"My Voice Speaks for Itself": The Experiences of Three Transgender Students in Secondary School Choral Programs


Joshua Palkki, California State University, Long Beach



Recent publications suggest that the U.S. may be at a “trans(gender) tipping point” (Steinmetz, 2014) or experiencing a “gender revolution” (Henig, 2017). This revolution is also occurring in American schools. Research suggests that teachers may be unprepared to honor transgender students in their classes (Luecke, 2011; Nichols, 2013; Payne & Smith, 2014). As more trans students “come out”, the more teachers will need to be aware of classroom gender dynamics (Beemyn & Rankin, 2011; Grossman & D’augelli, 2006). School choral music is ‘gendered’ in many ways and exist within a highly gendered school environment (Pascoe, 2007). Rarely questioned traditions like “men’s” and “women’s” choirs, choir dresses and tuxedoes, and lyrics portraying gender stereotypes can make the choral experience troublesome for gender variant students.


This session will present data from a multiple narrative case study exploring the musical lives and lived experiences of transgender (trans) students in three high school choral music programs. The problems of the study were: (1) to describe how transgender students enrolled in secondary school choral music programs navigated their gender identity in the choral context, and (2) to describe if/how transgender students in secondary school choral programs were supported by groups including their choral teachers, choral peers, and school administrators. The emergent research design employed narrative inquiry and ethnographic techniques to honor and highlight voices of the three participants: Sara, Jon, and Skyler (pseudonyms), whose stories revealed the importance of context and geography in shaping the experiences of trans youth in schools. In addition, all three participants had gender realizations around eighth grade. The connection (or lack thereof) between voice and gender identity was different for each of the participants—a finding with significant implications for preservice choral music teachers. Unlike suggestions from Miller (2016) and Silveira and Goff (2016), these data suggest that a more nuanced and personalized approach to voice part assignments is necessary, in which teachers must be conscious of the connection level between a trans student’s voice and gender identity.


The policies of the participants’ school districts, high schools (administrators), choral programs, and state music organizations shaped and influenced how Sara, Jon, and Skyler navigated their trans identity within the high school choral context. Well thought-out policies related to gender identity and expression are important as they “can affirm or disavow students’ identities” (Catalano, 2015, p. 425). In the midst of a political climate peppered with rhetoric about bathroom bills (e.g., Rogers, 2016), it is important that preservice teachers remain aware of school-, district-, organization-, state-, and federal-level policies that can dramatically influence the experiences of trans students in school music programs.


Mentors and “important others” helped these students as they traversed their gender journeys. It is vital that preservice choral music teachers understand the terminology, struggles, and experiences of transgender students before they enter the P-12 classroom. Teacher training programs, secondary schools, and choral programs can make curriculum and policy changes, both large and small, in order to better serve trans youth.




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