Prizm News / December 1, 2017 / By MJ Eckhouse

 

The new group is one of a few transgender choruses in the country.

By MJ Eckhouse

If your voice doesn’t sound the way others expect it to, even daily interactions like small talk with a cashier can be a miserable hassle.

That’s one reason the Cleveland Transgender Choir exists. It offers trans people, who often feel uneasy about their voices, an opportunity to sing in a friendly environment.

The choir, which meets weekly at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, started rehearsing last fall. Music professor and cofounder Tracy Grady accompanies the group on piano, and cofounder Kristine Caswelch serves as artistic director.

The choir is run through the Baldwin Wallace Community Music School, a program that includes choirs, musical groups and lessons for children, adults and seniors.

“I think we’re the only trans choir in the U.S. right now that’s affiliated with a university,” Caswelch says.

It’s one of the only transgender choirs, period. Other groups right now practice and perform in Los Angeles, Boston, Kansas City and Manchester, N.H.

“It’s more about community and a safe space,” says Michelle Guzowski, who says she has always sung at home and welcomed the chance to be part of the Cleveland choir since its beginning. “It’s a chance to sing with other people, be part of a group and maybe, for me, be a mentor to some younger people.”

The choir’s membership ranges from high school students to retirees. There are no auditions and no requirements for singing experience. There are 10 members right now.

The group will perform on Saturday, Dec. 9, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. Its first performance was in July at Youngstown Pride; the choir also sang for OutSupport in Medina and at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland’s Trans* in the CLE conference in October.

As artistic director, Caswelch chooses the repertoire of songs.

“I want to find pieces that the members can connect with,” she says. “Part of the problem is that a lot of the music in choir is really gender-specific.”

The songlist spans from African call-and-response chants to Bob Dylan. And there’s already a signature tune: the famous labor union anthem, “Solidarity Forever,” which includes an extra verse with LGBT-specific lyrics written by Guzowski.

Caswelch says she believes singing is a healing force. For Dale Stankiewicz, that is literally the case.

Stankiewicz, a Vietnam War veteran, recently had surgery for cancer, which caused muscle and nerve damage in her face. She says singing in the choir has been therapeutic for her, and she hopes it has benefits for the entire transgender community.

“We kind of get lost in the shuffle a little bit,” Stankiewicz says. “This is our way of getting our voice out.”