Out of the Shadows

Monday, 15 February 2021

Without discrimination, harm or transphobia: a look at transgender singers in classical music

We Sing/I Sang - CN Lester with Hannah Gardiner  - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)
We Sing/I Sang - CN Lester with Hannah Gardiner (viola) - Tête à Tête 2020 (Photo Claire Shovelton)

Countertenor Alexander Pullinger describes himself on his website as singer, teacher and advocate and he has used lockdown to expand his advocacy work, writing a paper for Sound Connections. Published in December last year Alexander's paper, Facilitating the Empowerment of Transgender Voices Through Singing [PDF],  takes an extended look at transgender singers in classical music and the creation of trans-positive singing spaces. I recently chatted to Alexander to find out more about the background to the paper and to discover what the reaction had been.

Alexander's first concern in our conversation was to ensure that we were clear on the basics. A transgender person is someone whose sex is not the same as their gender.  Sex (body type) is assigned at birth, and the issue with singing arises because the voice develops according to sex (the direct result of hormones acting on the larynx at puberty) so that the lazy assumption that women sing high and men sing low is a false equivalence. Alexander's advocacy is focused on the idea of creating spaces in classical singing so that transgender people can participate without discrimination, harm and transphobia.

Classical singing places a lot of focus on the body and technique, and this creates a perfect environment for gendered voice types, ie. men sing low, women sing high, which creates a difficulty for transgender people. People tend to not question the assumption even though it is based on a misunderstanding about sex (which produces voice types) and gender (how they identify as male/female/non-binary).

'Ladies in long black, men in black shirt and jackets'

The concentration in classical singing on men's voice and women's voices, often with highly gendered dress codes (referring to what the women will wear, rather than what the sopranos and altos will wear), causes a host of problems for transgendered singers and invalidates them.

This is something that Alexander has observed in practice, even at the level of simple emails about concert logistics with comments such as ladies in long black, men in black jackets etc. This leaves someone who does not identify as either to wonder 'what do I wear', they feel pressured to pick one in a way that does not identify with their identity.  

There is also resistance to the casting of transgender singers because expectations are so entrenched. Classical music is such a highly gendered environment that many transgender singers choose not to go into this type of environment. Everything from audition panels onwards can emphasise these same prejudices, often without those controlling them realising that they do. Often this arises because transgender singers do not meet the ingrained assumptions about voice type and gender. CN Lester has written about this in their book Trans Like Me: A Journey for All of Us.

Similarly, singing teachers are often not fully informed of the needs of transgender singers, from issues such as the use of binders, corsets and waist-training garments to the highly gendered repertoire. This can vary from individual to individual, some repertoire might be invalidating for a transgender singer who has recently begun to transition whilst others might not find it a problem; it comes down to finding out the needs of the individual.

Soprano Ella Taylor (who is trans non-binary) who won second prize in the 2020 Kathleen Ferrier Award
Soprano Ella Taylor (who is trans-non-binary) who won second prize
in the 2020 Kathleen Ferrier Award

Developing conversations

During his singing career, Alexander has encountered episodes of transphobia and worried about it a lot. He tended to be mostly reactive and to approach the issue by writing to someone to express concerns and to see if a constructive way forward could be found.  He cites the example of witnessing a transgender colleague on tour being mistreated by management, forced to dress in a way which conflicted with their gender. Alexander's response was to write to management and this led to a meeting with the non-binary colleague, management and the conductor which opened up constructive conversations.

Thus, seeing how writing led to conversations meant Alexander realised that this was a powerful tool and he decided he wanted to write about it in a detailed way. As an alumnus of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Alexander receives a regular opportunities bulletin and one of these included a call for proposals from Sound Connections. This felt like the ideal opportunity to expand his work in trans advocacy and he wanted to write on gender expectations in singing, to present the obstacles which transgender people face in singing. The result was the paper, published in December 2020.

The reaction to the paper has been largely positive, both in the press and in email responses to Alexander. Sound Connections were very positive and keen to share, and Alexander has also been sharing it with music charities, institutions and music clubs with mostly positive responses. As a result, he has been invited to give talks, some organisations have said the paper will be informing their updating of their inclusion policies and others wanted to set up meetings. All this involved him in a significant amount of work (such as sending emails out), but what sustained him was the reaction and the positive feedback.

Reactions, feedback and comments

He admits that some reactions were positive but without any commitment to change, but it is still early days and he will be checking back with such organisations in a few month's time. There is, however, a larger concern with how (and whether) individuals will take it on board. On one website which shared the paper, the comments section featured a tremendous backlash. The anonymity of the comments section meaning people could be more open about their transphobic views. So even if organisations are updating their policies, this is a danger of this being invalidated by people with transphobic views.

In some cases, the negative responses came from people who had not read the article, whilst other people who simply believed that transgender people should not be included at all. Overall, this demonstrated what the trans community is up against.

One of the main obstacles to progress is people who mean well but fear getting it wrong, by saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing. On a day to day level, if someone uses the wrong pronoun then simply apologise, correct and move on. It should not be awkward. But there is also the need to emphasise the pro-active rather than the reactive. If something has already happened, it is too late, the transgender person now feels invalidated and might not come back! 

Allies should think about what their own circles of influence are. Transgender people on the receiving end of these issues are often not in a position to defend themselves because of the imbalance of power in the situation. We can look at the Equality Act for support, as often what is being done is illegal. Also, if a colleague is being misgendered, a polite correction takes little time and can mean a lot.

Alexander Pullinger
Alexander Pullinger

Wider Context

There is, of course, a wider context for all this, such as the false narrative that transgender people are deluded and mentally ill. Alexander points out that these are tropes which were levelled at gay people decades ago and are now being levelled at transgender people.

It is important to support transgender colleagues in society as well as professionally; rather too often, transgender people have to do the heavy lifting themselves. CN Lester's book not only talks about their personal journey and the musical context, but looks at the wider context of transphobia and how it manifests, whilst the book Trans Britain, edited by Christine Burns, looks at the particular UK context, and Sam Killerman's A Guide to Gender is a good first port of call and Julia Serano's book Whipping Girl looks at transphobia as an extension of misogyny.

How do you know

Environments that are not transgender-inclusive lead to a vicious circle, as transgender people don't want to enter these environments, or simply leave. For example, one reason that there are few transgender singers is that there are few role models at the top of the business. It makes it seem as if there just are not many transgender singers, when in fact there are transgender singers who are simply not visible, and there are those who have simply not continued with the training.

Some people respond to these issues by saying that they will look into it 'if they have a transgender singer', but you cannot always tell by looking. There might be transgender singers in the organisation already. Lots of people think that they have never met a transgender person, but how do you know?

Alexander Pullinger's paper, Facilitating the Empowerment of Transgender Voices Through Singing is available from Sound Connections [PDF]


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1 comment:

  1. Great article! As a trans composer and vocalist, it's fantastic to see this talked about in the new music spheres - many thanks.

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