Music is a universal language that puts us together no matter who, where, and what we are. In this episode, Artistic Director Abdullah Hall and Executive Director from the Trans Chorus of LA, Kathryn Davis, share their vision in helping to change the world through music. Specifically giving voice to the trans community, they talk about the kind of impact they are making along with the power of music as the greatest unifier. Abdullah then shares some of his experience in putting the right voices in the right places within the choir. Through music, we can share ourselves to the world no matter what our voice sounds like because what is important is what you’re saying and the fact that you’re there singing. Join Abdullah Hall and Kathryn Davis as they inspire you to love music.
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Trans Chorus Of LA: Changing The World Through Music With Abdullah Hall and Kathryn Davis
It’s such an honor to have my two guests. Not only is their vision helping to change the world through song and voice, but they are also two of the most delightful people I’ve ever met. In the short time I’ve known them, they have taught me so much and I look forward to continuing to learn so much more through my friendship with you both. Welcome to the show. Abdullah Hall, Artistic Director, and Kathryn Davis, Executive Director from the Trans Chorus of LA. How are you, guys?
It’s great to be here, Tara.
Tell me what’s happening? How is everything?
It’s wonderful. We’ve been super busy since we last saw you. We did two TV tapings and a concert at the Greek Theater about Gay Men’s Chorus, had auditions, have twelve new members. It’s flowing.
Tell me a little bit about the TCLA. How was it formed? A little bit about the vision. I’d love to know from both of you so that people can understand.
I’m one of the original members of TCLA. We formed in 2015. Essentially the same vision and a sense of making an impact in the trans world and giving voice to trans people to show them that you can get up there and do whatever you want to do. You can be a singer and you can use whatever your voice, however, it sounds to do the kinds of things you’d like to do. We’ve had four successful seasons. We’re starting our fifth and we’re excited about the future. We started originally with about twenty members and we’re up to almost 40. Abby, is it?
Actually, it is 48.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you find your members and who your members are?Music is the greatest thing that unifies our planet and brings us all together no matter what. Click To Tweet
What we do is through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter but also there are some great networks through the LA LGBT Center. Gina Bingham runs the Trans Lounge, which is an outreach for trans-identified individuals. Gina put a posting there. We also put a posting at the LA LGBT Center, which happens to be our new home for rehearsals.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but is your Trans Chorus the first of its kind in North America or has the biggest trans community all in one chorus together?
There was one in the ’80s, which was through a church choir during the AIDS crisis. I don’t know what happened to them. We are the first one in North America identified through GALA Choruses. There are three other choruses besides ours. We are the largest and we are the premier trans course in America.
I know you were saying through Facebook and social media people find you, but I imagine a number of the people who do find you are also looking for community as well.
Many of them come from very varied backgrounds. We have people who are homeless. We have people who are lawyers. It’s a broad scope of backgrounds and present life situations. The thing they all want to do is they wanted to find a family and hopefully sing. We certainly enjoy having that part of us in giving that voice.
I’ve heard you perform and I thought you were fabulous. There’s a definite community feel amongst the group. There’s a lot of love which works perfectly for this show because it’s called For Love and Music, which are the two reasons I moved to LA, which I keep repeating and probably everyone’s bored to know. I’m still excited about it. Do you feel that the community that people are looking for, they find through music and they find through meeting all of you in one place that maybe they hadn’t had that opportunity to do before?
Music is the greatest unifier on the planet and brings us all together no matter what. What we’ve found is people have heard of us through as doing different prides celebrations especially trans pride. Two of the members, we have one interesting person audition and she came in and she was just flabbergasted that there was a place where trans-identified people get together and sing. Her excitement was almost overwhelming because she simply could not believe that there was a group like her where she’s already feeling marginalized and put out, but a group of Mary Misfits get together and bring their voices and come together in song, community, food and family. She was so excited. Thank goodness she could sing too.
One of the things that we do to make it feel like a family and make it feel like everyone’s welcome. Every week we have a potluck dinner at our rehearsal so that everyone brings a little something and we share and we get a chance to sit and talk to each other without the pressure of being there singing and remembering what you have to sing. It’s a half an hour out of the time to do that. It’s a lovely experience for most people.
Tell me a little bit about it because we’ve spoken about this together. How do the voices all come together? People are going through different personal circumstances and changes within their lives and that creates vocal changes. Could you explain a little bit about how you, Abdullah, as the artistic director help put the right voices in the right place within the choir?
