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Music center launches genderqueer chorus

by Alex Madison

New Voices Bay Area TIGQ Chorus members Toyomi Yoshida, left, and Reuben Zellman are set to begin rehearsals next month. Photo: Salma Salman
New Voices Bay Area TIGQ Chorus members Toyomi Yoshida, left, and Reuben Zellman are set to begin rehearsals next month. Photo: Salma Salman  

The choral world to date has been - and still is - very gender specific. There tend to be male, female, or mixed choirs typically offered. Many in the genderqueer and transgender community have felt neglected when it comes to singing in an ensemble, said Reuben Zellman.

Zellman, who identifies as a transgender man, is the director of New Voices Bay Area TIGQ Chorus, a free community chorus welcoming all who self-identify as transgender, intersex, or genderqueer. The first rehearsal is Sunday, September 16, at the Community Music Center Mission Branch, 544 Capp Street, at 7 p.m.

"There is no textbook on choral conducting that even considers the possibility that singers don't fall into one of those [gender] categories," Zellman, 39, told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent interview. "A lot, not all, but a lot of choruses still today tend to be quite strictly segregated by gender and are not a very comfortable environment for someone who is transgender, intersex, or genderqueer."

Zellman is a lecturer in the music department at San Francisco State University, where he also directs the Treble Singers, formerly known as the Women's Chorus. At the university Zellman said he would often get students who were transgender males and females, or those who did not identify as women, who wanted to sing in the women's chorus.

"A lot of trans and genderqueer singers are not ever approaching those ensembles because they don't have a place where they feel safe. It's time to create a place they do," he said.

And that's exactly what Zellman did. He reached out to the Community Music Center and proposed his idea of creating a choir where people whose gender didn't fit into traditional male or female roles could sing soprano, baritone, or tenor regardless of their gender identity or transition status.

The Community Music Center jumped at the idea. The mission of the music center is to make high-quality music accessible to all people regardless of their financial means.

"We were excited about the opportunity to create a safe space through a musical community," CMC program director Sylvia Sherman wrote in an email. "We saw how important this project would be. New Voices Bay Area is a way to address challenges transgender, intersex, and genderqueer people face in vocal music."

Sherman and others worked for almost two years to secure funding for the project. Eventually, with help of many individual donors and a contribution from James C. Hormel's Hallelujah Fund, one of the first donors, the New Voices Bay Area TIGQ Chorus was born. Hormel, a gay man and former ambassador, is also the founder of the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center at the San Francisco Public Library

Although the first rehearsal isn't until September, Zellman said he's already received a lot of interest and even has a few members.

Elliot Franks, 55, a transgender man, is one of those members. He sang professionally for many years with the San Francisco Opera Chorus and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, but after his transition, found it challenging to "fit in vocally" and find a place where he felt free to use the voice he had after transitioning.

"The chance to be a part of a group that has no preconceived notion of how I previously sang and has no judgment as to how I should sound is a gift," Franks said. "I am most looking forward to seeing what we can create from a diverse group of individuals coming together to explore our voices and true identities."

New Voices Bay Area TIGQ Chorus is open to anyone regardless of their singing background. To register, visit https://sfcmc.org/new-voices-bay-area-tigq-chorus/. Registration is due by August 7, but those interested, who may not want to register yet, are welcome to attend the rehearsal.

Contact the reporter at a.madison@ebar.com.

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