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Trans Singer Performs For His Mother While On Tour With Gay Men's Chorus


This next story is about hearing someone in a new light - an elderly woman who recently heard her son sing. It was the first time she heard him since he had lived as a girl. Chloe Veltman of member station KQED was there for that moment.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: Joyce Arterberry takes her seat front and center in the Knoxville Civic Auditorium. She's driven five and a half hours from Indianapolis with her daughter, Amy, to see her son perform with the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus on tour. Joyce is excited and a little bit nervous.

AMY: Are you ready, Mom?


VELTMAN: Joyce's son, Tom Kennard, is backstage, also nervous. He's one of 250 singers on tour and wants to make sure his mom and sister get a good view of him up there under the lights.

TOM KENNARD: Do you think they can see me?

VELTMAN: It's been many years since Joyce last saw her 67-year-old son perform. A lot has happened. Tom remembers with horror his mom dressing him up like a doll when he was a child.

KENNARD: She always had me in these frilly dresses and frilly socks.

VELTMAN: Joyce is something of a traditionalist, a churchgoer who met her husband in high school.

ARTERBERRY: We were together 67 years, raised five children. Tom was the oldest.

VELTMAN: So it was tough on Joyce when Tom came out as a lesbian in his 20s, and even tougher when, at age 47, he decided to take hormones and eventually undergo gender reassignment surgery.

ARTERBERRY: And honestly, I was very shocked. I had a hard time accepting it.

VELTMAN: She's since come around.

ARTERBERRY: I realized after a while that I loved my child, and that I didn't want to lose my child.

VELTMAN: Making human connections is one of the reasons the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus is on this tour.


SAN FRANCISCO GAY MEN'S CHORUS: (Singing) If I dance with the storm, I'll be safe. I'll be warm. I can run. I can rise. I can face all the lies if I dance with the storm.

VELTMAN: The country's biggest and oldest gay choir changed its international travel plans soon after the 2016 presidential election to instead visit five southern states. The singers are doing concerts and outreach events in places where LGBTQ rights are in conflict with conservative Christian views. The chorus is traveling between stops by bus. On the journey from Birmingham, Ala., to Knoxville earlier in the day, Tom is fretting about whether his mom will like the scarf he's crocheted for her.

KENNARD: So she picked green to go with her pea coat. I mean, I didn't wrap them up nicely, but...

VELTMAN: He'll give her the scarf after the concert.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Boys, let's go.

VELTMAN: It's show time. The singers file onstage and perform a set that ranges from the serious to the silly.


SAN FRANCISCO GAY MEN'S CHORUS: (Singing, unintelligible) Mississippi.


VELTMAN: There are close to a thousand people in the audience. The mayor of Knoxville is there. Everyone seems to be having a great time.


VELTMAN: Once the curtain goes down, Tom rushes to the lobby to find his family.

KENNARD: What did you think, family?

AMY: Oh, it was so wonderful. It was so wonderful.

ARTERBERRY: Oh, I thought it was wonderful.

KENNARD: (Laughter) You have to get the new album.

ARTERBERRY: But it was beautiful.

KENNARD: Thank you.

ARTERBERRY: I told Amy, I need a new needle for my little record player.

KENNARD: Oh, well.

VELTMAN: Like any mother, Joyce is worried about her child's safety, especially since the chorus is headed to North Carolina, where the state Legislature is still trying to resolve whether trans people are legally allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. Not that Tom would be mistaken for a woman in the men's restroom. He's bald and sings low bass in the choir.

KENNARD: (Humming).


SAN FRANCISCO GAY MEN'S CHORUS: (Singing) I see your true colors, and that's why I love you. So don't be afraid to let them show.

VELTMAN: Tom is just happy his mom got to see him sing and relieved that she likes her new crocheted scarf. For NPR News, I'm Chloe Veltman in San Francisco.


SAN FRANCISCO GAY MEN'S CHORUS: (Singing) Show me your... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.