In the world of vocal groups, where singers are separated along bold gender lines with little room for gray, the Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus stands out. Founded last year in Boston, it's one of the country's first choirs reserved for transgender singers. In recent months, the chorus has performed at private concerts around Boston while it prepares for its first public show next spring. In addition to appealing to those who don't feel welcome at traditional choruses, its members are fighting an often overlooked problem in the transgender community: When they transition, many speak and sing in a higher register to sound more feminine, or deeper to sound masculine. Both can damage the vocal cords—but living with a voice that doesn't match their appearance can trigger depression. "People will begin to develop social anxieties; they run into discrimination and other problems," says a coordinator of the Transgender Health Program at a community health center in Boston.
To help, Sandi Hammond, the group's conductor and founder, has blended speech training into weekly rehearsals, and she connects singers to outside experts. It took only a few weeks before Laurie Wolfe, one of the first to join the choir, could speak in a higher register. "It was like I was hearing this woman that I might have been," Wolfe says. Hammond also doesn't divide singers into traditional ranges like alto or baritone, which are usually separated by gender. Instead, singers split into high, middle, and low voices. As their voices change, they can bounce around ranges. "It's a little bit musically unpredictable, and that's by design," Hammond says. "For me, it's the right thing to do. It's like we're creating a new sound." Butterfly Music is believed to be the second transgender choir in the country, following the Transcendence Gospel Choir, which formed in San Francisco more than a decade ago. Others have recently started in Chicago, LA, and Atlanta.