CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — 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. It was created for those who didn’t feel welcome at traditional choruses, but it’s also one of few places where transgender vocalists can learn how to adjust their voices safely while they’re in transition.
At a recent rehearsal, chorus members couldn’t hold back smiles as they finished the folk ballad “Shenandoah.”
“Listen to how great you guys sound,” said Sandi Hammond, their conductor and the group’s founder. “Look how far we’ve come.”
In recent months, the chorus has performed at private concerts around Boston while it prepares for its first public show next spring. Despite a discreet start, it has struck a loud chord: As new transgender choirs form across the United States, some have credited Butterfly Music as their inspiration.
“In the beginning, it was exploratory,” said Hammond, a Boston vocal teacher who isn’t transgender. “I think I underestimated the value of what we were doing.”
Through the choir, 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 deep depression.
“People will begin to develop social anxieties; they run into discrimination and other problems,” said Ruben Hopwood, coordinator of the Transgender Health Program at Fenway Health, a community health center in Boston.
To help, Hammond has blended speech training into weekly rehearsals, and she connects singers to outside experts.
“She’s helping people alter how their voices sound to be more in line with their gender identity, which is relieving some of the stress that comes with that,” Hopwood said.