We’ll make this to part because I’ll let Kathryn go into a more physiological HRT. For me, I’m a non-conforming gender, non-binary. The markers of soprano, alto, tenor and bass-baritone, which we usually put a gender on. We would say soprano, altos are female. Tenor bass-baritones are male. We now know in the music world these are general place markers that overtime to society, religion and so forth have been put there. What we’re now learning is a voice as a voice. What you do with that voice? How you can go from one end of the scale to the other is not within a binary spectrum. One, we usually ask people when they’re auditioning, are you a high voice singer or a low voice singer? Some people will say, “I think I’m high. I think I’m low. I might be in the middle.” Joe Lawrence, our music director will play a nice little C-scale and we’ll run them through a series of exercises to see where they are. You would be amazed. We have some incredible sopranos, which is so amazing. We have a gender-nonconforming person that is a soprano. We have a trans female that is a soprano and we have a trans male that’s a soprano.
They’re all sopranos. They’re all great with fueling and identifying where their voices currently are and where they want their voices to stay as singers, not where our voices might change on that physiological spectrum. I’m a very raspy voice. My voice never changed during puberty at all. I sound exactly the same. Saying that I would drop to a lower register, is that true? Because I’ve never dropped. It went from being more of an alto soprano to a tenor, but it’s definitely not dropped as much and there are some physiological changes that I’ll let Kathryn explain that part.
We have an interesting mix of people. We have trans women, we have trans men, we have gender-nonconforming people, we have gender non-binary people. Some are taking hormone replacement therapy. Some are not going on hormone replacement therapy. For the people who are trans femme and on hormone replacement therapy. Estrogen doesn’t have an effect on your voice. Your voice is not going to change. For instance, I’m a baritone. I have a little solo and I come out to the front of the stage and I sing a solo and people see this older woman walking out there and all of a sudden, this baritone voice comes out. It’s enjoyable to see the looks on their faces because that’s what we’re trying to do.Music helps us share ourselves, our dignities and sorrows, our hopes and joys. Click To Tweet
We’re trying to say, “It doesn’t matter what your voice sounds like. It’s what you’re saying and the fact that you’re there singing.” That’s what you’re there for, to sing and show what your voice is. On the other hand, when the trans males take testosterone, it changes the shape of the larynx so that the vocal cords tend to get thicker. When they get thicker, that lowers your voice. We’ve had people come in that have started their transition. Trans males come in starting their transition and they’re singing in the upper tenor range and they are now singing bass because of the effects of the testosterone has on their voice. We celebrate that and think that’s wonderful and keep having them move around a bit and do those things. That part of the joy of it all.
Abdullah, you told me once about a particular song that you asked the trans women in the Chorus to sing. That was quite a lovely story. Would you share that with us?
Most of the queer courses in America know the Cyndi Lauper song, Not My Father’s Son, from the musical Kinky Boots. In the musical Kinky Boots, it’s sung by a gay male drag queen who’s never found acceptance from his father. We sing that song as part of our standard rep, but one night I woke up from a dream and it was all the trans fem. She-her, they-her and trans femmes singing this. It was beautiful because it took on such a different effective visceral meaning by all of them singing those words that “I’m not my father’s son, I’m not the vision of what he dreamed up.” There is a line that says, “With the strength of Sparta and the patience of Job.” When I heard that shows how much strength it takes as a trans-identified individual to truly and effectively live your life 100% and complete. We’ve been doing that since trans pride. It’s so impactful. You see trans women holding and crying. I didn’t know it was going to have that effect on anybody. I thought this sounds vocally great because now I do have an SATB Chorus. I have the higher and lower voices in this beautiful sound. Every time they sing that song, I know it’s right when I start crying.
I saw you all sing that song and it brought a tear to my eye. It was a powerful moment within the afternoon. That was a clever song to choose. Do you feel that with shows like Pose it’s helped the trans community? Where do you feel the trans community is?
With shows like Pose, we did an interview with Reza Aslan where he was interviewing Steven Canals, the creator of Pose and they brought us on as a musical guest. We could not have been happier. Pose, for me and a lot of people that have seen it, the trans narrative it started changing in media when you saw transparent and I love Jill Soloway. The work that they are doing is brilliant, but then Pose took it to that next level, especially when it dealt with trans women of color, especially black and brown have the life expectancy of only 35. Most of them are gone before 35 due to violence. What Pose has done is shown a light on the trans experience of color and show that these characters aren’t just characters but real people. I run the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles. We have trans women of color on our Chorus. I see their lives every single day, but most Americans don’t. I love that they created this show where they can broaden that conversation to bring in more community of color within the LGBTQ narrative. It’s absolutely brilliant. I haven’t met one person yet that hasn’t been affected by that show or seen how that struggle is taking story and life at the same time and giving it an open conversation.
