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May 11, 2007

“The Believers” - movie about transgender choir

Washington Blade (DC):

Ashley, one of the founders of transgender choir Transcendence

Anyone attending a gay choral concert has experienced the strange power of seeing a group of gay men or lesbians singing together. Amplify that by about 100 percent, and you’ll get a slight idea of what it must be like to hear Transcendence, the transgender choir of San Francisco that’s the focus of the documentary “The Believers.” Music soothes the savage beast, and in this case, that beast is intolerance.

The film opens with a transgender woman, Ashley, listening to a phone message from her mother, who says she shouldn’t “give [the filmmakers] a screwed up background” during any interviews. It’s a perfect beginning for a film about misconceptions, denial and the need for community, especially since Ashley’s not just another chorus member — she’s actually one of the group’s founders.

She approached her San Francisco-based United Church of Christ’s leaders about starting a transgender chorus, and they went for it. The film follows the group from its early, off-key stages to its performances at various venues (queer and otherwise) and the recording of an album. One of the film’s selling points is that it’s not a cheerleading piece for a remarkable group of people. There is a definite journey and arc for the chorus and the individuals, giving the documentary the feel of a feature film.

Each person's personel story is framed by the group’s growing cohesion and musical abilities, and the questions of identity and community are movingly handled for everyone profiled, including Bobbie, one of the group’s most prominent singers. Bobbie is a black, male-to-female “transgender person” (her words), who has chosen not to undergo gender reassignment surgery but lives full-time as a woman. She’s a recovering crack addict, did some time in prison and is one of the group’s strongest soloists.

For many of the singers, vocal placement and hormones are a challenging cocktail, with most singers wanting to be the soprano they’ve always dreamed of being but not having the physical voice for it. Bobbie has a killer “man’s” voice, and when it comes out of that feminized body, the experience is unearthly, exhilarating and a testament to the long and hard road that she’s walked.

Bobbie’s chorus mentor, Miss Major, is a 62-year-old transgender woman who went through shock therapy and institutionalization during the ’50s to help her become more “normal.”

Despite the difficulties of their daily lives, the chorus members look to the music and the ministry of singing to help heal themselves and their audiences. Transcendence is made up of both male-to-female and female-to-male transgender people, which makes the squabbles between gay men and lesbians seem paltry in comparison to the ability of this mixed gender group (in more ways than one) to focus and get along.

It’s not all sunshine-and-roses among the singers, but the group regularly has sit-down sessions to discuss ways to address their communication difficulties. The chorus’ ways of interacting, working, listening and playing apply as much to their ability to sustain a functioning community as to their music.

After numerous rehearsals, the chorus’ sound finally clicked (in the early days, the non-transgender conductor said, “God, they can’t sing. How am I gonna do this?”). They even performed at the UCC’s 2003 international synod, also testifying before a committee on the necessity of including transgender inclusive and affirming language as part of the church rhetoric. (In a triumphant moment for the chorus and for transgender Christians, this measure did pass.)

Music made inroads where regular speech failed, allowing them to become part of a decision-making body that, because of their voices, sent a landmark message to churches and Christians around the world. Now, that’s a good tune.

Posted by acapnews at May 11, 2007 10:39 PM