Creating an inclusive space for all
GUEST BLOG: Mia Baz (they/them) is a member of the Sirens of Gotham chorus of the Barbershop Harmony Society. Coming out as nonbinary, Mia shares their story of navigating through the barbershop community during the Society’s Everyone in Harmony vision and a member of a “female” chorus in a seemingly binary world.
It's no secret that barbershoppers are great storytellers. Those ringing sevenths begging for resolution are but punctuation; the real magic is getting someone to connect with their own heart's song. By being vulnerable and authentic in our performance, we come to learn that our individual stories are not so different, that we have more in common than we realize, that we are not alone.
My Barbershop Beginnings
In December 2015 in New York City I sang my first tag. I was hooked. My new friend, a member of Voices of Gotham (Voices), got wide-eyed and excited. "If you like this, you gotta check out Sirens of Gotham (Sirens). They're having an audition next month."
It took a lot of personal effort to show up to Guest Night. I hadn't sung in what felt like ages outside of a weekly karaoke night I hosted at the time, a far cry from my classical training. But when I watched both Sirens and Voices perform that night, I knew I’d be devastated if I didn’t pass the audition.
Four and a half years later, I find myself in two choruses and two quartets -- yet, outside of our Gotham bubble, my experience as a member of two organizations, Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) and Sweet Adelines International (SAI), has been more exhausting than welcoming.
Shortly after my first SAI regional contest with Sirens, I began my transition and came out to my chorus as transgender nonbinary (Some societies – like ours – tend to recognize just two genders, male and female. The idea that there are only two genders is sometimes called a “gender binary,” because binary means “having two parts” (male and female). Source: National Center for Transgender Equality). I was terrified that I would be asked or forced to leave because I am not a woman in a choral organization that was branded “for women”. For anyone who knows Sirens as a chorus, this was an unfounded fear -- but ostracization (by oftentimes their only source of community and support) is a reality trans people face every day.
I cried. They cried. We hugged. I was safe.
In 2018, BHS announced that it would remove the word "male" from its bylaws, as part of the Everyone in Harmony strategic vision. The elation that came with the notion of "barbershop for all" was promptly deflated by SAI's announcement that they were still an organization for women. And then I looked at the BHS announcement, welcoming... women. Not "everyone." I was dizzy. It felt like my safety bubble had been popped. “Now where am I supposed to belong?”
"Right here" was Sirens' answer.
Several members wrote to the SAI International Board of Directors, and before long I found myself booking a flight to Tulsa for the Visioning Retreat to help that board shape the future of Sweet Adelines at headquarters in November 2018. Somewhere in between, I screamed into the void of Sweet Adelines Chat on Facebook:
"Hi, Sweet Ads! Writing you because I haven't seen anybody mention that they identify as **NOT** female yet, and was wondering if more of us exist! I'm Mia and/or Baz and am only too eager to make your acquaintance. I'm transgender-nonbinary..."
Building our own community
My call for like-gendered persons helped me start good discussions and form a small community of nonbinary members, some of whom didn't or don't feel safe coming out to their choruses for the same fears I harbored.
Unfortunately, we've come to learn those fears are not quite unfounded for other choruses as they were with me. Sirens did not just tolerate me, they carved out and held space for me in an organization that wasn't ready to understand nonbinary people yet. Everyone deserves to experience the joy of this art form, as participant or aficionado, and feel welcomed and valued as they are doing it -- isn't that what "everyone" in harmony is about?
Everyone in Harmony?
Last autumn, Sirens began discussions around chartering with BHS. At the same time my quartet, Hot Second, was deciding whether or not we wanted to compete together. When Hot Second made a decision first, I went to register as a member with BHS.
While I maintained some small, naive hope that in the year and a half it had been since the BHS bylaws changed, maybe they would have made a registration open to "everyone," but that was in vain. Still, I'd argue that one nonbinary member does not make a mixed quartet -- I couldn't be in a nonbinary category, so a category for mixed genders didn't make sense for this quartet. So, as we are not a mixed quartet, and both options on the form were equally incorrect, I registered as a male member. And from an emotional perspective, being misgendered in either direction sucks, but it's a small relief to think I might not be confined to my gender assigned at birth for a change. Ultimately, I just wanted to sing with my best friends, and I'd have to settle either way.
Eventually, Sirens did make the decision to charter with BHS. But this created a slight problem: an ensemble otherwise composed of women, and registering as a women’s chorus would have a "male" member. Not knowing how various levels of boards and judges would react, we reached out to BHS CEO Marty Monson. He responded with love for the way we embraced Everyone in Harmony, reassurance that there is a nonbinary registration option in the works, and offered support should we find we need it. What a relief -- I would hate to be the cause of anyone's disqualification.
Next Steps: Action
And that's just it -- I shouldn't have to worry about whether who I am and what labels I use for myself will affect the quality of my experience. I'm tired of having to brace myself for all the ways people can (and, outside of the Gotham choruses, often do) treat me as less-than or "other," and prepare myself for the labor of educating others in hopes that interacting with them later is less hurtful, problematic, or frustrating.
I love barbershop as much as the next member, but while official decrees, forms, and bylaws are still "in the works", there are things we can do at the member level to be intentionally, rather than accidentally, inclusive that we'll discuss in my next article. Stay tuned, and keep your hearts ringing!
Mia Andor Baz is a baritone regularly masquerading as other parts in Sirens of Gotham. The chorus is apart of the Hell's Kitchen, NY Chapter of the Mid-Atlantic District and SAI Region 15. They're a glittering, binary-breaking afterglow wizard, prefer their bowties clip-off, and like to write about themself in the third person so others can see how easy it is to address them. (Wink.)
Inclusion in Barbershop Series: Gender Identity, LGBTQ+, and Barbershop | October 11th | 6:00PM CT
Join Mia Baz, Mo Field, Alex Morris, Steve Scott, and Terry Reynolds (moderator) as they share experiences of exclusion and inclusion within the barbershop community as it relates to gender and sexual identity.
Attendees will walk away with a deeper understanding of experiences of exclusion that happen within barbershop, plus tools and information that will help them become ambassadors for positive change.