People tend to ask me when I "came out" as transgender, and I'm not usually sure how to respond. When I first posted about it on Facebook, does that mean letting my entire social circle know? Was it the first time I whispered it to a friend, feeling shame with every syllable uttered? Was it the time I sent emails out to my undergraduate professors, letting them know that the name on our course management system was not the name that I used? Maybe it was the time I first stepped out into the world wearing a skirt, terrified of any negative reactions I may have encountered.
I feel like for most cisgender, non-LGBTQ+ individuals, their average perception of coming out is binary; one lives either inside or outside of the closet. And once you exit that closet, the door slams shut, the lock clicking behind you as a permanent indication that you now exist in this new world, with the impossibility of ever returning.
However, this is not truly the case for anyone who needs to "come out." There is no lock; there is no immovable latch. The closet door is more akin to those revolving doors outside of a fancy hotel. You're constantly going in and out of the closet as the need arises and the environment changes based on myriad factors, including your social support network, your feeling of physical (and societal) safety, and your personal comfort levels. Every time you meet new people or go to a new place, you have to decide whether or not you want to come out and reveal your gender identity or sexual orientation. Sometimes, it's easier to allow the world to perceive you as cisgender or straight, even if it means sacrificing your feeling of authenticity at the moment.
This is important to keep in mind as a choral director. If a member of your choir approaches you and lets you know that they identify as transgender, non-binary, or as gender-expansive, you could be the very first person they have told or the thousandth. Regardless of your position in that choir member's line of disclosure, how you react and subsequently act is absolutely critical to your future relationship with that choir member, and ultimately your relationship with the choir as a whole.
Coming out almost always comes with a sense of apprehension or fear for how the person you are telling will react or what they might say. What if it goes badly? What if your identity, who you are, is at odds with what they believe? What if it leads to rejection? What if you lose this safe place? These are just some of the questions that could be circulating in your choir member's mind as they approach you. But, chances are, if they're coming to you, they have respect for you, or at the very least trust you enough to share a part of themselves with you. It's important to honor that respect and trust to maintain your relationship and, most importantly, so that the person coming out to you feels safe.
So how, specifically, do you do that? First, of course, every person is different, so there's not necessarily a "one-size-fits-all" approach that will perfectly match each person's needs. But the following eight steps might help:
1. Thank and acknowledge your choir member's vulnerability and express your support.
The very first thing you should do is let your choir member know that you recognize their vulnerability and offer them words of support. This could be saying something along the lines of "Thank you so much for letting me know. I want you to know I support you and am here for you, whatever you may need." This will help put your choir member at ease, let them know that you are a safe person, and the conversation can continue.
2. Privately and respectfully gather a little more information from them.
Interrogating somebody is never going to come across well. However, as your conversation with your choir member continues, there is nothing wrong with asking a few questions so that you can make sure you are being as respectful of their identity as possible. For example, you can ask what pronouns they use or if they have a different name they use than the one you have known them by. You can also ask if it is okay to use that name/pronouns in front of other choir members. On the choral side of things, you could ask how they are feeling about their voice part, the choral uniforms, or if there's anything that could help make them feel more comfortable in the ensemble. These questions don't necessarily all have to happen at once. Try to be mindful of your choir member, so they don't feel like they're being interrogated.
3. Understand that not every choir member will know everything about themselves yet.
It's also important to know that sometimes you may ask questions that the choir member might not know yet. Gender identity is inherently complex, and you might be asking questions that they have been asking themselves. If the answer to your question is, "I don't know," accept the answer and don't push. Sometimes, time is needed.
4. Know that every situation is different and contextual.
This has become my unofficial motto as of late. People will be in different places in their lives and have different identities. They will have different feelings about their identities. Don't expect every transgender, non-binary, or gender-expansive person to react the same way or have the same feelings. We're all different. We all experience different things and have our own paradigms. Don't assume that what works for one person will always work for another. Listen to your choir member and adapt/adjust as needed.
5. Educate yourself – it's your responsibility!
One of the most common issues people in marginalized or underrepresented groups encounter is an expectation that they should educate those who are not part of that group and take on the emotional labor that comes from that education. Some people will have no problem doing that work. I have accepted that is part of my life and frequently engage in educational conversations to make the world better for other trans people. But at the end of the day, there shouldn't be an expectation for a member of any marginalized or underrepresented group to do that emotional labor. The onus falls on you to educate yourself. We live in a world where search engines exist. If you don't know something, Google it. Be prepared that you might discover something that you didn't know you didn't know. And that's okay!
6. Have resources at the ready.
This might not be as needed if you're working exclusively with adults, as most adults will also know how to Google. However, familiarizing yourself with some basic resources or information, such as where the closest gender-neutral restroom is, can be helpful in case the need arises. If you need a place to start, I have some helpful resources available on my website www.blurringthebinary.com.
7. Develop a plan with your choir member and use it.
Once you and your choir member figure out a plan that will work for them, make sure you use it. Do your absolute best to use the correct name and pronouns, and support them in the voice part they feel most comfortable singing in. Most importantly, don't treat them as any different than other members of the ensemble; "othering" a person is a fast way to alienate them and cause them to leave your ensemble.
8. Know that it's okay to make mistakes.
Sometimes people get so terrified of making a mistake that their actions or words become artificial, or they fumble around for the absolute "perfect" language. This can be alleviated by step #5, educating yourself, but mistakes happen. We're all human; nobody is perfect. Some people in my community are not big fans of apologies when somebody makes a mistake because it puts the burden of accepting the apology on the trans, non-binary, or gender-expansive individual. I am personally of the belief that if you make a mistake, you should apologize. If you misgender somebody, and you err, it's important to recognize that mistake and own up to it. It doesn't necessarily erase the mistake, but it can begin the process of rebuilding the relationship. The most important part of this is that once you apologize, you need to vow to do better and then actually do better. This might mean taking some time and privately practicing using the correct pronouns or language or something else. A mistake or two is an accident and is forgivable, but the same mistake occurring on a perpetual basis no longer becomes a mistake and instead becomes a choice.
I hope that these steps help you feel more comfortable when a transgender person comes out to you, or at the very least, give you some guidance as to potential ways to respond. Remember that with more and more people feeling comfortable expressing their gender identity, it is most likely no longer a question of "if" a trans person comes out to you; it is a question of "when." So continue to take the time to make your ensemble a safe place for everybody, and undoubtedly your choral culture and sense of a choral family will grow.
Please share your thoughts and experiences in our Comments section below. Thank you!
Melanie Stapleton is a music educator, researcher, author, and choral director currently located in the greater Houston area. She is the founder of Blurring the Binary, and holds a Masters of Music Education from the University of North Texas, and a Bachelors of Music Education from Louisiana State University. She is a strong believer that the choral ensemble should be a musical family and a safe place offering unconditional love for all. When not teaching, she can be found hanging with her Golden Retriever, Queso, playing video games, or jamming to the latest choral hits.