I was so excited when Billy Porter won the best actor at the Emmy’s. I think he’s the first man of color who is also gay to win the leading man Emmy. Seeing all the Pose cast in the audience was the best. I love that show. I think I mentioned to you that I met some of the members of the House of Xtravaganza and I went to a mini ball in New York and spent some time with them. The House of Xtravaganza is primarily Hispanic children with a Hispanic mother and father all who I’ve met. I love them. Their stories and the journeys that they’ve been on touch your heart. Similarly, in the time that I’ve spent getting to know you guys and the Trans Chorus, it opened my eyes and it means a lot. I hope that through podcasts and TV, there’s nothing but positivity that comes the trans communities’ way. I mean that.
Thank you. I think that when we show that reflection through media, because media is such a strong opinion for society, especially here in America. People take what they see on television to such heart sometimes. They take it in a good way and a bad way, but when you have a show like Pose, presenting it in such a positive light, people will start to see like, “They’re just like us.” When you have a chorus like ours and we go out to sing and Heather knows this, we’ve had people say to us like, “I thought this was the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles.” They’re looking at us, I’m like, “Yes, we’re here. What did you expect?” They’re like, “I don’t know.” I’m like, “You guys look like a regular choir. We’re a regular choir.” The more people see that visibility and that openness to be who you are presenting how you are, it’s going to change conversations for the better.
I think a lot of people when they hear the trans singers and performers, they think of drag shows, flamboyant and over the top representation of who people are. We’re not like that. Not that, that’s not wonderful entertainment. Not that we don’t embrace people who we have. In fact, one of our members is fairly famous and doing their drag presentations. We have a couple of people that do that and it’s wonderful. It’s just another form of entertainment. We show a face that as Abby said. We’re a chorus. People look at as like, “Pretty common.” We’ve had people come up as models of pride in LA and we’ve performed at that event a couple of times. It’s all young people in the audience and we’ve had them come up and say, “I didn’t know that there were people who felt like me that were normal people doing things in the world.” It’s so refreshing to see and hear that. It’s great to get that feedback.
Have you ever had trans children wanting to join the choir or ask if there’s a similar thing that they could be a part of?
Yes, we had our audition. There was a young person that came. His mother emailed me and said, “My son was kicked out of his choir when he began his transition at fourteen.” I said to her, “Our age requirement is eighteen and over because it’s for insurance and other reasons.” It’s much easier when you have an adult chorus. One day we will have a youth side to it. I said to her, “He’s too young to join our chorus, but please have him come to an open rehearsal.” His uncle brought him. He brought his younger brother. He was very shy with beautiful and eventually I was able to coax him to come over and singing with us. By the end of the day, he said, “I’ll be back in four years.” He needed family and community. What his mother needed to see was that his journey wasn’t going to be stymied by where he is now. When you see positive trans role models and you see other secure trans adults and you’re a parent with a young trans child, I’m sure it’s very concerning. When you see others like that, you can look and you can say, “My kid is going to be okay. There’s a community out there for them.” Look at these people singing here. Some of them are now starting out on their journey.
Some of them have had many roadblocks. Some of them have had families that support them. Some of them are professionals like Kathryn is or like Nancy who’s a Chemistry professor at Claremont McKenna Colleges. When they see that they are opening up their minds and seeing the possibility outside of the old Hollywood negative trans narrative of victimization, abandonment, horrible life and lifestyle. What the trans community does best and I think does better than not being a little divisive but outside of the LGBT community. The one thing I can say since I’ve been on the G side and the T side, what I saw in the trans community, unlike when I was identifying as a black gay man with a lot of sugar in our tank is the embrace of community and family, like the House of Xtravaganza. I’ve never seen that in a queer spectrum more so than under the trans part of that queer spectrum to where it is a creation of family and strength and holding one another up and helping elevate one another. Whether you have $2 in your pocket, you can be with another trans person and you may not have nothing but $2 that may have nothing, but they’re going to get half of that dollar. You’re going to hold hands and walk through the fire together because that’s your family no matter what.
