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Trans Oklahomans find community through music amid heightened anti-queer rhetoric in legislature

The choir rehearsal begins as usual.

The director plays scales on the piano while the ensemble sings along, warming up their vocal chords for the two-hour rehearsal ahead.

An outline of a grand staff is drawn on the whiteboard at the front of the room. The sopranos, altos, tenors and basses are grouped together on risers. Printouts of sheet music are strewn across the piano.

In most ways, this choir rehearsal resembles most community choir rehearsals. But this particular choir is special. That’s because this is the Transgender Action Choir — an ensemble made up entirely of transgender voices.

It’s only a few months old and includes members of all ages. And amid a cacophony of lawmakers debating the validity and morality of their identities at the Capitol, this rehearsal space is where they can find solace and community.

It’s a space to celebrate queer joy, but in doing that, it’s also a space to fight back.

Recent pushes from the state legislature to target queer issues in schools and medicine have mobilized 2SLGBTQ+ Oklahomans, and the Transgender Action Choir is lifting their voices to speak up.

Transgender Action Choir: Micah

Oklahoma lawmakers, state superintendent look to restrict gender conversations in the classroom

The choir’s director and founder, Ramona — who requested StateImpact use her first name only due to safety concerns — said the group probably wouldn’t exist if she had gone down the career path she’d prepared and trained for. She has a degree in vocal music education, but her applications for full-time choir positions have gone unanswered.

Working as a substitute teacher, Ramona, who is a trans woman, has been made to feel unwelcome. She says her school has one gender-neutral bathroom at the front of the building that she rarely has the time to get to and use between classes.

“I definitely can’t use the men’s room, and I can’t use the women’s room without fear of, you know, repercussions,” Ramona said.

On two occasions, Ramona’s been called into her HR office due to a parent complaint about wearing nail polish. She was talked to about her “lifestyle choices” and “what [she] does on the weekends.” She says she hasn’t worn nail polish since.

“I was like, no one in here values me as an educator at any point in time,” she said. “Why was I met with such severity? Like I was treated like I had done something wrong. I had an anxious breakdown after that. I didn’t work for like two months.”

The untenability of being a queer Oklahoma teacher isn’t confined to her district, she said, but is propped up by lawmakers politicizing her identity — engaging in high-profile culture war debates and pushing bills with nationalized rhetoric.

Rep. Terry O'Donnell, R-Catoosa
Oklahoma Legislature
Rep. Terry O'Donnell, R-Catoosa

In addition to navigating through House Bill 1775, which was passed a couple of years ago and restricts certain classroom conversations on race and gender, schools may see more restrictions on queer issues this legislative session.

House Bill 2546 by Catoosa Republican Terry O’Donnell is Oklahoma’s version of the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, with nearly identical wording.

But unlike the Florida bill, which bans any classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for kindergarten through third-grade, Oklahoma’s expands that to pre-K through fifth grade. After fifth grade, any instruction on orientation or gender must be age or developmentally appropriate.

“You read in the newspaper every day about somebody that has kind of gone off the rails and isn’t abiding by local controls, and that’s unfortunately when the state has to step in,” O’Donnell said about the bill in a committee hearing. “It’s shocking that we actually need laws to address this subject.”

O’Donnell did not cite any of the “everyday” occurrences he said warrants the bill, and he did not return interview requests.

There’s also a proposed State School Board rule by Secretary of Education and State Superintendent Ryan Walters. Pending board approval, it would require school personnel to out students to their parents or guardians if they show “material changes” related to a student’s gender — like pronouns, names or signs of “social transition.”

It would also force schools to pull any materials on sex or sexuality education if a parent objects to them. Schools in violation could get their accreditation dinged. Walters did not return interview requests.

In response, Rep. Mark McBride (R-Moore) introduced legislation that would issue a moratorium on new Board of Education rules and require specific legislative statutory authorization to implement them. House Bill 2569 passed through committee and can now be heard on the House floor.

