Lulu Malaya Prollamante usually didn’t have time to practice her singing during her undergraduate years at UCLA. She was too busy studying for classes or participating in and leading a transgender advocacy group at UCLA.
But a small part of her ached when she walked past the Bruin Walk preachers chanting about the sins of identifying as transgender. She felt too uncomfortable to audition for campus a cappella groups because she thought all-female choruses wouldn’t accept her alto-tenor voice and range.
“I learned to put it out of my head,” Prollamante said. “But there was that little part of me that held back.”
Prollamante is now a part of Trans Chorus of Los Angeles, a choir group of transgender people, allies and people from the greater Los Angeles community. The chorus, which held its first rehearsal in October 2015, will perform its debut concert Saturday at Schoenberg Hall, accompanied by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and all-women choral group Vox Femina Los Angeles.
Lindsey Deaton, the founder and artistic director of the group, said helping the chorus members love themselves and their voices was difficult because of gender dysphoria. Cisgender bias, Deaton said, appeared in even the smallest decisions such as choosing the group’s repertoire.
In a trans chorus, transgender men and women both have voices in the tenor, baritone and bass registers. Deaton said transgender men receive doses of testosterone during their transitions, making their voices lower. Transgender women who transition after puberty usually cannot make their voices higher, even through hormone therapy.
Most choruses traditionally perform music that includes soprano, alto and mezzo-soprano voices, Deaton said. Standard choral repertoire, Deaton said, could contribute further to gender dysphoria because it is composed with cisgender voices in mind.
However, Deaton said she made the conscious decision to acknowledge binary vocal registers to allow cisgender and transgender women and men – the Vox Femina, Gay Men’s and Trans Choruses – to sing together and perform traditional choral works.
The combination of voices, Deaton said, can also empower transgender women: Putting cisgender and transgender female singers together fills all the registers, provides opportunities to perform standard repertoire and helps transgender women feel that their voices fit the music.
“For my bass singers to say I am a proud trans woman of color since birth, I discovered that I’m a bass and I love my bass voice – that takes courage,” Deaton said.
Kathryn Davis, a consultant and former university professor, found a welcoming community in the Trans Chorus and a way to get back into learning and practicing music. She transitioned less than two years ago, after more than 60 years of gender dysphoria, and joined the chorus as one of its first members.
The Gay Men’s Chorus and Vox Femina also benefited from working with the Trans Chorus and learning about the trans experience, said Chris Verdugo, the executive director of the Gay Men’s Chorus.
In the performance, Verdugo said the two communities working together was empowering since the Gay Men’s Chorus was able to support and encourage the growth of another disenfranchised group’s voice.
“We have come so far, but we’ve come so far on the shoulders of those who have come with us,” Verdugo said. “Now … we have that opportunity to pay it forward.”
Though Deaton hopes for the Trans Chorus to establish a space for performance and self-expression for a marginalized group of people, she said she recognizes the danger of increased hate-induced violence that greater visibility brings.
However, Prollamante believes more publicity will help change negative attitudes and perceptions about transgender people and artists – that transgender people cannot sing, cannot create beautiful works of art.
Verdugo said he hopes the performance will help to represent the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender experience as art, rather than just as political statements reducing the LGBT movement to uproars over which public restrooms people can use.
“This is not about bathrooms,” Verdugo said. “It’s about humanity, about who we are, what our true colors are.”