Pride 2021: Finding Their Voices: THEM Youth Ensemble moves beyond the binary

Courtesy photo
THEM Youth Ensemble during their 2019 RISE performance.

Mikah Rosanova wanted to sing tenor in high school. Their choral director told them they’d need to stay where they’re at—as a mezzo soprano.

“Choir was the space where I felt like I belonged, simply because there were other queer people there. But I felt like I didn’t belong because I wasn’t singing the voice part I wanted to sing,” Rosanova says. “The idea that I couldn’t sing a vocally affirming part, that was a huge source of distress for me in high school.”

Rosanova doesn’t blame their teacher, who they figure hadn’t received training on how to work with transgender or nonbinary students. The teacher was supportive in other ways, like using Rosanova’s name and pronouns. But still, Rosanova says not singing tenor was one of their biggest sources of dysphoria. The DSM defines gender dysphoria as “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender, of at least six month’s duration,” which sounds awfully dry. Many trans people’s descriptions of dysphoria are much more vivid.

One 18-year-old participant in a 2021 study published in the Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity described it as “a living hell, a nightmare one cannot ever wake up from,” while a 20-year old said “It feels like wanting to tear off my skin. It is the constant reminder I’ll never truly be who I am… It makes me feel ugly and wrong.” A 24-year-old said, “When I’m really feeling the dysphoria, I won’t talk because I hate my voice so much I just burst into tears.”

After high school, Rosanova picked up a job as a singing server and was able to try out singing tenor. It felt right, and they started taking hormones, of which the most noticeable result was a lower voice. The former mezzo soprano is now a bass.

“A lot of times, with being trans, the idea is that you do something, and if it feels right, you keep doing it, and if it doesn’t feel right, you go in a different direction,” Rosanova says. “That was definitely part of my path, where I sang tenor, and I was like, ‘I like that!’ and then I kept moving along that path until I figured that out.”

Now 20, Rosanova identifies as nonbinary, and has transitioned to a point where they feel more comfortable in their body. They’re double majoring in music and law, and are also a member of THEM Youth Ensemble, Tucson’s first LGBTQ+ music ensemble for youth ages 13 to 24. There, Rosanova says, it feels like there’s a space for them and other nonbinary people.

“THEM is this really excellent synthesis of the comfort and also the musicality… the idea that comfort doesn’t have to be exclusive of music or vice versa,” they say. “You don’t have to sacrifice your comfort as a singer to engage with music in a way that helps you grow and is something that you enjoy.”

Exclusionary Spaces

Nicky Manlove is the founder and director of THEM, where they strive to build a culture of affirmation and self-acceptance for all participants. Manlove, who is also the director of music at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, earned their Master of Music in Choral Conducting from the University of Arizona in 2020.

“I’m a trans person, and I have very convicted professional ideas about what it means to include and make space for trans singers,” Manlove says. “By and large, choral spaces are hostile toward trans people, or, at the very best, unintentionally exclusive.”

Manlove thinks choral spaces can be problematic, but that these spaces are worth being improved, fixed, subverted. In fact, many of their own experiences in choirs have been powerful sources of connection. They grew up in a small town in Montana, where, they say, most high school students did most extracurricular activities just because there was nothing else to do. So, in choir, they found themself interacting with all sorts of people, including F150-driving football players.

“[These were] people I never would have associated with, but because we sat next to each other in choir, we got to have relationships that were important and generative for both of us,” they explain. “I think about that often as a professional now, sort of the disarming power of the choral ensemble to build bridges across identity lines in ways that are really subtle and sneaky.”

This is how some people think of choirs, right? Either as clean, bright spaces where all the people of the world join hands and sing “kumbaya,” or high school classrooms with linoleum floors covered in glitter, where flamboyantly gay men are not just welcome, but often abundant. Choirs do traditionally have a higher representation of queer people. A 2012 national survey by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network found that 45.6% of young LGBTQ+ respondents were members of a school music ensemble. There’s even a whole body of research on how to try to get more young men to participate in choir, because many young straight men view it as a strictly “gay” or “feminine” space.

Bernie Gay, a 60-year-old gay man and member of the Tucson Desert Voices, a local chorus for LGBTQ+ people and allies which collaborates with THEM, says the same was true for him back in the ’70s.

“Back in those days, it was nearly impossible to be out, and especially in high school, I was not able to hide in the closet as well as many others, so it was pretty obvious that I was gay. I would get beat up frequently on the way home from school,” he says. “Music was my safe space back in high school—a place where I could be myself and I could enjoy music with other people.”

So, while choirs are sometimes more accepting of queer identities than other places, many traditional choirs still exist within the accepted binary of “male” and “female,” within the accepted formulation of “SATB” (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). Effeminate men, or masculine women, are welcome, but there’s not always a clear place for others. Rosanova suggests this idea mirrors society itself.

“I think we’re finally starting to accept trans binary folks on a pretty standard basis—though obviously there’s the issue of whether you are ‘passing’ well enough and all that business,” they say. “But, I think the next big issue is how to fit in gender nonconforming people, and it works like that in choir too.”

So what does a space built by and for nonbinary singers look like?

“All Genders,  All Voice Types, No Experience Necessary”

THEM is open to all LGBTQ+  youth aged 13 to 24, but almost all of the singers who are or have been in the ensemble identify as trans. 