What I loved when you sent me your bio, I love the Michelle Obama quote from the 2019 Grammy Awards that you included which is, “Music helps us share ourselves, our dignities and sorrows, our hopes and joys. It allows us to hear one another, to invite each other in. Music shows us that all of it matters. Every story within every voice, every note within every song.” I loved that. I love Michelle Obama and that makes me love her even more.Music shows us that everything matters - every story within every voice, every note within every song. Click To Tweet
I cannot take credit for that. I will let Kathryn talk about that. That was her brilliant idea.
When I saw that, I thought, “She’s talking about the trans community and the Trans Chorus.” It is every story, every voice and every note is so important to us all. It’s our way of expressing our love for being who we are and showing us as people who are able to accomplish as much as they wish to do. I thought it was a beautiful expression. I love that the Obamas think they’re amazing.
Going back to a little bit on love, has love ever helped you make an unexpected decision and either of your work lives?
When you say love, I see love blossom within the Chorus. We’ve had a couple of couples there, which is great because there’s one couple where they didn’t think that would happen. Two years later, they’re still together. We have a couple there that one was already an existing member and they just brought in their partner and their partner got in, thank goodness their partner could sing because I don’t want to have to tell them no. I’m a crier. What love did for me is when I came to this chorus. I’m always at a great loving place and I was at a place of loving transition. I was divorcing for my partner of nineteen years. I had not sung since my loving mother passed of cancer and that was for ten years. What I love was this Chorus embraced me because I was new or my journey as gender-nonconforming, gender non- binary and embraced and loved me enough to be authentically more than I had ever been in my life, my true self. From that blossom of the love that I have my chorus daughters and my loving counterpart Kathryn, who I cannot imagine doing this ever without her by my side.
Kathryn, you are pretty special. My friend and I who met you were like, “We want to be Kathryn when we grow up.” She’s so smart. She the business. I want to be Kathryn when I grow up. I do.
I was out shopping for some stuff and I saw this little plaque and I took it. I hung it at the Chorus.
We have to tell people what that says, “Love lives here on this beautiful little plaque with flowers and foliage.” It’s beautiful.
I took it and I hung it in the chorus room and told everybody that this is what we’re about. We’re a family. We need to love each other and care for each other. I’ve always lived by the fact that there are many questions in this world and there’s always one answer and that’s love. If you love who you are and who you’re dealing with, regardless of what their opinions are, that it does things that are positive. That’s why the chorus is so positive in that way. We love to sing and that love of singing comes through, even though we miss notes once in a while. We’re not perfect. I think that the love that we show in our performances is what impresses people the most. That’s what I love about what we do.
It’s been a very important part of my life and I’ve been married twice. I have four beautiful children. I love them all. It’s a big part of who we are and I think that it’s important that we keep that in the forefront of our minds especially when we’re doing our performances.
Honestly, as I said in my little intro about the two of you, I do feel truly honored to have had time to get to know you both and even more so happy that I was able to see the fruits of your labor by seeing the chorus sing live and that special in that afternoon. I think the work that you’re doing is admirable. I’m your biggest fan. Thank you again for agreeing to be part of my show. I’m sure that people will love you and learning from you and become your next fans for the chorus.
I wanted to make one quick comment that Abby and I have talked about this often that it may seem serendipitous that we were thrown together in this Chorus. We couldn’t have accomplished this. I couldn’t have done what I do on my own and I know they couldn’t have done what they do on their own. It’s been a team effort. We’ve learned to love each other and the work we do. I’ve learned so much from them and I hope they’ve learned a little bit from me and we’ve certainly taken things to where we want it to be. This happened for a reason that we were put together. We’re very happy that we’ve been able to accomplish the things we have with support from you and others that we continue to grow. Thank you very much.
Joe Lawrence, our musical director, he’s been influential. It’s a little triad of us, me, Kathryn and Joe.
That’s the best triad ever. Thank you so much. Thank you, Abdullah. Thank you, Kathryn. Thank you to everyone reading. You can find us on our website at LaLaLanded.com on Instagram @LaLaLandedPodcast and on Facebook at La La Landed.
- Trans Chorus of LA
- LA LGBT Center
- Trans Lounge
- GALA Choruses
- Reza Aslan
- @LaLaLandedPodcast on Instagram
- La La Landed on Facebook
About Abdullah Hall & Kathryn David
Abdullah Hall the Artistic Director oversees all musical aspects of the Chorus, guiding the performance, directions and sound of TCLA at various performances.
Kathryn David our Executive Director works with the Artistic Director, Financial Officer and TCLA Board to ensure Chorus has the resources and funding needed to operate.