubling. And the way that traditional worship songs and outdated homophobia are linked together made singing worship songs very uncomfortable for me” (p. 38). 
  • Rethink gendered language. For example, one of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents noted, “A trope that has become standard choral parlance of referring to TB voices as ‘men’ and SA voices as ‘women’ is EXTREMELY CISSEXIST IN NATURE [capitalization in original] and [makes] me as a transperson singing in a choir feel very awkward and uncomfortable” (p. 40). Instead of referring to singers as men/women, they could be referred to by their voice parts (e.g., treble voices, sopranos and altos, etc.).
  • Choose concert attire that will allow all students to be comfortable. Avoid traditional “gendered” performance uniforms, instead opting for concert black or providing several uniform options from which students can choose. In the words of one of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents, “forcing everyone with a vagina to wear a dress is bullshit” (p. 40).
  • Include LGBTQ topics in your classroom. One of Palkki and Caldwell’s respondents suggested, “When a piece by a queer composer is done, or if the text is written by someone queer, mention it. Show queer youth that, yes, this beautiful work was written by someone who is queer. Allow their dreams to be as infinite and indestructible as non-queer kids” (p. 38).