“Our first rehearsal, we had, just, like, a gaggle of trans people, and it was brilliant,” Manlove says. “I was floored. It was literally a dream come true.… I never imagined myself leading or conceiving of a program like the one that THEM has become, but I’m super grateful that I have had the chance to do that.”

Manlove says many singers were coming to THEM after feeling unwelcome in high school choir programs. While Manlove is working to make sure that students feel welcome and safe in THEM, they also offer training to early music educators on how to create these spaces in their own choruses—the kind of training that Rosanova’s choral director may have benefitted from. In these sessions, they often talk about different forms of implicit and explicit inclusion young people may experience.

Some, like Rosanova, aren’t allowed to try singing vocal parts that don’t match their perceived gender. Others might attend a school with separate choirs for men and women and feel like they don’t have a place. Some are uncomfortable with the choir world’s famously gendered concert attire: tuxedos for men and gowns for women.

“Many directors are really rigid about this—arbitrarily,” Manlove says. “It’s a stupid thing, because it’s expensive, it’s uncomfortable, it often doesn’t look good. But we feel so attached to this idea that some people should wear tuxedos and some people should wear dresses. And that’s the only way it’s legit music.”

Needless to say, there is no gendered dress code in THEM Youth Chorus. Actually, the group doesn’t even use words like “soprano” or “tenor.” Because no experience is required to join the chorus, some members are unfamiliar with the terms anyway. Others have had bad experiences with being stuck singing a part that causes dysphoria. Manlove simply numbers the parts, or refers to “higher voices” and “lower voices.” 

Joining a choir usually involves a choral director “voicing” singers, which is when a singer stands in front of everyone while a choral director plays notes up and down a piano to see how high and low the person can sing. It’s nerve-wracking for anyone to be publicly made aware of their limits, but important for establishing a person’s vocal range and appropriate part. Manlove’s approach to voicing is a bit more nuanced. After hearing the person sing, Manlove explains where, in their opinion, a singer’s voice sounds the strongest. Then, they ask the singer how it feels to sing in that range. A singer might say it feels just fine, and be assigned to that part.

“Or they might say, ‘Oh, actually, singing here makes me feel super dysphoric, and I’m trying to sing in this other register instead,’” Manlove says. “And they might say ‘Oh, and I’m also working on adjusting my speaking voice to be in this other register instead.’”

If that happens, Manlove talks to singers about how to keep their voices healthy, and about ways to safely seek a comfortable speaking and singing range without causing damage. There’s a whole industry of voice training for trans people who want their voices to sound higher or lower, but Manlove shares knowledge gained from years of music education freely.

Health is another theme of THEM. A healthy approach to adjusting speaking and singing voices. Flexibility for members who need to miss rehearsal due to mental or physical health challenges. RuthAnn Grumbling is a THEM member who experiences hip pain that makes standing for long periods difficult. At one of their first rehearsals, when Manlove asked everyone to please stand, Grumbling felt comfortable saying they needed to sit to be comfortable.

“Being in a space that’s affirming of my gender and my sexuality makes me feel comfortable bringing myself as a disabled person,” they say. “I really feel like I can bring my whole self to the space.”

“No More Hiding Our Brilliance”

THEM’s First Concert was on the Trans Day of Resilience in November 2019. The day was originally called “Trans Day of Remembrance” to honor trans people who had been murdered, but in the past few years, many have taken to calling it by its new name, to celebrate the joy and life of trans people as well. During COVID-19, the group also wrote two original songs, including “And We’ll Be Free” for Trans Day of Resilience in 2020.

“The singers wrote this series of texts imagining what the best possible trans futures will look like, what it will look like when trans people are emphatically affirmed in every situation,” Manlove says. “It’s one of my favorite things of all time. When we were writing the piece, I was just sobbing.”

An excerpt:

No more hiding our brilliance
Our strength and resilience
We’re no longer living in shame.
We will sing and we’ll shout ’til we all can be out,
Every part of me proudly I’ll name.
And we’ll be free.

The group’s last in-person concert was in February 2020, shortly before COVID-19 shut the world down. But they’ve been able to produce a few videos and, as mentioned, original songs, since then, using a combination of Zoom and one-on-one meetings to film.

Grumbling says one of their favorite memories is being backstage at concerts, full of giddy pre-show jitters. Manlove loves seeing the way people of different ages interact and support each other. Rosanova vividly remembers the group’s first concert. They’d only been in the choir for a few weeks, and they weren’t sure what to expect.

“It was a smallish room full of just the queerest people ever, and all queer people on stage,” they say. “It was a different choir experience in that I’m very used to a really strong choral sound, and that’s not what THEM sounds like. But that’s because we’re subverting the entire narrative to achieve something different from it.”

Manlove says it’s this can-do attitude among trans youth, this total willingness to look past tradition and not be held back by norms, that makes them powerful, full of integrity, and ready to effect change.

“Once you take for fact that broken things don’t have to continue to be broken, the rest of the world becomes so open to possibilities for you,” they say. “I’m just convinced that trans young people will save the world—and are saving the world.”


For more information on THEM Youth Chorus, visit themyouth.org.

Comments (1)

Add a comment

Add a Comment