Transgender Action Choir: Tea

Critics say Oklahoma legislature leads nation in 'volume of harm'

This, on top of another bill to ban insurance or public dollars from going to gender-affirming care for trans adults, as well as ban the care outright for minors. And on top of that, another measure to ban certain drag show performances is still alive and making its way through the legislature.

Tensions reached a recent boiling point when House Republicans moved to formally censure Rep. Mauree Turner (D-Oklahoma City) — the body’s only openly nonbinary legislator — for “harboring a fugitive.”

Democratic Rep. Mauree Turner of Oklahoma City
Oklahoma Legislature
Rep. Mauree Turner (D-Oklahoma City)

GOP members stripped the lawmaker of their committee assignments, alleging after a bill hearing to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth, Turner hid a transgender person in their office who was wanted for questioning following a scuffle with a state trooper. Turner’s censure can be overturned if they issue an apology, but they said that’s not happening.

Turner, who is Black and practices Islam, has received numerous obscene attacks disparaging their gender, religion, politics and race.

“I absolutely will not apologize for being able to create a safe space where the Oklahoma legislature continues to tell trans folks that they should not show up here,” Turner said. “I will absolutely continue to create a space to show trans folks, gender-nonconforming folks, two-spirit folks that this is a safe space, right, that even in the midst of everything going on in the Oklahoma legislature, that they can always come to my office.”

Freedom Oklahoma Executive Director Nicole McAfee said there’s always the usual onslaught of anti-2SLGBTQ+ bills, but this session is different.

“We are definitely seeing the largest volume we’ve ever seen in this 2023 session,” McAfee said. “As we see the largest volume of anti-2SLGBTQ+ — and especially anti-trans — bills around the country, that Oklahoma is at the forefront of the volume of harm being introduced.”

Nicole McAfee is the executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, a local advocacy and organizing group for the 2SLGBTQ+ community.
Photo provided
Nicole McAfee is the executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, a local advocacy and organizing group for the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

Creating 'solidarity'

But in the face of everything, the Transgender Action Choir still meets, still sings and still advocates. Ramona said she hopes their music may change the hearts and minds of those who think the worst of trans people.

“You know, it is going to be in some way a little revolutionary,” Ramona said. “When trans people are politicized to be violent and dangerous, then anything they do is seen as violent and dangerous. But what we’re doing when we’re singing in a choir is not violent and dangerous. (...) I just hope that by creating a space where art and love and compassion are the focus for us, I can show people that and help make love and compassion a focus for them. And when you remove the barriers of states and the barriers of church on what is seen as good or bad and right or wrong, it allows for very intimate human understandings of different realities, right?”

The choir is also providing Ramona with an opportunity to use her passion and expertise as a music educator, even though it’s not how she originally envisioned it. She said without people like her in schools, she’s concerned that both queer kids and non-queer kids aren’t growing up with trans adults represented in roles like teaching.

Transgender Action Choir: Hannah

But the group is reaching some high schoolers, such as Moss — StateImpact is using their first name only for safety concerns — a junior who’s involved in theater and takes voice lessons. For them, the choir means more than singing notes on a page.

“It’s kind of exhausting to constantly have your rights being debated, but you know, I’ve gotten used to it at this point,” Moss said. “I think it’s just really important to have a space like this in this type of climate where trans people are actively being targeted by these politicians. So it’s nice to have a community like this and also be able to sing, because you know, music is really important.”

The group hasn’t set a date for a future performance yet, especially as safety remains a major concern in Oklahoma’s volatile political climate. But Ramona hopes to get a performance on the calendar soon.

“Offering that experience for people — for my group, for other queer people, for [cisgender] people and non-queer people — is going to create an environment where we can have a moment of genuine emotional, intimate connection that is hopefully not politicized or tainted with these messages,” Ramona said. “It’s called solidarity. (...) And I think that unless we can cultivate a culture of solidarity among people, and the willingness to make this cause a priority in our lives, we won’t see change.”

Transgender Action Choir: Juniper

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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
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