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Chicago’s Choir for Trans Singers

Every week, a group of nonbinary, gender-questioning, and trans Chicagoans gather to rehearse in a North Center church. Sometimes, that means learning to embrace their voices in the process.

Photography: Hannah Edgar

All ResonaTe rehearsals start the same way: Choristers circle around a piano, where music director Alex Enyart plunks out a simple melody — tonight, an arpeggio. One by one, each singer matches the tune with their name and pronouns.

“Hel-lo, my name is Lee; he/him…” “Hel-lo, my name is Rae; they/them…” “Hel-lo, my name is Iris; she/her…”

The exercise is part warm-up, part ice-breaker. But once the rehearsal gets going, the group might wheel through everything from settings of “Dona nobis pacem” to the Steven Universe theme song — quite a spread, even for the most roving choirs.

Of course, ResonaTe isn’t most choirs. The local community chorus doesn’t just specialize in genre-bending musicianship for singers of all levels, but is also one of a handful of transgender choirs in the country.

“The choir is fluid, much like everyone in it,” Enyart says from behind the keyboard.

In the world of choral singing, ResonaTe upends long-held notions of vocal range and how it maps onto a binary conception of gender. Choirs that perform repertoire solely for tenors and basses, for example, are usually designated men’s choirs; the same goes for women’s choirs with soprano and alto membership.

But for a singer experiencing dissonance between their gender and the imposed gendering of their voice, what was once an act of joy can become complicated or dysphoric. That’s to say nothing of those whose voices may be changing altogether, settling into a new register.

That’s where ResonaTe comes in. Once a week in a North Center church, a handful of singers gather to sing through repertoire ranging from traditional choral settings (“Lux aeterna”) to more unbuttoned tunes (“Singin’ in the Rain”). Run-throughs before a concert are more serious, but this particular Wednesday night rehearsal isn’t one of them. With no performance on the horizon, singers laugh and crack jokes between numbers. It’s more a meeting of friends than a choir rehearsal.

“Coming into ResonaTe was the first time I’d been part of a group of trans people that meet regularly, from people who have been out for a long time to people who are still questioning and trying out pronouns,” says Gene Knific, the group’s accompanist.

The choir has existed since 2015, when Liz Jackson Hearns, a gender-nonconforming voice instructor who also co-founded The Voice Lab, noticed demand for a trans choir in Chicago.

“My students were just straight-up asking, ‘When are you going to make me a choir?’ ” Hearns says. With a few social media posts and through word of mouth, news about the choir spread quickly.

Even before ResonaTe had its first rehearsal, Hearns invited prospective singers to meet with her at the Voice Lab, where she took stock of their voices and asked what they wanted out of a trans community choir. Their answers directly helped shape ResonaTe’s mission, establishing a collaborative ethos from the beginning.

“One of our central tenets was to provide a space where trans and nonbinary folks have agency, because so much of a trans person’s life can be influenced by a lack of autonomy about their body,” Hearns says.

They also prioritized accessibility. Since its founding, ResonaTe has never mandated membership fees, auditions, or time commitments bound to specific concert cycles. ResonaTe also reimburses members’ transportation fees by request, in hopes of growing its membership beyond the North Side.

By 2016, ResonaTe was performing publicly, and Hearns had formalized the group under an executive team and board that reflected the ensemble’s gender and musical diversity. Enyart, for instance, who has been with ResonaTe for a year, is a transfeminine conductor working in classical music; Knific, who is nonbinary, is a gigging jazz pianist.

Enyart and Knific’s experiences being out in the classical and jazz scenes inform how they work with ResonaTe. For example, to circumvent gendered associations with traditional vocal designations — say, bass or soprano — the group uses a 1 through 4 numbering system, with No. 1 being the highest voice type and No. 4 the lowest.

When singing along with the group, Enyart toggles between her voice type (a self-described baritone) and a higher falsetto. She encourages choir members to explore their range, regardless of what it might sound like at first.

“I like to say a rehearsal is the same thing as a chemistry lab: sometimes things don’t work out and blow up in your face. And I want them to know that’s perfectly okay.”

Enyart, ResonaTe’s music director, has been with the group for around a year.

Das Janssen, a founding ResonaTe member and Hearns’s first out trans student, says soothing vocal anxiety is a major focus of the group. After years trying to sing in a lower range, before his transition, Janssen recalls being told he couldn’t sing. His lessons with Hearns, and later his involvement with ResonaTe, helped him work through his own inhibitions.

“ResonaTe is full of people who are afraid to sing when they first get here,” he says. But whenever someone’s voice cracks, Liz’s response is ‘Good job!’ And I love that. I’ve even caught myself doing that in the wild, when I’m around other trans guys. It just means you’re using your voice.”

ResonaTe performs about three times a year, often partnering with other queer organizations around the city. The Center on Halsted is a frequent collaborator, and ResonaTe’s last concert in January — a celebration of trans pioneer and Stonewall icon Marsha P. Johnson — was a joint effort with Lakeside Pride, an instrumental ensemble consortium for LGBTQ+ musicians.

But at the end of the day, gathering as many people to sing together in a gender-affirming space is ResonaTe’s greatest priority.

“It’s really about the community — we’re a community choir, after all,” Janssen says. “We just want people who would be benefitted by singing with us to know we exist.”

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